Living-learning community at Sweet Briar aims to help students thrive in and outside of class

Sweet Briar students
Sweet Briar students take a break on Reading Day, the day before finals week.

“How do I do college?” is the central question behind Sweet Briar’s new living-learning initiative.

For Marcia Thom-Kaley, who took over as interim dean of students in the fall, it’s an existential question she’s been researching for several months. Today’s college kids have very specific needs, she says, citing Gen Z research and existing living-learning projects — as well as studies on them — at the University of Virginia, Dartmouth College and others. Above all, they need a lot of guidance — socially and academically. One term she uses frequently is “relationship-building.”

This fall, she’s rolling out a plan to help first-year students at Sweet Briar navigate the first few days, weeks and months of college.

“My goal is to give these students resources and tools for their toolboxes,” she says. “[This initiative] is designed to decrease the level of stress as the first day of classes approaches.” Instead of simply asking students to show up at an orientation info session, Thom-Kaley wants to “bring the conversation to them — into the spaces where they live,” she says. “We’re going to have our counselor hold some informational sessions about building relationships — about relating to your roommate and about solving problems with your roommate.”

Move-in dayAs Thom-Kaley notes, living-learning communities have been “popping up all over the country” for several years. At many colleges, they’re also physical manifestations. Lynchburg College, for example, is building a whole new residence hall based on living-learning principles. At Sweet Briar, it is a comprehensive philosophy that will permeate all aspects of student and academic life.

Using Randolph Hall, one of the original historic residence halls that surround the quad, first-year students will all live together and — this is one of Thom-Kaley’s new ideas — there will be four peer academic mentors (PAMs) who will be housed among them.

PAMs are upperclasswomen who will serve as navigators and “connectors” to the academic community. They’ll explain how to read a syllabus, and what to do when one is sick and can’t be in class. They’ll also help first-years advocate for learning accommodations if they need them and stress the importance of speaking up in class.

“We purposely have small classes, so that can be a very intimidating atmosphere for someone who is 18 and who has come from a very large high school,” Thom-Kaley explains.

In short, PAMs will ease the transition from high school to college and help newcomers succeed academically.

Creative writing
A creative writing workshop with Prof. John Gregory Brown

“My goal is to not have any first-year students on academic probation or warning — because we have equipped them from the very first minute they step onto campus to be successful,” Thom-Kaley says.

Just like residence advisors, PAMs will be paid and available to students at all times without an appointment. In fact, Thom-Kaley envisions, they will “knock on doors” and ask first-years if they need help, rather than wait for a problem or question to arise.

“What makes this a living-learning community is the intentionality of it,” Thom-Kaley says. “We are bringing services that students need right to where they live. We don’t expect the student to make four appointments and keep them all and run all over campus trying to find people. … It’s very much a philosophy of being proactive rather than reactive.”

Students in Prothro
Students celebrate during a staff appreciation event in the dining hall.

She’s confident that as students adapt to college life and gain more confidence, they will become less dependent on that extra attention.

“We have run the risk of not preparing first-year students enough,” she says. “We have to do a better job of providing resources to them. We have to bring it to their comfort zone. And I think it will become obvious pretty quickly — the students who need extra help and those who don’t.”

Another piece is Sweet Briar’s new core curriculum and its restructured academic calendar. The fall semester now starts with an intensive three-week session that will have all first-years together as a cohort in CORE 110 — Design Thinking. The class will also be open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“The cohort model has become the flagship of living-learning communities,” Thom-Kaley says. “The idea is: Let them do things together.”

Biology students on lake
Biology students during a class on Sweet Briar’s Lower Lake in fall 2017

There will be lots of opportunities for hands-on collaboration and interaction, adds psychology professor Jessica Salvatore, who directs the new core program and will be team-teaching the course with three other faculty members.

“This isn’t a traditional, lecture-based course,” Salvatore says. “Each day, students will be working on projects in small teams of about four or five, which will be reshuffled repeatedly over the three weeks so our incoming students really get to know each other. To my knowledge, this approach is completely unprecedented among small liberal arts colleges; it will be a unique feature of Sweet Briar’s new core.”

For Thom-Kaley, what’s even more distinctive about Sweet Briar’s living-learning initiative is its focus on health, wellness and nutrition. The program, she says, will take advantage of the campus’s enormous size — 3,250 acres, to be exact — and its new food services partnership with Meriwether Godsey. In addition to providing students with wholesome food options, there’s another opportunity for life skills: teaching students about great nutrition. There will also be weekly group counseling sessions, as well as lots of outdoor activities and athletic involvement.

Move-in day Marcia Thom-Kaley
Marcia Thom-Kaley hugs a new student on Move-in Day 2016.

“A living-learning community is really concerned with the whole student. It’s about, how can we make this collegiate experience something that addresses and affects every bit of who you are as a human being?” she explains.

Over the past year, she’s chaired a college-wide committee that discusses student persistence and resilience. Thom-Kaley is convinced that living-learning communities can be a big part of the solution.

“My philosophy is that if we can increase student persistence, we don’t have a retention problem,” she says.

She’s already taken some practical steps toward making her living-learning initiative a reality. A new assistant director of student life, Jessica Austin, is already here, and a director of student life, who will also serve as director of residence life, will join the College in July.

Randolph Hall
First-year-students at Sweet Briar will live in historic Randolph Hall.

In the meantime, Thom-Kaley is beginning to build her support teams for each new student. There will be several “touch points” over the course of the summer between the team and first-year students, with the big welcome happening at orientation in August. By then, Randolph will be divided into “town themes” based on student interests, which will be collected in a survey over the summer. The survey will make it easier for student life to pair roommates, and the themed floors will help new arrivals feel connected when they move in.

“We want the residential life atmosphere to be a place of comfort and a place of ‘home’ to our students,” says Thom-Kaley.