by Michele Papakie
Generation Z students have been on college and university campuses for a few years now, and they can be quite baffling to the Boomers and Generation Xers who are teaching them. It’s exciting to have them in the classrooms, because they “are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in the nation’s history,” according to the Pew Research Center. But social media, constant connectivity, and on-demand entertainment and communication are innovations that for those born after 1996 have been “largely assumed” since they were 10. Those innovations-turned-expectations are the very things that pose challenges to today’s professors in their classrooms and to the residence hall staffs trying to engage these students in their living spaces.
At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, one baffled Gen X professor thought it might be interesting to live among them in the residence halls to get to know them on a deeper level and to enhance her constant connectivity with them in the classroom.
That professor was me.
I approached the university’s director of residence life, Sondra Dennison, in December 2018 after hearing a presentation at my college chairs’ meeting about the university’s living-learning communities. I mentioned that I thought it might be fun to live in the residence halls, “among the natives,” during the spring 2019 semester. Little did I know that only six weeks later I would wake up in 167 Stephenson Hall, which is about a football field away from a now-demolished-and-replaced Turnbull Hall, where I lived as an undergraduate freshman at IUP 33 years prior. The living space in Stephenson was an upgrade, but the halls were deserted. In 1986, students hung out in the hallways and socialized. Today, they spend most of their time in the suites socializing through their technological devices.
“We had been considering the launch of a Faculty-in-Residence pilot, and we thought Dr. Papakie would be the perfect professor at IUP to give it a try,” Dennison says. “We created a proposal and pitched it to the provost the first week of January 2019.” The enthusiasm was catching, and the provost was immediately on board. The team decided to conduct the pilot as a formal study of the effects a Faculty-in-Residence (FIR) could have on undeclared majors in Stephenson Hall. At the end of the experience, the provost wanted to see data that would help him to decide if there were enough return on investment to host other FIRs.
An Institutional Review Board proposal was submitted and approved, and the team developed a plan to collect data on the following points: GPA before and after the intentional intervention, on-time registration for the following semester, retention, participation in university-sponsored events, and persistence to graduation. It would also be wonderful if the undeclared majors would declare one with an FIR’s help.
During the week before students returned from winter break, an FIR office was set up down the hall from my residence. Homemade posters hung on the doors to inform students that faculty help was inside both. The challenge wouldn’t be notifying students that a professor was living among them; the challenge would be to earn their trust and respect and pull them out of their suites to socialize and take advantage of the wisdom and assistance an FIR could provide.
Engaging Community Assistants (CAs) to be liaisons between the FIR and the students was critical. At their first meeting, they planned for the FIR to visit students at each one of the mandatory floor meetings on the night before school started. First impressions are critical, so I donned my favorite IUP hoodie, a gray pair of sleep pants, and a comfortable pair of slippers with rubber grips on the bottom. I ran from meeting to meeting, because there were six of them, all occurring within 15-minute increments of each other. I pulled my hair back into a pony on the top of my head, and off I went. I delivered a short, witty introduction at each meeting, telling the students I was there to help them in any way they needed help. I was not the “fun police”; that was the CAs’ job. After I ran off to the next meeting, the CAs would reinforce the facts that, in their words, “Dr. P. was cool. She cares about students, and she’s super approachable.”
I just kept thinking, if there had been a 50-year-old woman living in Turnbull Hall in 1986, there is no way I would have ever knocked on her door to meet her, let alone socialize with her. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wouldn’t even know what to ask. I didn’t realize I needed help with anything. This type of thinking guided my strategy.
Understanding the ebbs and flows of the semester was key. It is important to intervene at times when students are stressed about tests and grades at midterm and when they are traveling back and forth from school to home, constantly reintegrating into the different cultures they now span. It is also critical to develop a sense of safety, community, and belonging if students are to be retained and persist to graduation.
Being visible and available in the hall and across campus helped to bring about more serendipitous meetings that lead to relationship building. Having a meal plan and inviting students to share meals encouraged bonding and trust. It wasn’t enough to just participate in the CA programming; it was important to create and host FIR-led events that were linked to life skills and general coursework. Impromptu jaunts to the gym together or sharing a coffee or hot chocolate in either the FIR’s office or suite were both fun and productive. Traversing campus on foot and on bicycle, traveling shared routes to shared destinations, served as a physical demonstration of relatability, especially in bad weather. When connections seemed scarce, the team resorted to what we called intrusive advising. “Dr. Papakie and I picked an evening to knock on student doors to meet them where they were,” says Li Teng, assistant director, living learning. “Dr. Papakie called it reverse trick-or-treating. We were well received, and sometimes those brief meetings led to follow-ups, where Dr. Papakie was able to assist students with advising or help with their résumés.”
Traversing campus on foot and on bicycle, traveling shared routes to shared destinations, served as a physical demonstration of relatability, especially in bad weather.
Teng says she always strives to have quality face-to-face interactions with today’s tech-savvy students. She demonstrates and encourages it as often as she can. “This face-to-face, one-on-one communication seems very old school, but I have found it very desirable among this new generation of students when it comes to connecting and engaging with them,” Teng says. “This sounds easy to do, but it is very challenging at the same time, especially on the topics of engagement in their academic studies and connecting with faculty members. Having faculty members who interact with students where they live sends a very positive message with authenticity and influences their academic success.”
Hindsight is 20/20. The five things the team decided to track weren’t all that helpful in the end. Too many factors influence things like a student’s GPA, decision to return to campus, and persistence to graduation, not just whether he or she is connected with a faculty-in-residence. The formal end of the research was the least favorite part of the experience. Nineteen students signed informed consent forms and completed pre- and post-surveys. The data collected didn’t reflect whether the pilot worked or not, but the anecdotal data did. “Dr. P is so approachable and easy to talk to . . . she is so real . . . I consider her as my mentor,” says first-year student Cici. “She was so passionate about connecting with me that I really felt supported and valued . . . Dr. Papakie’s compassion and empathy really let students see her as an actual person instead of just some professor they never speak to outside of class . . . I hope that it [the FIR program] is something IUP will consider keeping,” says sophomore Caitlyn.
From my perspective, this live-in experience leads me to recommend the following to future FIRs:1. Incorporate FIR information into the housing information, so students and parents know in advance that a faculty member will be living among them as a valuable resource.2. If you intend to collect data on the students during the experience, incorporate the informed consent into the housing contract if possible.3. Start when students are moving in for the first time, and be visible and engaging during move-in. Meet as many parents and students as possible. It’s difficult to assimilate after students have settled into routines.4. Do not rely on optional traditional CA programming as opportunities to connect with students. Living-learning communities work best when the FIR’s efforts are implemented in tandem with courses and things that are happening in specific classrooms.5. Implement “intrusive advising” tactics and the like. Take your efforts to them personally. Students have everything they need within their suites today, so they are less likely to spend time socializing and learning in the residence halls unless there are consequences to their grades for not participating.
Both Teng and Dennison believe that the FIR program should continue at IUP. “Having faculty and residence life staff work together not only helps to foster more frequent, meaningful interactions between faculty and students, but it also empowers students to engage more deeply in their studies,” Teng explains. “As we continue to establish IUP as an example of highly engaged students, we have everything to gain from involving faculty in the residential communities,” Dennison says. And, she adds, as commentary on an Elon University poll indicates, “college students need a ‘constellation of mentors’ to create a truly fulfilling experience. Within that constellation, faculty members can and do serve as essential and shining stars.”
Michele Papakie is a professor of journalism and public relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. email@example.com