Creating a sense of community helps students thrive
At Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, someone will paint the rock near Old Main to announce an event, offer congratulations or promote a campus organization. Sometimes it gets painted more than once a day. "It acts as sort of a bulletin board," said Gustavus Dean of Students Hank Toutain. "Everybody feels they own it and it serves to bring people together on campus."
On the surface it might seem silly, but painting the rock at Gustavus helps build a sense of community on campus, as does the midnight breakfast during final exam week at Macalester College and the freshmen beanie toss at Concordia College's Olin Hill. These traditions — together with intentional academic and co-curricular programming and the design of physical spaces — can foster a feeling of being part of something unique.
The value of such efforts is well supported, including in a 2004 ACT policy report. "It's important for colleges to offer programs and services that integrate first-year students into the social fabric of the college community, so that they feel a part of campus life from the very start of their college experience," said ACT CEO Richard Ferguson. At Minnesota's Private Colleges, a survey of alumni showed that 81 percent experienced a strong sense of community on their campus.
A priority from the start
Community-building programming typically kicks in at orientation and is fairly intense for first-year students, say campus administrators at the three institutions contacted for this article. Each of these three offers first-year academic seminars and programs in residence halls, for example.
Seminar groups consist of a cohort of students who meet regularly in the first year. "They have a great deal of contact with faculty and other students and they often stay connected after the seminar ends," Toutain said. He also noted that the campus center, re-built after a tornado in 1998, was designed to bring people together. Faculty, staff and students now eat together in a common dining room, and offices are interspersed with a post office, bookstore, print shop and meeting spaces. "There are lots of places to meet, sit and talk," he said.
Gustavus also has many "affinity groups" for students with common interests, according to Toutain. Examples include an annual Building Bridges conference put on by students around social justice topics, a Relay for Life fundraiser for cancer victims and the Gustavus Greens — a group of environmentally-minded students who live together in a residence hall. "We're pretty good at Gustavus at getting people connected," Toutain said.
Building strong relationships
At Concordia College in Moorhead, building relationships with other students and faculty "really gets its legs at fall orientation," said Jim Meier, Dean of Student Life. Groups of about 20 students are divided into orientation clubs and take two courses together their first semester. Educational and social activities are heavily scheduled in residence halls, where first and second-years are required to live. "It might be an outing to a local ice cream shop or meeting for breakfast; resident hall assistants make a concerted effort to build community on their floors," Meier said.
Meier noted that large numbers of students take advantage of the hundred-plus organizations on campus. "It's a rare thing for students to not be involved in some way." The true measure of the strength of the Concordia community is most evident when you talk to alumni, Meier said. "What stands out for them is the kind of community and experience they had here. When they return to campus they feel like they are coming home."
Learning to be part of the community
The community building activities that kick in at orientation at Macalester College in St. Paul include teaching students about Mac traditions and the history of buildings with namesakes so they see that they are joining community with a rich history. The college designs its programs around its values of academic excellence, multiculturalism, internationalism and service to society, said Laurie Hamre, vice president for student affairs. "Our students aren't here exclusively for classroom learning; they're also learning how to be part of a community." Learning to be an engaged citizen is central to a Macalester education and Mac wants to make sure students have opportunities to contribute, not just "take," Hamre said.
For example, at orientation, all first-year students participate in "Into the Streets," a half-day of learning about their new Twin Cities community while offering their service. Students are divided into groups and sent out to work on as many as 20 different projects, according to Karin Trail-Johnson, associate dean of Macalester's Institute for Global Citizenship. Students might tour St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, hear from a local resident about its history, assets and challenges, then participate in a service project at a nearby Habitat for Humanity site.
Trail-Johnson emphasizes that Into the Streets is an introduction that is meant to give students a context and stepping stone to a deeper, sustained involvement. Macalester facilitates ongoing civic engagement work through programs like "Lives of Commitment" for first-year students and "Leaders in Service" where student leaders learn about how communities on and off campus are formed and sustained. "We want students to feel a part of the Macalester community and learn how to be part of the broader community. Being a community-builder is a key skill of engaged citizenship they will use their entire life." Trail-Johnson said.
All three campuses cultivate an environment where students can comfortably get to know each other. "Providing a strong sense of community enables students to survive — and thrive," said Toutain.