UM Theme House Community
The University of Montana
UM Theme House Community
The University of Montana
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Theme House Project Proposal: prepared by ASUM Renter Center Director Katherine Brady
What are living Learning Communities?
Throughout the country, institutions of higher education are seeking out ways to enhance the educational opportunities available to students. Living learning communities provide an enriching way for students to learn from each other and from faculty in an environment that goes beyond the classroom. A living learning community provides a residence for a cohort of students that together participate in a shared academic experience. The presence of a shared academic experience among residents is the defining component of a living learning community. Living learning communities provide a number of benefits to a campus community including increased student engagement, increase student/faculty interactions, an overall more enriching academic experience, and an increase in student retention rates.
Our proposal envisions the conversion of the row of UM owned houses on 5th and 6th streets into a student housing community in which each residence is “themed” with a special interest area directly related to an academic field of study offered at UM. Houses will aim to attract students that serve as leaders within their cohort. Residents will be selected through a competitive application process and will be chosen by an oversight committee. Each house will have an in-house leader, a paid student Program Director, who will also be carefully selected by the oversight committee. The theme house community will provide students with new opportunities to engage with other students who share similar interests. To ensure that the program meets this objective, each house will be required to host a minimum of two interest themed events per semester, one which will be open to the entire UM community and aimed to engage those who do not have a previously established interest in the theme. Houses will also be required to form a partnership with at least one Missoula organization not affiliated with the University and to participate in one community service event per semester. Houses will, both physically and conceptually as a gateway to the greater Missoula community, bringing together students and citizens with shared interests.
It is essential that there is significant student involvement in every step of the planning and implementation of each theme house program. In order for the program Student initiated living learning communities, where the students have taken the lead role in formulating what these experiential living programs will look like, have been found to be far more successful and sustainable than those developed, initiated, and implemented by university faculty and staff (citation). Each student interest group that pursues this opportunity will identify key student leaders within the group who will work with faculty and administration to plan their unique theme house program. Ideally, both undergraduate and graduate students would be included in these planning groups. The idea is that theme houses will evolve based on the interests of the students involved with the program at the time.
The theme houses we are proposing to create at UM will be themed by a broad interest as identified by a group of students, rather having the houses be themed by a major d or academic department. While each house will be affiliated with a sponsoring department, the theme itself has the potential to be much broader than the field of study that it is partnering with. Furthermore, this allows for a greater variety of potential themes, as they will not be limited to available majors. For instance, there could be a “community service” themed house that was sponsored by either the social work department, or the Public Administration & Social Service department. The course that residents will be required to take will arise after the theme has been determined, and not vice versa. We believe that, although department involvement is a crucial component of theme houses, they should ultimately be driven by the students and the interests that they identify that they would like to see represented.
The Theme communities that we are proposing will be modeled after the UM FLAT, which has evolved to become a partnership between the student body & the Environmental Studies department. We believe that departmental involvement is a crucial component of the theme houses, as they provide the opportunity to integrate an academic aspect into the program, as well as provide the program with consistent leadership, when student leaders are changing from year to year.
Each student interest group will work with their sponsoring department to determine the extent to which they will be involved in their individual theme house program. Although overall involvement from the academic department will vary by house, all partnerships will include a required class for residents within the sponsoring department. The course could be a minimum of one credit and its focus would pertain to the theme of the house. Department involvement can include among other things, organized enrichment field trips for the residents, creating internship positions for the residents, planning academic enrichment events within the residence, and implementing a student/faculty mentorship program for residents. Ideally, this level of involvement, as well as other program logistics will be determined by the students involved in the development of the residence.
Theme houses would provide a venue for students to engage in student initiated academic enrichment activities. To ensure that this objective is reached within each of the theme houses, there would be a requirement for each house to host a minimum number of events throughout the course of the academic year. A minimum of one event per semester will be open to the entire UM community and should aim to appeal to an audience beyond those with a previously established interest in the houses’ theme.
