By Jules Norwood
Jenna Price knows the transition to college to be a challenge. But she's part of a growing number of students who are getting off to a strong start by being part of a living-learning community.
"Being a first-generation college student would have been tough if not for the support of my friends in the living-learning community," says Price, a freshman double-majoring in English and communication. "The most valuable thing I've learned is that you don't have to do college alone. There are people that are going through the same things that you are; you just have to look around to find them."
Living-learning communities, or LLCs, are on-campus housing options, generally for freshmen, designed to bring students with similar interests, goals or experiences together in smaller groups as they learn their way around campus and adapt to the less-structured format of college life.
Students participating in ECU's LLCs, which range in size from 14 students to more than 150, live together on campus, share classes during their first year and participate in a range of activities based on their areas of interest. Each LLC has the autonomy to determine its own formula, but they share an emphasis on personalizing the college experience and boosting engagement and participation on campus in order to improve student outcomes.
River Renn, a member of Anchors LLC, says that one helpful aspect of the LLC was arriving at ECU early.
"I was afraid that I would be totally lost," she says. "But by moving in two weeks early I became very comfortable with the campus with the help of Anchors."
That two-week period gives students a chance to learn the ropes, says Steven Asby, associate director of academic advising. Many LLCs bring their students to campus early, but it's especially important for Anchors, which was organized with the goal of helping first-generation college students.
"It gives them a jump-start to their college career and to everything that…if you had a parent or older sibling who had been to college before, they could give you those little tips," says Asby, who was a first-generation college student when he came to ECU. "All those things that I remember not being told, that I had to figure out, it really became apparent…that this is something that's needed."
Anchors students not only move in early but also start some of their classes early and participate in structured activities. Asby says the two-week period is structured to help students learn how to organize their time, a new concept that takes some getting used to for many.
By the time the rest of the student body moves in, he says, the Anchors students already have a sense of belonging and ownership. They even help new students on move-in day.
"I told them, 'You are not going to be seen as first-gen, or even as freshmen. You're going to be seen as the experts, and people are going to be asking you about the residence hall,'" Asby says.
LLCs also help students feel more comfortable by creating a built-in community of peers.
"They're living in the same residence hall and the same area of the residence hall, so they are each other's roommates," says Mary Farwell, biology professor.
They're also scheduled in the same sections of some of their first-year courses, so they share common experiences and can support each other at exam time.
"(Some of those) are large lecture courses, so that gives them a little group within that big course where they know each other," Farwell says. "They form their own study groups to work together and with tutors."
Many of the peer tutors are former members of the LLC or upperclassmen from the same academic program, so there's a built-in opportunity for students to continue their involvement in the LLC beyond their first year. In addition, they get direct faculty involvement.
"All of our programs have faculty that come help those students move in, so right from day one, some of those barriers are being broken down a little bit," says Gretchen Brockmann of ECU Residence Life. "The faculty partner or academic advisor is going to be very intentional with an LLC student and know them on a first-name basis."
For Alex Hondros, the connections formed through the Biology LLC helped him earn a research position at the East Carolina Heart Institute.
"This is not something many freshmen can claim," he says. "Having an internship position, especially for all four years, will look exemplary on future applications."
The Education LLC helped Kyndall Westerbeke meet friends and form relationships with teachers and peers, she says.
"My friends in the Education LLC became the people that I knew I could count on to relate to when I needed to talk, grab lunch with or just wave to on the way to class," she says. "It was just the comfort that I never knew that I would need as I made my transition to college."
Most LLCs start with activities to help students get to know each other-such as welcome picnics, ropes courses or sailing excursions-but there are also programs targeted at improving their chance of success in college and after graduation. The Anchors LLC holds a financial-awareness session, Asby says. "It was amazing how timely it was. The presentation ended and we stayed for an hour with them asking questions. It's all about helping the students with information that they may not realize they need."
New this fall will be the Global LLC, aimed at students interested in international issues and other cultures. It is sponsored by the Department of Foreign Language and Literatures but is open to any student looking for a global perspective.
Jennifer Valko, an associate professor of Hispanic studies and Global LLC organizer, says one activity she's planning is a professional etiquette dinner with an expert from the ECU Career Center.
"We want to help them make a good impression if they're dining with someone, whether it's for a job interview or studying abroad," she says.
The Global LLC will focus on providing students with an international perspective as well as skills that will help them with intercultural communications, which Valko says can be valuable for students in any major.
