By Katharine Webster
When Gina Mician toured UMass Lowell as a high school junior, she spotted a banner in Fox Hall advertising a living-learning community for women majoring in science and engineering — and thought it sounded really cool.
So when she was accepted as a civil engineering major last year, she immediately applied to live in W.I.S.E.—Women in Science and Engineering.
Mician says the day she arrived on campus, she met someone in her hall who was registered for some of the same classes.
“The transition from high school to college was a little nerve-wracking. Knowing her a bit just made it more comfortable,” she says.
Living-learning communities (LLCs) were started nine years ago to provide social and academic support for first-year students. They’ve proven so successful at increasing academic success and retention that Residence Life is opening new ones and creating upper-class versions of six more.
For the first time next fall, the university will cluster related LLCs in themed buildings. For example, the first-year and upper-class Living Allegro and Creative Artists LLCs, along with the mixed-year Media Makers LLC, will all be in the Visual and Fine Arts House at Sheehy Hall.
“It’s turning on its head the whole concept of residential living at UMass Lowell,” says Phillip Begeal, associate director of residence life. “Freshmen will be in every hall except maybe the Inn & Conference Center, instead of being mostly confined to Fox Hall.”
New Living-Learning Communities
Right now, Begeal says, half of all first-year students who live on campus are in LLCs. The university’s 2020 goal is to get 70 percent of first-year students and half of all on-campus students into LLCs.
That’s because the support services the LLCs provide, from tutoring and exam reviews to advising and enrichment activities based on a shared interest or major—not to mention an instant circle of friends and study partners—help students stay in school and improve their grades.
Of all freshmen living in LLCs last year, 87 percent returned as sophomores, compared with 85 percent of those living in general freshman housing and 77 percent of commuters. Students in LLCs also tend to fare better academically. For example, among first-year College of Health Sciences students living in H.E.A.L.L. (Health Education Academic Living & Learning) the average GPA was higher than for other first-year students in the same programs: 3.59 compared to 3.4, Begeal says.
New first-year LLCs coming this fall include MasterMinds, for psychology majors; L.E.A.F. (Leaders in Environmental Advocacy of the Future); and <.ICS>: Innovation in Computer Science.
The university has already created upper-class versions of the H.E.A.L.L., Commonwealth Honors and Business Innovation LLCs, with marked success. Of sophomores who lived in LLCs last year (including those in upper-class-only LLCs, such as Greek Life, Rec-It and Transfer Year Experience), 95 percent returned as juniors, compared with 90 percent of those who lived in general housing and 79 percent of commuters.
Starting in the fall, W.I.S.E., Developing Leaders in Engineering, Living Allegro, Creative Artists, Hall of Justice and Advocates of Tomorrow will all feature first-year and upper-class LLCs.
Connections Equal Success
Lori Weeden, a lecturer in Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who was the faculty adviser for W.I.S.E. its first two years, says connection is key to the LLCs’ better retention rates — whether that’s connection with the faculty adviser, other students or professors who come and talk informally about their careers.
“Women in STEM fields tend to be more introverted. We lose students when they don’t connect, and an LLC is an automatic connect,” Weeden says. “And these students have all probably dealt with some form of gender discrimination.”
Weeden will be the faculty adviser for L.E.A.F., which will bring together first-year students studying everything from climate science to environmental advocacy and sustainable business practices. It will be housed in STEM House in Leitch Hall, alongside Developing Leaders in Engineering, W.I.S.E. and the Pre-Med LLC.
A Customized Experience
Residence Life is refining the LLC experience, too. Next fall, it will pilot one-credit courses in two first-year LLCs: a class on diversity and cultural awareness in health care for Pre-Med students and a course on ethical considerations in the prison system for the Hall of Justice, which is for criminal justice majors.
“It’s trailblazing,” Begeal says. “The university has never before approved a course that didn’t come from an academic department or a dean’s office.”
Residence Life is also creating distinct experiences within each year of the upper-class LLCs, using H.E.A.L.L. as a test case. Kiernan Beal ’16, a graduate student in physical therapy who is a resident assistant in H.E.A.L.L., has been helping craft a leadership curriculum for the third- and four-year health sciences students.
“Leadership attributes can help you in almost anything you do, no matter what field,” he says. “We want to help them gain some of those skills.”
Beal lived in H.E.A.L.L. his freshman year and Commonwealth Honors LLC his sophomore and junior years. He says both were great — but they were different, with H.E.A.L.L. offering more academic support and the honors LLC offering a wider variety of friends, with different majors across a range of class years. He thinks the new themed houses will offer the best of both.
“One aspect of LLCs is that, unless you really make an effort, you don’t make a lot of friends outside your major. I liked the variety in the honors LLC,” he says. “And getting to know older students on the same academic track who can share their experiences from a student point of view — that was incredibly helpful.”
As for Mician, she’s loved being in W.I.S.E. so much that she’s applied to be an R.A. next year in the growing first-year version and also applied to live in the new upper-class W.I.S.E. Either way, she can stick with her friends, since they’ll all be in STEM House in Leitch Hall.
“I don’t know what I’d do without those girls,” she says.