Similar to the UM FLAT, theme houses will be encouraged to partner with various community entities that share a common interest with the theme house. It will be required that each house establish a partnership with at least one community organization. Theme houses will also be encouraged to offer programming that is open to the community. Examples of this would be a partnership between a creative writing theme house & a local creative writing group or a story sharing workshop open to local children hosted by a creative writing theme house. The theme house community will provide endless venues for students to increase their level of civic engagement within the community that surrounds campus.
Each theme house will have a student house director that will be selected by the theme house selection board. In exchange for responsibilities we are seeking a method for compensation that may include departmental support, pooling rent money from other residents, administrative support, or other possibilities we are looking into. Duties of the house director will include coordinating house initiatives and events, serving as the lead liaison between the house and the UM community, as well as with the sponsoring academic department, creating outreach events, coordinating educational enrichment opportunities for residents, and providing leadership and direction to the residents. Ideally, the student that assumes this position will be a graduate student or a student that has previously lived at the house as a resident.
House Directors will be required to complete a series of trainings throughout the course of the year to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to effectively fulfill their role. The trainings will focus on the development of leadership skills, conflict mitigation, & event planning. These trainings could possibly be done in collaboration with Residence Life’s Residence Assistant trainings.
The House Directors from each home will together form a leadership committee for the theme home community. This committee will meet monthly to share ideas and best practices from their house that may be valuable to the entire theme home community. It will also provide a venue for theme homes to identify opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing among houses. The committee will plan community–wide events, a minimum of one per semester. An example of this would be a theme home open house event in the fall, or a holiday celebration on the entire block during which each home would provide programming for attendees. Finally, the committee would have the capacity to identify and jointly apply for funding opportunities that would benefit each house within the theme home community.
Given that they will be true living learning communities, each theme house will provide its residents with a shared academic experience that will be determined by the sponsoring academic department and the students involved in the program planning. The required course will provide residents with an educational experience covering a topic in the houses field that will be aimed to enhance their overall experience living in the theme house. The course should include opportunities for students to participate in active and reflective learning practices. The required course can be a one-credit course and can vary from year to year. The course can be one that is already offered by the department and can also be open to other UM students not involved with the program.
Students selected to reside in theme homes will be required to pay the rent as determined by Facilities services for their particular property. The standard rent in the 5th & 6th street homes is significantly lower than the market price, especially given the desirable location. Home utilities are shared as in any other shared housing arrangement. Offering a reduced-rent incentive to the student House Director appears to create a desirable position for an ambitious student who would desire added responsibilities and opportunities.
All students enrolled at UM will be welcome to apply to live at the theme homes; however, the selection process will ensure that the students chosen for the positions meet certain qualifying characteristics. There will be a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 required in order to be selected to reside at a Theme Home. Student applying to live in a Theme Home will have to meet approval from the Theme Home Oversight Committee. The Committee will give preference to students that display leadership qualities, a high level of extracurricular involvement, well-developed interpersonal skills, and knowledge of the theme of the house that the applicant is applying for. All residents will have to reapply each academic year.
Although students will truly be the leaders in this initiative, an oversight board will be convened to provide consistent leadership and supervision to the entire Theme Home community. This body will be able to provide institutional knowledge that student leaders inevitably lack due to the limited time that they are on campus. The Committee will consist of a group of individuals who are committed to the mission of the theme home initiative and who will work together to provide theme home members with the supervision and guidance they need to succeed. The committee will consist of faculty and staff members from the sponsoring departments, former residents of the house, an ASUM representative, etc. Each theme home will have a sponsoring faculty member and this person will be required to sit on the committee.
The University of Montana owns a number of homes on 5th & 6th street. They are currently owned by the University and managed by facilities services. Several of these homes have been reserved for programmatic or staff use. The rest of the homes and rooms are generally available to UM students and staff when available. Each of the homes operate under a month-to-month lease agreement, thus enabling the University to give reasonable notice to any resident if the University desires to put these homes into another use, including moving towards the UM Long-Range Master Plan. Given their current ownership and management status with UM, these homes provide the ideal venue for the proposed Theme Home Community. Houses vary in size, and provide space for between 4 & 6 students.
