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Living and Learning at Elon: the professors next door

An increasing number of faculty members call the university home as Elon’s residential campus grows.

Associate Professor of Education Terry Tomasek hosts a Tuesday tea in the T-Room in her role as the faculty director in Colonnades Neighborhood.

By Alexa Boschini ’10

Tucked behind the pool table in the foyer of William W. Staley Hall is the T-Room. It’s a small space that was initially intended as an office, but Faculty Director Terry Tomasek, Community Director Cristina Vega and neighborhood students transformed it into a social and intellectual haven for the neighborhood’s residents.

In one sense, it’s the picture of stress relief. Teas from around the world and delicate cups line the shelves. Board games are stacked against the wall and a half-finished puzzle covers one of the tables. A cozy throw is draped over a rocking chair in the corner. And a fold-up ping pong table is propped behind the door for those occasions when demand for the T-Room exceeds its capacity and the action spills into the common area. A white board on the wall also displays the name of the T-Room’s next faculty or staff guest, who will converse with the students about their careers, their research and their passions. After campus events like September’s common reading lecture, you’ll likely hear extensive discussions as students process the speaker’s remarks. 

“We at Elon run a million miles an hour because there are so many wonderful opportunities here and we don’t want to miss any of them,” says Tomasek, associate professor of education and wellness and director of Elon Academy. “Sometimes we run from one thing to another and never stop long enough to process the experiences we’re having. We never stop long enough to sit down and have a conversation. That’s really why we created the T-Room, to create a space to make meaning from our experiences.” 

Tomasek is one of eight faculty members who make their homes on campus through Living and Learning at Elon, an effort designed to transform the Elon experience by creating one of the nation’s most vibrant residential campuses. The T-Room embodies the initiative’s mission—to integrate students’ academic, residential and social experiences. 

“What we’re trying to do with the initiative is acknowledge that learning takes place inside and outside the classroom,” says Jon Dooley, vice president for student life. “Students spend a lot of time in their residential spaces, so how can we ensure those spaces are not at the periphery of campus, either physically or intellectually, and that they are a place where learning happens? Having faculty living in residence is a logical extension of that.”

Developing the program 

Faculty-in-residence positions have existed at Elon in some capacity since 2001, but as the residential campus has grown, so has the breadth of live-in roles available to faculty members. The Living and Learning at Elon initiative grew out of the residential campus plan, a component of the Elon Commitment strategic plan. In addition to constructing new residence halls to meet rising student demand for on-campus housing, the plan aimed to develop stronger academic-residential partnerships, offer a wider variety of themed living-learning communities, and integrate classrooms and faculty apartments into residence halls.

“We studied a number of different models, and also visited quite a few campuses with strong residential communities,” says Nancy Midgette, professor emerita of history and a former member of the Residential Campus Committee. “In looking at a map of Elon’s campus, the neighborhood concept that we settled on seemed like it was an obvious choice, because geographically, residence halls were already in clusters.”

Those clusters became Elon’s seven distinct residential neighborhoods—Colonnades, Danieley Center, Global, Historic, Loy Center, The Oaks and The Station at Mill Point—which today house about 64 percent of the undergraduate population. The neighborhoods feature groupings of residences and common spaces that form intimate student communities, each with its own unique identity. Five neighborhoods now have faculty directors, who work in tandem with residence life staff and student leaders to promote students’ academic, social and personal development.

The faculty director role was created in 2013 to bring Elon’s teacher-scholar-mentor model into the residential space. It connects living on campus with the notion that intellectual growth happens continuously at Elon, both in and out of the classroom. “The purpose of the faculty director is to do more than just engage with students who live in their building,” says Shannon Lundeen, director of academic initiatives for the residential campus. “It’s to oversee the development of the intellectual identity and programming in the neighborhood, and to help build relationships between students and faculty.” The program is a joint effort between Student Life and Academic Affairs. The faculty director works in close partnership with the community director, a full-time residence life staff member responsible for the overall administration of the neighborhood.

Faculty can participate as faculty-in-residence, living-learning community advisers or faculty affiliates. Each position aims to make interacting with professors outside the classroom a more approachable experience for students. “It creates a stronger sense of community and connection, even as the institution has grown,” Dooley says. “Part of the residential campus initiative is about retaining the best of the small Elon College feeling and making sure that continues to resonate throughout the campus.”

Engaging the community

Elon’s live-in faculty positions attract professors from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from individuals looking to downsize to families with children and pets. Most apartments are the same size as student rooms, and faculty even receive a partial meal plan. Lundeen says the university has made accommodations for families as the program has grown, because “we don’t want anything to close the door on prospective faculty members who want to participate.”

For example, Phoenix Card holders typically have to be age 16 or older, but Elon now has several under age 8 who live on campus. After all, even the littlest residents need to be able to swipe into their buildings. “We have a lot of kids living on campus,” Lundeen says. “[Senior Lecturer in Music] Clay Stevenson is in Kenan Pavilion with his wife, two kids and dog. They just downsized from a 10-acre farm. Now, the whole campus is their backyard. The students love it. For many of them who have young siblings, it reminds them of home.”

Nancy Midgette, professor emerita of history, served as faculty director for the Historic Neighborhood before retiring in 2016.

For Midgette, becoming a faculty director was a natural next step after the integral role she played in developing the residential campus. She was only three years away from retirement when her term began in 2013, and she welcomed the opportunity to interact with students in a more casual environment. She lived off campus for her first year, but moved into the faculty apartment in the Isabella Cannon Pavilion in 2014 with her cat, Cali. One of her primary responsibilities was planning quality academic programming for students in the Historic Neighborhood, including screening the film “United 93” on the anniversary of 9/11, providing sessions with representatives from Career Services about internship opportunities and supporting campus charity events such as Relay for Life.

But she also regularly attended and hosted social gatherings in the neighborhood, most notably “Cookies with Cali,” in which students would relax with refreshments and play with Cali on Sunday afternoons. Both Midgette and Cali were also sources of comfort for residents during times of stress. “I welcomed the challenge of interacting with students in very different ways than I ever had before,” Midgette says. “Just as they got to know me as a person, I also got to know them out of the classroom setting. I especially enjoyed casual conversations that sprang up as we met on campus or in the dining hall.” 

When Tomasek was offered the faculty director position in the Colonnades, she and her husband sold their home in Greensboro and moved into a two-bedroom apartment on campus. Downsizing so drastically sparked a sense of adventure for the couple. Living on campus was a major life change, but they adjusted quickly. Tomasek’s husband, Dave, is a worship pastor, and he loves the wide variety of music events on campus. The couple frequently eat together in the Colonnades Dining Hall and converse with students during meals.

Living alongside Tomasek affords students the opportunity to get to know her as a person, not just as an educator.  “Students often ask me why I would do this,” she says. “Living in the community, I get to do all the things I love about teaching—interacting with students, talking about hard topics—but I don’t have to give grades. The power differential that is inherent in a classroom is definitely much less. The nature of my interaction with students is much freer.” 

Tomasek breaks down the barriers between the walls of the classroom and the walls of the residence by crafting programming that is unique to the Colonnades community ethos. Though the overarching goal of the residential neighborhoods is the same, the ideas that stimulate intellectual discussion in one neighborhood may not be as impactful in another. “One of the things I love about Elon is the university encourages this innovative approach to things,” Tomasek says. “Whenever I did things that were less than successful, I tried something different. That’s really what the T-Room has been, an innovative exploration into what-ifs.”

Colin Donohue, director of student media and instructor in the School of Communications, hosts a community dinner in Daniel Commons in October.

Colin Donohue, director of student media and instructor in communications, became faculty director of the Danieley Neighborhood at the start of the 2016–17 academic year shortly after his younger son was born. The faculty director position appealed to him because it offered him an opportunity to engage with students on a daily basis, including those from backgrounds outside of communications. Donohue says the position allows him to provide students with a different level of mentorship and support their educational growth in new ways. 

It’s also a rewarding experience for his family. Living at Danieley Center allows his wife, Alyssa, a program assistant in the School of Communications, to form closer relationships with students from different disciplines. And the residents love interacting with their two young sons. “For my older son, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, whatever that might look like for a 3-year-old, with an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old, and I think that’s a good thing,” Donohue says. “He has little conversations with his friends all day, but these are a little bit different, and that socialization aspect is nice for him.”

Danieley Center’s theme this year is “leadership through active citizenship,” so Donohue creates or promotes programming that expands on related conversations from students’ classes. For example, the neighborhood’s most recent community dinner featured a panel of speakers from different disciplines discussing media literacy in the era of “fake news.” “I don’t want students to go to their apartments and just close the door both literally and metaphorically on everything that happens on the rest of this campus,” Donohue says. “If we instill that passion for learning while they’re here, I think that will continue when they graduate.”

The students in residential neighborhoods benefit from living alongside faculty members not only because of the thirst for knowledge they impart but because of the long-term mentoring relationships they form. Alex Attanasio ’18, who served as residence area coordinator for the Danieley Neighborhood her junior year, says working alongside faculty directors ignited a passion for helping students succeed. She is applying to graduate programs in higher education and plans to pursue a career in residence life at a university. “I think that having the opportunity to live right next door to professors is one of the reasons that the Elon community is as vibrant as it is,” Attanasio says. “The faculty director program is one of the many things that contributes to the intellectual climate at Elon and allows students to start networking and building relationships in a natural and organic way, even as a first-year student.”

Looking ahead

Living and Learning at Elon will continue to evolve long after the Elon Commitment strategic plan concludes. Ultimately, Lundeen says she hopes to develop ways to address what sophomores, juniors and seniors need from faculty living in residence more deliberately. But for now, the focus is primarily on the neighborhoods that have first-year residents: Colonnades, Danieley, Global, Historic and soon the new residence halls opening on the former site of East Gym in fall 2018. 

In all five neighborhoods with first-year students, Lundeen hopes to have one live-in faculty member for every 250 to 300 students. “To say we have a residential campus where every single first-year student is going to experience having a faculty member living in residence and can plan to be educated in their residential experience, that’s huge,” Lundeen says. “There are not many other campuses that could offer that with a 6,000-plus population.”

In addition to completing the new neighborhood, there are plans to increase the number of faculty and staff in residential mentoring roles, develop new academically linked living-learning communities and standardize apartments to attract faculty and provide more space for student-faculty engagement. “For some alumni, this should not seem like a new initiative,” Dooley says. “This will feel like an Elon that is familiar to them, where faculty are living near students as part of the campus community. In higher education today it feels like a novelty, but in many ways this is a reflection of who Elon is and has always been.”

Donohue agrees. “I like this job because I get to work with students all the time,” he says. “That’s the most energizing, invigorating thing. Being faculty director is the best kind of service I’ve ever done on campus.”  

>> Learn more about the Living and Learning at Elon program

Keren Rivas,
11/17/2017 10:20 AM