Residential education for the 21st Century
Smallish, intimate, and dedicated to nurturing a sense of community: a college where students live, work, learn, and recreate.
In today’s world, students who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree have numerous options: private college, public university, community college, commuter college, online program, night school. Although each is a viable avenue to a college degree, research since the 1980s indicates they are not equal.
The Cornell College experience is based on the concept of the residential college, which provides students with seamless academic, social, and cultural experiences. Residential colleges are smallish, intimate, and dedicated to nurturing a sense of community: a school where the students live, work, learn, and recreate within the academic environment.
Each part of the students’ lives are connected with the rest. They live on campus, eat in Cornell’s new dining hall (recently ranked second in the nation), they attend class, make friends, develop and pursue interests, and get involved both in their academics and in their community. In short, students are more engaged. In fact, at Cornell, students are expected to be engaged.
“Even before a prospective student decides to come to Cornell, we’re communicating about what it means to be a Cornellian,” says Gwen Schimek, interim dean of students. “Cornell students come to campus knowing we expect them to be involved, to be active in campus life, to be engaged. That’s what it means to be a residential college.”
Students … want access to decent cooking facilities, not galley kitchenettes; convenient and energy efficient laundry facilities; high-speed Wi-Fi access everywhere; and a variety of private spaces where they can study.
—John Harp, vice president for student affairs
Engaging students and keeping them active is not easy. It requires thoughtful planning of courses, of off-campus experiences, of faculty and staff hiring and retention, and of campus construction and renovation.
“Every aspect of life on campus has to continue to evolve in order for us to provide that Cornell experience,” says John Harp, vice president for student affairs. The recent transformation of the Thomas Commons is one example.
Another example is the residence hall renovation project just completed in August. The 15-month, $10.6 million project overhauled four first-year residence halls—Pauley-Rorem, Dows, and Tarr—and they are a big hit with the new Cornellians.
“I love it here,” says Zara Anderson ’19, while taking a break from her books in the Tarr lounge during her second week on campus. “I don’t need material comforts, but I do want good study areas,” adds the Mundelein, Illinois, native who visited 15 other schools before deciding on Cornell.
Her sentiments are echoed by classmate Omar Nasu ’19 of Los Angeles, who wants to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. “This is a great place,” says Nasu. “People are respectful and I like having quiet places to study.” Nasu says he visited “15 or 16 schools in California” before choosing Cornell. “I love the open space here.”
Community begins in residence halls
The residence hall renovations have created living spaces much different from those occupied by students in decades past. Each room has its own air conditioning controls, and each hall has a theme. For example, the new lounge in Dows features an industrial-grade kitchen. Students can use the demonstration kitchen for anything from a midnight snack to a multicourse dinner party. Each block there will be at least two cooking demonstrations; one by a chef from the award-winning dining services, and the other by a student, faculty member, or staff member.
Rorem’s theme is reflective study, with an emphasis on both quiet surroundings and collaboration. In Tarr, where the theme is performance, the lounge features a small stage that students and student organizations will use for everything from musical performances to poetry slams. Pauley has an active gaming theme, with video games, board games, billiards, ping-pong, and other recreational opportunities.
“Students expect more in terms of residence hall amenities than they did when I arrived on campus 20 years ago,” says Harp. “They want access to decent cooking facilities, not galley kitchenettes; convenient and energy efficient laundry facilities; high-speed Wi-Fi access everywhere; and a variety of private spaces where they can study. They want more flexibility in the hours when they can access academic resources, computer labs, fitness facilities, and dining.”
The importance of offering better amenities was one of the reasons Trustee Linda Webb Koehn ’66 and her husband were among the lead donors who helped fund the residence hall renovations.
“My husband and I supported the project because it was strategic,” Koehn said. “After the Thomas Commons began to delight our students, we knew that upgrading our first-year housing could no longer be put off. The residence halls are where the lasting friendships are made, and creating a sense of community on the campus is an important theme to me. I am pleased with the living room feel that all four of our newly renovated halls now provide as you enter.”