The proposed community of theme houses of 5th & 6th street will provide a unique living learning community that will benefit the entire UM community. The row of theme homes will provide ample opportunity for houses to share resources, knowledge, and will foster collaboration among diverse groups on campus. The venue would provide a new venue for different departments to interact and establish new relationships amongst each other that could transpire into future collaborations. The houses will provide each department a physical space for students & faculty to host informal gatherings. The block of houses, located on the edge of our UM campus, will both physically and conceptually serve as the bridge that connects the UM community to the greater Missoula community.
One hypothetical example of a theme home would be a Native American theme home. Residents would be students that are particularly active in the Native American community on campus and that are identified as leaders by their peers. The theme home would provide an opportunity to further strengthen this community both on campus, as well as within the greater Missoula community. They could partner with the Missoula Indian Center or another community agency affiliated with local Native American culture and rights. The theme home would provide residents with a space to host cultural events and to learn and grow from living in a community of people that share a common passion and interest. The residents would take a Native American Studies course together such as “Contemporary Issues of American Indians”, or perhaps a seminar or special course on a topic that the faculty and student residents believe to be particularly valuable to their experience in the program. There are ample examples of events that the residents could host such as a sharing oral histories, Native American arts programs, and movie screening just to name a few. This hypothetical example could easily be adapted to a music home, a language home, and most any other area of interest or study.
Many student groups have expressed that they would greatly benefit from having a space in which they could gather informally to plan. Student group leaders expressed that they would meet more often and host more events if they had a desirable space which they could call “their own”. The space could be manipulated to serve the needs of the interest group and materials for their student group could be stored at the residence. This new venue could also potentially provide an opportunity to host student internships, much like those that the UM FLAT has relied on to complete its projects. Professors have also expressed a desire to be able to get together with students in an informal setting, which would allow them to engage in out of the classroom conversations with students interested in their field of study.
The students of the University of Montana have expressed a desire for more appealing housing options within close proximity to campus and theme housing would provide a unique and desirable option for student leaders. The current living learning options available at UM are limited and mostly target incoming freshman or those that already involved in the program that sponsors the themed housing. Beyond these, Residence Life offers traditional dormitory style housing on main campus in addition to the apartment style housing which allows students to live independently and has very limited structure, expectations, or programming.
By bridging the gap between their academic and social lives, living learning theme houses would allow participants to build stronger relationships with their peers, as well as with University faculty (Longerbeam, Inkelas, & Brower 2007). Research has identified this as a crucial component to students flourishing in their higher education experience. Creating a seamless transition from a student’s academic experience to their life outside of the classroom enhances one’s overall experience in a college setting. While this would most directly impact the students living in the residences, there are many aspects of the program that would have a positive impact on the college experience of the entire UM student body.
Students selected to reside in theme homes would be provided with ample opportunities to engage with their peers and professors in a variety of settings. The community of homes would introduce a new venue where students could interact outside of the classroom. Students that have access to ample opportunities to engage with their peers and professors in a variety of settings are further engaged with the campus community in an academic and experiential sense. Given that each house would plan and implement programming for the entire UM community, there would be increased involvement from the student body as a whole.
Theme homes provide a venue for students to interact with their professors in an out of classroom setting. They provide faculty members an opportunity to engage students and to raise student awareness of their course, major, minor, or field of study in general. Furthermore, theme home events would bring together faculty from different departments that could lead them to identify new ways to collaborate.
The creation of a community of living learning homes would provide a unique and exciting experiential learning opportunity that would set the University of Montana apart from other Universities that are otherwise similar to UM, and provide competition for attracting perspective students. When choosing a college, incoming students often consider the school’s housing options as a major factor in their decision.
Studies have found that students participating in living learning communities have experienced a stronger connection and value between their academic and extracurricular life at school (Wawrzynski, et al., 2009). This level of engagement may suggest a reduced likelihood of dropping out of a program. Student academic and extracurricular engagement levels often correlate to student retention rates. If the presence of living learning communities increases student academic and extracurricular engagement, we can likely conclude that having living learning communities on campus also increases student retention rates. Many students here at UM are forced to move far away from campus due to the lack of affordable housing in the neighborhoods in close proximity to campus. Theme homes would not only provide additional student housing very close to campus, it would also increase the number of extracurricular events taking place on campus, which would entice even the students who do live off-campus to spend more time on campus and to engage in activities that foster the UM community.
