By Katharine Webster
When George Le decided to come to UMass Lowell, he looked for a club or another extracurricular experience that would help him fit in.
An honors computer science major from Methuen and Army ROTC cadet, Le decided to join a living-learning community (LLC). He looked at the freshman Honors College LLC – the oldest and largest on campus, with 150 students on three floors in Leitch Hall – and at ROTC, a small LLC in Fox Hall. He chose Honors for help focusing on his studies.
“Getting thrown in as a freshman, there’s a lot of freedom and it’s really easy to get off track,” Le says. “I wanted to be around other strong students, people to motivate me to work harder.”
Introduced eight years ago to help freshmen find social and academic support, LLCs are now available to upper-class students as well, says Joel McCarthy-Latimer, assistant dean of student affairs. Roughly one in three students who live on campus now lives in an LLC.
LLCs have helped improve student success and retention: Of freshmen living in LLCs last year, 90 percent returned as sophomores, compared to 86 percent of those living in general freshman housing and 84 percent of commuters. Sophomores living in an LLC are also more likely to continue as juniors, says Phillip Begeal, associate director of residence life.
Some LLCs arise out of student interest, such as Multicultural Advocates of Tomorrow and Greek Life, while others come out of the colleges, such as Developing Leaders in Engineering and Business Innovation. The university will add four new LLCs next fall, bringing the total to 24. The new LLCs include Political Science; International Experience, for students planning to study abroad; Digital Media/Animation; and DifferenceMakers, for upper-class students involved in the interdisciplinary program.
Some LLCs emphasize academics, while others are organized around extracurricular or social themes, McCarthy-Latimer says. Rec-It, with advisers from the Campus Rec Center, is for students interested in personal health and fitness, while HEALL – Health Education Academic Living Learning FYE (first-year experience) – is mostly academic.
About half of all freshmen in the College of Health Sciences – more than 150 this year – join HEALL, in Sheehy Hall. Freshmen take the same required classes, so they can study together. One of the most challenging is Anatomy and Physiology, and Arlee Dulak, the course coordinator, is also the HEALL adviser. She holds an evening review session in Weed Hall before each major exam. Students also can work with a tutor who comes to Sheehy every Sunday evening.
“They love that you can walk downstairs in your PJs and get tutoring,” Dulak says.
Anna Kleis, a nursing major from Melrose, says she learned about HEALL on accepted students’ day – and “it was definitely a factor” in her choice of UMass Lowell.
She and Lauren Doherty, a nursing major from Billerica, went on to the upper class version of HEALL in Riverview Suites this year. They live in the same apartment and study together for Physiological Chemistry, a course they called the most challenging of sophomore year.
“If someone needs help with homework, someone’s there to help you,” Doherty says.
Freshman Alyssa Aurilio cites similar reasons for joining Hall of Justice, an LLC for first-year criminal justice majors.
“It puts you at ease to know there are other people around who understand what you’re doing,” Aurilio says. “We have similar schedules, we have the same classes and we can help each other.”
Lecturer Cathy Levey, who doubles as the Hall of Justice and department freshman adviser, sets up three lectures a semester by faculty members to talk about their research. She also organizes field trips to local police departments and meets with the RAs to suggest other activities.
“The LLC gives freshmen a chance to bond and have these extra-curricular activities around their major,” Levey says. “It affirms their choice.”
Max Sumner, a junior transfer student from Ashburnham studying criminal justice, says he wishes he could have joined an upper-class LLC for criminal justice majors, but there isn’t one – yet. Instead, he joined the Transfer Year Experience, which features a tutoring center and advisers from Career Services and the Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services. Sumner says it’s been great living with other, older students new to campus.
“We didn’t really know where things were,” he says. “We could find out together – and you make good friends that way, too.”
Students in the Honors LLCs also have a mix of majors, says adviser David Adams, a lecturer in computer science. Adams organizes eight extra-curricular lectures a semester, but even more important is his presence on campus. He and his family share an apartment in University Suites, in the upper-class Honors LLC, making him the only live-in LLC adviser. He also advises the freshmen Honors LLC.
“Part of being faculty in residence is just making myself available to the students if they have questions about anything,” Adams says. “I want them to feel they can come to me when they have issues or problems.”
Adams holds roving office hours in Leitch at least one evening a week, giving pep talks and passing out candy with his 2-year-old daughter. In University Suites, Adams and his wife set up a puzzle table near the elevator and invite students to join them. He asks students to eat dinner with his family and takes them on outings, like an apple-picking trip to Parlee Farms last fall.
“I never want them to have to eat alone. My wife and I try to treat all of them as included in our family,” he says.
Le says he’s turned to Adams for coursework and career advice and enjoyed informal activities with other students, whether eating dinner together or watching “Jackass 3” on a weekend night.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s really good camaraderie and everyone knows each other,” Le says.