Benefits of residential education
The residential college concept can be traced to the 12th century in Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris, where academic communities made up of students and faculty shared living quarters, meals, and tutorial study. That model came to the United States with the colonists. After World War II, the country’s higher education sector exploded, fueled by the GI Bill, the Cold War, the space race, and an infusion of research money from federal agencies. Many colleges and universities underwent wholesale changes. A number of big schools became enormous, a situation not always conducive for undergraduate education.
By the 1980s, scholars such as Alexander Astin at UCLA were beginning to look for clues about what helped students succeed. In 1985, Astin came out with his theory of student involvement, which says that involvement in co-curricular activities such as student organizations, leadership positions, and activity in campus residence halls has a direct correlation to success in academics, and later, in life.
At Cornell, key players in connecting first-year students within the Cornell community are the resident assistants, or RAs. Like the buildings themselves, the roles played by the RAs have evolved over the years.
“Our resident assistants play three important roles while working with students,” says Schimek. “Each one serves as a resource to residents of their hall, develops community within the hall, and provides initial support to residents. They are usually the go-to people when a student has a question or a concern. Our RAs are trained to be good communicators, good listeners, good advocates, and to be able to help students learn about and access campus and community resources.”
Mauricio Huertas ’16, an RA on third floor Tarr, says that community building is one of the most important functions on campus. “One of my favorite examples was a pair of roommates on my floor. One of them was pretty quiet and a little nerdy. He started out in the room on his own, but got a roommate a couple of blocks into the year. The roommate was an athlete, a guy who liked to go out on the weekend. By the end of the year, however, the two had become such good friends that they’ve kept rooming together throughout their time at Cornell,” he says. “Facilitating those connections is what’s most important within the job of an RA, because you can’t provide any help or support to students if you haven’t put in the work to create a communal environment.”
Students immersed in their education are likely to have better grades, graduate on time, be engaged as alumni, and be leaders, says Harp. “When education and service components are combined, like at Cornell, students establish better, deeper, and more long-lasting friendships.”
Cornell is a place where community matters, says Mary Elliott ’98, associate director of residential life at Colorado School of Mines. “Living in close proximity doesn’t always lead to a feeling of community; people contributing and caring for one another, that is what community is about.”
Elliott says her Cornell experience informs how she approaches her profession.
“Cornell is the heart of my philosophy of what I work every day to provide for my students. At Cornell, I felt like I mattered, not just to my friends, but to the college. Cornell taught me how to think critically, to write, to wonder, and to advocate for what is right,” she says. “I try to help each student that I work with feel like they matter to me and the institution. My expectation of my team is that we will work every day to make our students feel known, accepted, and cared for—just as I felt at Cornell.”
Like many Cornell alumni, Elliott has maintained and nurtured many of the relationships she established on campus. Over the years, she and her Cornell friends have shared many milestones in their lives.
“The most significant one recently was the funeral of my friend, J. Furyk Clark ’99, in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Elliott says. “Furyk died on January 1st of this year, and it was devastating for so many of us. Many Cornell friends traveled to New Mexico to celebrate Furyk’s life and grieve together. It was amazing to see folks from all over the country come together, whether online or in person to not only talk about our connection to Furyk, but our connection to each other, and that is Cornell. This milestone showed us all that the small stuff matters, that we all matter to one another, and it was another example of how strong our connection is with Cornell at the foundation of that connection.”
Something for everyone
The connections that are formed during a student’s first year, whether in the residence halls or elsewhere on campus, affect his or her entire four years at Cornell.