Each LLC has specific goals, tracks data on student success and surveys feedback from its students. All have reported positive feedback in terms of developing camaraderie and support. They also track graduation rates and GPAs.
The Biology LLC, which began in 2012 and graduated its first class of seniors in spring 2016, saw a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent, well above the campus-wide rate, despite having a majority of first-generation students.
"We've also shown that their GPAs are at or above the average biology major, which is fairly high," Farwell says.
While the data is limited for Anchors LLC, which started in fall 2016, Asby says, "after our first semester we're just under a 3.0, which compared to the average freshman is pretty good."
Looking beyond the numbers, LLCs also promote involvement on campus. Asby says one of his proudest moments was finding out all four of the male students in Anchors' first class joined the Residence Hall Association.
While there had been a few related programs on campus before, says Brockmann, the LLC program as it exists today launched in earnest in about 2009. A team within Campus Living began reaching out to departments and academic partners about setting up programs to help students be successful.
"Bill (McCartney, associate vice chancellor of campus living) came in and really pushed those of us involved in living-learning communities to really look at what we could do with it and what the requirements should be," Brockmann says.
Today those efforts are paying off, with new LLCs added each year and more than 800 students now participating.
In addition to Anchors (new for 2016-2017) and Global (2017-2018), there will be a new LLC this fall called The League, centered on an interest in athletics and focusing on promoting male student success.
Brockmann says other institutions nationwide are trying to build and strengthen similar programs. "We at ECU are really lucky-our students are really lucky-that we have the support from our academic partners; they have an interest and see that it's of value," she says. "When we go to conferences and hear from other schools, we often hear that they don't have the same kind of support."
That support ranges from faculty and administrative support to infrastructure planning. Gateway East and West residence halls, new in 2015, were designed specifically with LLCs in mind, with lots of shared lounges and study space.
"We've been very purposeful about what the buildings that house LLCs look like," Brockmann says. "In Garrett, where our Art and Design LLC is housed, we have an art studio. We converted one of the lounges so they can go in and paint, and if they get paint on the floor, it's okay, that's what it's there for."
Keerthana Velappan, a senior who lived in the Honors College LLC her freshman year, remembers studying and socializing in the shared spaces in Garrett Hall.
"It was everything from staying up late before an exam with a study group…to organizing a surprise birthday celebration in one of the large study rooms for two Honors roommates," she says. "Little did we know that we were making memories to cherish even as we prepare to walk across the stage together soon as seniors."
Valko, who attended a conference about LLCs while planning for the launch of the Global community, confirms the positive perception of ECU's program.
"Many of the things that are done here at ECU are things that other campuses are just learning to do," she says. "When we had representatives from our campus give a talk, it was well-received and people were coming up afterward because it seems that ECU really does things right."
While some LLCs are tied to academic disciplines, others to campus departments and programs such as athletics or recreation and wellness, they all share the common goals: helping students achieve academic success, engage in academic, local and global communities, and discover their leadership potential.
"We want to show them how they can be successful, support them if they're having trouble and make sure they get the help they need so that they do well in college and beyond," Valko says.
Randy Stitt, a former member of the Jarvis Leadership LLC who will graduate this December, jumped into a leadership role in only his second semester on campus.
"During the second semester of my freshman year, I was selected as a resident assistant in Jarvis Hall," he says. "Being a freshman R.A. was not easy, but it allowed me to put my leadership skills to the test."
After two years as an R.A. in Jarvis, Stitt was selected as an Elite Pirate, a recognition of academic, service and leadership achievement.
Clean, well-designed and up-to-date facilities for campus living and dining are essential for student success, and ECU continues to invest in new and existing buildings on campus.
"As Campus Living has looked at rebuilding our residence hall system for the future, we have been especially sensitive to the changing needs of our students and how they live their lives today," said William McCartney, associate vice chancellor of campus living. "Student rooms have become electronic social centers as students use these spaces as their bedroom, recreation center and living room.
"We have made an effort to add study spaces, music practice rooms and quiet lounges into our residence halls so that students have a refuge in which to study and focus on academic success. Since 2010, Campus Living has added more than 75 small-group and private areas where students might meet, study or practice an instrument in the residence halls."
Since fall 2011, living-learning communities at ECU have increased from two to 19. This year, 824 students are in an LLC, making up about 15 percent of on-campus residents. Four residence halls house LLCs.
Here are the communities that will be part of ECU during the 2017-2018 academic year: