The Goal of Residential Life at an American University

Article by Andrea van Niekerk, College Goals

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A fairly typical scenario on any campus in the world: students listen attentively as the professor describes the mechanics that allow an unamplified voice to reverberate through a performance space.

Except the students are not music students, but include prospective physicists and computer scientists who ask questions about architecture, sound engineering and biology as much as about music and history.

The professor does not teach engineering but is an historian of the opera, describing the development of a Mozart opera they will attend together, a few days later. And they are gathered not in a formal classroom, but are meeting over pizza in their residential dormitory.

This, in a nutshell, is American undergraduate residential learning.

The notion of students living and learning in the same space is of course not new. When the oldest American universities, such as Yale and Harvard, were first established, they looked to ancient universities elsewhere, especially Oxford and Cambridge with their college systems, for inspiration. Out of those models grew a distinctive version all of its own.

Today, large American public universities house tens of thousands of students, while at the excellent small liberal arts colleges dotted throughout the US, the population might number only in the hundreds. Some colleges guarantee on-campus housing for only a year or two, while others do so for all four years of undergraduate education.

Some of the best-known institutions even require first and second-year students to live on campus. The housing options vary from large dormitories housing a few hundred students with a significant staff of residential faculty and peer advisers, to small cooperative or theme houses where students largely govern themselves.

What these residential colleges/universities all share is the belief that a campus community in which students' intellectual and social lives overlap enriches learning beyond the classroom. Residents can argue about ideas, dissect personal experiences and propose creative solutions even as they sit across from each other at breakfast, or just ‘chill’ late at night in their dorm rooms.

A few years ago when Stanford, a school where most undergraduates live on campus for all four years, did a full review of its undergraduate life, it reaffirmed what it called the "absolute centrality" of the residential experience to its education.

The report goes on to define what it is American colleges hope to achieve by offering such a residential life to students: students are given the chance to "test and refine the knowledge, skills, and values they are acquiring in their classes."

Furthermore, says the report, residential life allows students to exercise leadership; learn social responsibility in a personal context; experience diversity and define their own identity in friendships with roommates and fellow dorm members with different racial, religious, cultural, gender and sexual identities than their own.

Of course, we know that whatever a college might offer students, it has value only to the extent that students embrace the opportunity to learn and grow.

And as a Residential Fellow in a sophomore dorm - yes, those students were thinking about the mechanics of Mozart and eating pizza in my living room! - I have noticed that international students often seemed reluctant to take up the offer of informal intellectual exchange in their residence, even with a Residential Faculty Fellow.

As you contemplate applying to American colleges and universities, be sure that your ideas of campus life are not shaped merely by movies that suggest dorms are simply places to sleep, eat, work on problem sets, and party.

Residential life is indeed about all of those things, but it is also about extending one's learning beyond the classroom into those moments when you explore and debate ideas and ways of being with people whom you might otherwise never have encountered, even in your particular academic curriculum.

On an American campus, all forms of learning that stretch your mind can contribute significantly to your learning experience.