While newcomers to campus begin their time as Cornellians in one of the four first-year residence halls, their living options expand significantly as they transition to the upper classes. There is an upper-class residence hall for women only, as well as options for non-gender-based housing, and substance-free living. Options can range from a room in the 200-bed Olin Hall to the intimate six-resident arts and crafts home called The Cottage. The Cottage is home to Cornell’s Third Wave Resource Group, a long-standing campus group dedicated to making the campus safe, and to empowerment and equality informed by feminism.
No matter what residential environment a student is in, everyone is encouraged to consider joining a Living & Learning Community on campus. Living & Learning Communities are opportunities for groups of four to eight students to develop an in-depth understanding of a societal issue they are passionate about.
Recent Living & Learning Communities have included Octave, a music community that provided music lessons for underprivileged kids in Cedar Rapids; Gastronomics, for those who wanted to learn to cook; Peace, Altruism, Truth, Humanity, and Service (PATHS), which delved into diverse spiritual traditions; Word, which promoted reading among children; and Environmental Community Outreach, which appealed to students who want to learn about sound ecological practices.
While the Living & Learning Communities are tightly focused on an issue or cause, students can also choose to be engaged through more than 60 student organizations.
Peter Catchings ’16, of Naperville, Illinois, has had a busy time on campus.
“I am involved in many different things on campus,” Catchings says. “I am a senior representative on Student Senate, a student representative on Conduct Board, a member of the Black Awareness Cultural Organization, a student consultant in the Writing Studio, and an unaffiliated Greek Council representative. In addition, I am a Peer Advocate on the New Student Orientation team and student mentor for first-year students, both underrepresented minorities and students that are deemed ‘prevalently represented.’ In this role, I have much interaction with a large portion of Cornell’s community.”
Catchings says he has learned a lot about his own interests and has polished his social skills as a result of his engagement.
“One thing that I became more aware of after being here is how much I am able to fit in with different groups and how many different things I am interested in.”
“I learned how to be an adult in college.”
—Andrea Arzuaga ’05
You don’t need to be an extrovert to thrive at Cornell. According to Harp, Cornell’s residential college model is perfect for those who prefer a quieter campus lifestyle.
“Of more than 60 student organizations, one of the largest and most active is the Chess and Games Club,” Harp says. “There are groups with interests in outdoor activities, politics, social justice, area travel, various forms of dance and martial arts, religion, recreational sports, service, and campus entertainment for example. We tell students that no matter who you are, you’ll find your place here at Cornell.”
Cornell’s Greek system offers additional opportunities for students to be engaged. More than 20 percent of the students are members of a sorority or fraternity, which in typical Cornell fashion is one of a kind, existing only at Cornell and not nationally affiliated.
“Each of our Greek organizations was founded at Cornell,” Harp says. “Some of them are more than 100 years old. There are no physical Greek houses, no national chapters. The students live in our residence halls, while developing and nurturing relationships through their sorority or fraternity. Greek organizations play a big part in our social, recreational, and community service activities.”
For many alumni, the friends they made at Cornell are special because they shared an important formative part of their lives. One such alumna is Andrea Arzuaga ’05, who describes those friends as “my Cornell family.”
“I learned how to be an adult in college,” Arzuaga says. “I really came into my own and was able to do so alongside people who were also busy becoming the start of their adult selves. We made mistakes, owned them, learned from them, had successes, celebrated them, and along the way discovered who we were and who made us better. I have not had those same experiences in meeting new friends since I left Cornell. I have discovered great colleagues and friends, but none who saw me become me; that’s the difference between my Cornell family and other friends.
While no student’s success in life is preordained, there is enormous value in providing an environment conducive to success. After working with college students at four institutions over the span of 28 years, Harp says he has one overarching message for current Cornellians.
“Life will never be as convenient or as full of opportunities as it is right now,” he says. “You are living, studying, socializing, dining, and learning with people from all over the world. There are incredible events right here on the Hilltop, and everyone on this campus wants you to succeed. This is a very good place to be.”
Steve Maravetz lives in Mount Vernon, Iowa, which he says is the best place in the world.