First-year students tackle citizenship in their own backyard
by Michelle Simmons
December 8, 2010
Members of the Adams community association, forum and programming council meet regularly to set policy and programming for their neighborhood. Standing, from left: Allen Zhang, Sarah Orloff, Cole Canning, Gabe DiNatale, David Cochrane and James Post. Seated, from left: Kirsten Brents, Eileen Shen, Amanda Boulware, Victoria Cote and Victoria Schonfeld.
When the class of 2014 arrived on campus in August, they embarked on a residential-life experiment that will set the tone for their next four years at Dickinson and beyond.
Together, residents in three new “neighborhoods” (Drayer and Adams halls and the Quads) are scheduling social activities, determining community standards, resolving disputes and planning service projects and academic programs. The aim is to learn the value of neighborliness—at the local, national and global level.
“It’s directly tied to the college’s mission in terms of a useful education, a preparation for citizenship,” says Dean of Students Leonard Brown ’92. He describes the new residential model as a living laboratory for developing the skills that students will need to tackle an increasingly complex world.
The idea grew from a 2007-08 study conducted by a residential-program committee co-chaired by Brown and Karl Qualls, associate professor of history. “The key question for the group was, ‘What should the residential experience at a liberal-arts college look like?’ ” says Brown.
The committee, which consisted of students, faculty and administrators, also visited peer institutions Union, Middlebury and Williams colleges to see how residential life at those schools complemented classroom learning through community-building activities, self-governance boards and social programming that incorporated academic perspectives.
“What came out of the committee process was this idea of the neighborhood, which essentially says that we want students to take responsibility for their living space,” Brown explains.
Neighbor to neighbor
Modeled somewhat after a homeowners association, each neighborhood of about 300 students has its own community association, community forum, programming council and safety council.
Student volunteers tackle a variety of issues and coordinate activities based on their interests—from educating others about campus safety or coordinating Friday-night gatherings to negotiating building policies. An administrator from the Division of Student Development, a faculty advisor and full-time residential-community director provide guidance and support for each neighborhood.
For example, Marcus Key, professor of earth sciences and advisor to the Adams neighborhood, invited Neil Leary, director of the Center for Sustainability Education, to lead a discussion about sustainability initiatives at Dickinson and how Adams Hall residents could incorporate those initiatives into their community. In November, Key coordinated a panel of seniors returning from study abroad to share their experiences.
“To me, the model works best if ideas come from below,” Key says. “I like it when an academic-programming idea comes from the students.”
In that spirit, he’s helping community-association members schedule building-wide study groups based on disciplines: natural sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities and so on, with each weeknight featuring a specific subject area. He’s also discovered students’ enthusiasm for the TV phenomenon Glee and is planning a group viewing with faculty-led discussion in the spring.
Challenges and opportunities
As in any neighborhood, conflict is inevitable, and Brown sees students trying out different approaches to problems as they arise. As the first semester winds down, he’s noticed that each neighborhood is developing its own personality and culture, with its own sets of challenges and opportunities.
“Some people want to see by the end of the first semester that the neighborhoods have achieved [specific goals],” he says. “That misses the point. We want [students] to take on issues that arise, but we also want to provide space for them to fail, learn from that and try something different.
“At the end of the day, that’s going to be the value,” he continues. “How do you deal with the challenge of living with and around people, how do you work to get community buy-in for a particular goal? There aren’t magic answers for that. What we’re trying to do is empower them to address those issues.”