Learning Communities:Promoting Leadership & Enhancing the Villanova Experience

Erica Dolson

On a typical Tuesday, freshman Ed Duffy is awakened by his hallmate. After a long day of classes and meetings, he joins the rest of the first floor of St. Monica Hall for a weekly pizza dinner. The close-knit group of students discusses upcoming exams, the papers they have to write and plans for the rest of the evening. After a few hours, the dinner party moves to the RA’s room, and the night finally ends in the lounge, where Duffy and his friends hang out and help each other with homework.

“I like the fact that I know everybody on my floor’s name – I actually know more than just their name or their interesting facts from orientation,” Duffy said. “We know each other on a relatively personal level. It’s awesome.”

Duffy is just one member of a growing trend at Villanova: learning communities. The goal of this program is to pair freshman housing assignments with the freshman Augustine and Culture Seminar sections to encourage more open in-class and out-of-class discussions.

“I think the learning communities are very much based on the mission of the University … They really make a lot of sense at Villanova,” said Kathy Byrnes, associate vice president of Student Life. “For us it was really more thinking how we can build stronger communities, but communities with an intellectual component.”

The learning communities began in 1996, with Villanova Experience and Visions of Freedom. One and a half years ago, the Villanova Experience was re-named Leadership and a new Citizenship and Wellness program was added. The Environmental Issues, Performers and Artists and Global Community learning communities were introduced during the ’06-’07 academic year. There are also Leadership and Performers and Artists programs available for commuting students.

“We are spending this year developing those six,” said Dr. Nancy Kelley, the director of Academic Learning Communities.

There are currently 400 students living in learning communities, and the numbers are rising. The waiting list for membership in the learning communities jumped from 36 students in 2005 to 73 at the start of the ’06-’07 academic year.

“What we’re trying to use [learning communities] for, quite frankly, is to raise the intellectual climate of the University,” Kelley said. In order to raise Villanova’s ranking to the caliber of schools like Georgetown and Notre Dame, it is important to look at SAT scores, GPAs and also the on-campus and in-class environment, she said.

The theme of each learning community is carried into the classroom of the ACS, previously known as Core Humanities Seminar. Each learning community also tries to integrate these themes into out-of-classroom excursions, including special dinners and trips to the theater.

Also, the learning communities housed in St. Monica Hall, Leadership and Citizenship and Wellness, have a mandatory fourth hour for one credit. During this time, the ACS classes gather together to further discuss their respective themes in a more relaxed setting.

“Learning does not stop when you leave the classroom,” said Dr. John Immerwahr, associate vice president for Academic Affairs.

Immerwahr believes that this “living and learning” approach is effective in creating a more relaxed classroom setting.

“The students are more comfortable with each other,” he said. “The discussions [are] much freer.”

Freshman Victoria Sharp, a member of the Leadership program, said her choice to be in a learning community helped with the transition to college.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the way the learning community is structured; it’s more the people who choose to do it,” she said. “All the kids who choose the Leadership program tend to be outgoing.”

Research is currently being done to assess the GPAs and involvement in community service activites on campus, such as the Blue Key Society and Special Olympics Committee, of learning community participants versus non-participants.

“People who want a little bit more out of Villanova are joining learning communities,” Kelley said. “I think that’s what we’re looking for – for kids who are engaged in interesting, intellectual activities, as well as our men’s basketball team and fun parties.”

At the moment, there are no dramatic plans for learning communities in the coming years, but those involved have high hopes.

Byrnes shares her vision: “We will have arrived when we conquer Stanford,” she said.

The Service Learning Community was created for sophomores in 2000 with a focus on taking education learned in the classroom and applying it to a variety of service opportunities.

SLC conducts classes on ethics, human rights and social issues. In order to create a more community-based environment, all participants, approximately 95 this year, live in Alumni Hall.

Participants in SLC are required to do one service project every week, with projects ranging from being elementary school teachers’ aides to helping educate adults who are seeking their GED. One project, Power Hour, is a city-funded program that focuses on tutoring inner-city children to read and take standardized proficiency tests.Because such a program operates with limited resources, some teachers are responsible for student from different grade levels.

“That’s where we come in,” junior Spanish major Katrine Herrick said. Herrick serves as a facilitator for the fourth hour and will take over as a co-chair for SLC next year.

The fourth hour in Alumni Hall is one of the elements of SLC that, like the Leadership Experience’s fourth hour in St. Monica Hall, separates it from other residence halls. For SLC, Herrick explained, the fourth hour functions as a way for participants to analyze and reflect on what they have learned in the classroom and what they have learned from their service projects. During the fourth hour, facilitators like Herrick address such issues as what can be done to alleviate injustice and other ethical topics. One major difference between the SLC fourth hour and the LEXP fourth hour is that SLC only holds its fourth hour during the first semester.

For the second semester, SLC participants take part in various community action projects. Past projects have included resumé workshops in Philadelphia and have funded and helped Urban Bridges, an organization that tutors youths and adults in an attempt to increase literacy in Philadelphia.

Herrick said her experience with SLC has been fruitful, and she has seen initial bonds grow into lasting friendships.

“It was such a great experience for me,” Herrick said. “What I really loved about it is that I felt I could talk to anyone and they would support me. Especially in SLC, everyone who goes through it can relate to each other.”