The theme homes will provide a venue for faculty from various departments to convene. Faculty involved in the various theme houses will be encouraged to share ideas and best practices with their cohorts to help each house fulfill the overarching mission of the program. Theme homes will be strongly encouraged to collaborate and share resources with other houses, which will often include utilizing their faculty members as a resource in their program events and projects.
Studies have found that students that participate in living learning communities demonstrate a higher degree of academic achievement than their counterparts who do not participate in living learning communities. A study conducted at the University of Michigan in 2005, found that students involved in living learning communities experienced increased academic achievement and intellectual engagement (Pasque & Murphy, 2005). Living learning communities allow for a seamless transition from in class to out of the classroom academic experiences: a transition that often impedes students from flourishing in higher education settings. The group of students that live and attend classes together can provide each other with support in their academic endeavors and have an immediate support group within their residence.
The University of Montana would be the first University in the state to provide a residential housing option of this nature. Currently, UM & MSO offer limited options for living learning experiences. These options consist of floors within the dormitories that are designated for a certain academic or personal interest. These options were created by Residence Life staff and residents are assigned a Resident Assistant for their floor. The idea of creating student initiated and managed theme houses in partnership with sponsoring academic departments is an entirely new and innovative practice to the institutions of higher education within the State of Montana.
The theme house community will provide students with new opportunities to engage with the greater Missoula community. The community service requirement, as well as the required community partner will ensure that these relationships are pursued. The houses will provide a venue through which students can reach out to community members with shared interests. The University of Montana is committed to building strong relationships with its surrounding community and the theme house initiative strongly supports this mission.
Residence Life currently offers limited options to students in terms of living learning communities, all of which are limited to the dormitory style Residence Halls. Relatively new to UM, they began in the 2011-2012 academic year. They were specifically created to appeal to incoming freshman and are utilized as an early retention tool for this population of students. Students can select a preference to live in one of the living learning communities when they fill out their housing application. The Global Leadership Institute Living learning community, as well as the one affiliated with the Davidson Honors College, is restricted to students that have already been accepted into these programs. None of the living learning communities offer in-house classes; however, the Global Leadership Institute is hoping to implement this in the 2013-2014 academic year. In addition to these two program-specific living learning communities, the Office of Residence Life also offers an intercultural community and a chemistry living learning community. In the 2011-2012 academic year, they also offered a Native American Living Learning community which was discontinued due to lack of interest. The small number of incoming traditional college aged Native American students made it difficult to recruit for. Additionally, residence life staff stated that the requirement that all programming had to take place in the dormitory, and that it was only open to the residents of the floor, was not very appealing to the residents.
The Office of Residence Life also offers a few personal interest floors to students that reside in the dormitory–style residence halls. These include an option to live on a substance free floor or a quiet floor. These differ from living learning communities in that they do not have an academic component.
Assessment of Current Living Learning Programs
The Living Learning communities currently offered at UM have experienced mixed degrees of success. The most successful floors are those that are incorporated into other pre-existing programs (Global Leadership Institute, Honors College). Residence life reported that there has been a lack of interest in the Intercultural floor and that although the chemistry floor generates a constant flow of interest each of the 3 years that it’s been in place, these students are very small in number.
We believe the theme home community provides an exciting initiative that has found to be successful at several other Universities in the United States. In this brief report, we have addressed several reasons why a theme home community would make for a successful addition at UM that will benefit many students who are directly or indirectly involved in this new initiative. Unlike the Living learning communities instituted in the Residential Halls, theme houses would be student driven and would allow students to independently initiate their programs and allows for their programmatic events to incorporate other students and members of the UM community rather than keeping them inclusive and only for those residing in the living learning community.
UM Theme Home Coordinator
University of Montana