For a university with a 130 year history, resting on laurels is always a temptation. But that's not the Drury way. Rather than living on past glories, we are always on the lookout for cutting edge technology, new and proven methods for increasing student enrollment and retention, and ensuring that a Drury education is the very best it can be.
Often, improving the educational experience is taken to mean improving the classroom experience. But a new understanding of what helps students succeed has pointed the way to integrating rigorous classroom expectations with a living environment that supports productive intellectual and social life. Dozens of colleges and universities across the nation, from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities, have created living environments designed to mesh with a student's academic experience. At other colleges and universities, these programs have shown notable benefits. Students in "Freshman Interest Groups" (FIGs) at the University of Missouri, for example, reported interactions with their peers and faculty that were more academically and intellectually focused. FIG freshmen had an average GPA of 2.89, compared with 2.66 for all freshmen. Students in living-learning programs are more open to diversity and willing to explore a variety of viewpoints. The result is usually a richer education.
The benefits to students carry over to the institution. Students in living-learning programs are more likely to stay at the same school. Increased student retention saves on the cost of recruiting new students, and also positions a school for improved standing in quality surveys and rankings.
In that vein, a council of Drury students, faculty and staff known as the Student Success Committee began exploring how to create an environment at Drury where living and learning could support each other seamlessly. For several years, the committee studied other colleges and universities, both those in the Midwest and members of the Associated New American Colleges consortium (of which Drury is a member), that have such programs in place. Drawing elements from the most successful programs, the Living-Learning Community (LLC) at Drury welcomed its first students, a group of 23 freshmen, in fall 2002.
In its first year, Drury's Living-Learning Community program met all of its stated objectives and goals. Most striking, perhaps, was the way LLC students felt connected to the campus. While the freshman retention rate at Drury has been steady at about 80 percent for several years, all 23 of last year's LLC students returned this year, a 100 percent retention rate.
The Living-Learning Community at Work
The LLC students - 11 men and 12 women - entered the program for a variety of reasons. Some wanted a unique dorm experience. Some of the men simply wanted private showers, unknown in the two men-only residence halls. Despite their reasons, the participants found the LLC to be a successful experience, saying it helped them make a successful transition between high school and college.
"High school is so stratified," one LLC resident said. "The cheerleaders don't mix with the band people, who don't mix with the jocks. Then there are socio-economic factors that further separate the groups." The LLC was a diverse group of students coming together. Some of the students say they would not have naturally sought out relationships with other students who were different. Through the LLC, though, they met and made new, really good friends they probably would not have met otherwise.
Students shared three classes during that first semester. I taught their section of Alpha Seminar: The American Experience, which is the first course of Drury's Global Perspectives 21 core curriculum and helps our students begin to develop critical thinking and writing skills. Charles Taylor, associate dean of the college and a communication professor, taught The Art of Human Communication, a course designed to
help students develop skills in the use of expressive language. Krystal Compas, vice president for enrollment management, taught Personal Leadership, a course that examined the individual's role as a leader and helped the students clarify their leadership style. Working together, the three of us tailored the course work to support the program and to mesh classroom teaching with real-life experiences. Much of the Alpha Seminar course work depended on oral presentations, which utilized the skills learned in Dr. Taylor's course. And, while studying under Dr. Compas, the students practiced leadership by developing and implementing community service projects.
Living on campus, the Living-Learning Community students shared the two wings on the first floor of Smith Hall, where they quickly became inseparable friends. They attended concerts, made road trips to each others' homes, shopped and dined out together. They sat together in the commons, and were often found creating residence hall activities - movie nights, class discussion groups, personal support groups, camping trips, rock climbing adventures and cookie baking just to name a few.
Community service also played an important role in their life as a group. They went together to work with developmentally disabled children at the Developmental Center of the Ozarks and continued to look for ways to be involved in the community. One such outing led them to host a "senior" prom at an area retirement home.
The importance of community service continues this year. Seventeen of the 23 students are residents of Drury's new Summit Park Leadership Community, where the students who share the apartment-style residences also work together on a service project.
Living-Learning Communities and the Future of Drury
Even partway through the second year of the LLC program, its impact on the campus is evident. Aside from the strong friendships and support the students gained from each other and their faculty mentors, they have started to affect the way Drury administrators plan for the future, as they recognize that the Living-Learning Community experience has enriched the lives of these students. The LLC experience was one reason we decided to make Summit Park a community centered around community service, rather than simply another piece of student housing.
Drury's newest residence hall, the new Sunderland Hall, also shows the imprint of LLC thinking. Sunderland, which opened in 1960, was a traditional dormitory with rooms on each floor opening off a single long hallway, and where residents shared a single large bathroom on each floor.
The old Sunderland is no more. It was demolished in June, and a new four-story residence hall will rise in its place over the next year and a half. The new building's floor plan is based on suites of four single rooms and two bathrooms, with shared spaces for classes, student group meetings, or relaxation on each floor. It is the perfect design for Living-Learning Communities.
Living-Learning Community: The Next Generation
Given the initial success of the program in retaining all 23 students and in meeting its goals, the program is expected to continue and even grow. This year, 18 first-year students, 10 men and 8 women, make up the current LLC community. This year's group is much more diverse, and if anything, a more laid-back group, too.
At the beginning of this school year, last year's group members sat down with the new students and offered them three pieces of advice:
1. Listen to everything Dean Sweeney tells you.
2. Have a good time.
3. Don't date each other.
Words well spoken from those who have been there.