By Chris Capella ’21M & Kate Hartman
Dr. Elizabeth Thyrum was like a lot of students when she first left for college. She was excited, yet nervous.
Thyrum began pursuing her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Millersville University in 1982. As a freshman admitted to the Honors College, she lived in a Living-Learning Community (LLC) at Hull Hall, which used to stand where the Lombardo Welcome Center is currently located.
Now, 37 years later, Thyrum is still involved in the Honors College and Living-Learning Communities at Millersville. She serves as the director of the Honors program and oversees the Honors College LLC.
Joyce Lehrmeyer, a freshman Applied Engineering & Technology Management major from Altoona, felt that same trepidation Thyrum describes when she arrived at Millersville this year. Like most 18-year-olds, leaving for college can be a scary time, but her concerns were eased when she decided to join the Women in STEM LLC—one of Millersville’s newest and most popular options.
“I was definitely nervous the day before I moved in,” she said. “Getting to move in early helped a lot because there weren’t suddenly thousands of people there. I got to meet some students who were in a similar situation.”
Living-Learning Communities are designed to take students who are passionate about specific subjects and group them together in the same living area. They receive various benefits, including community programming and the ability to move onto campus a day early.
The ‘Ville currently has seven Living-Learning Communities—Social Advocacy, Women in STEM, Cinephile, Creative Writing, Honors College, ROTC and Scholars Program—which are led by the department of Housing & Residential Programs (HARP), featuring partnerships with individual faculty members who help to establish learning outcomes and coordinate co-curricular activities based on the theme of the program.
LLCs are a high-impact practice on campuses around the world, but outside of the Honors College, which was started in 1980, the concept is relatively new to Millersville, said Steve Knepp, HARP associate director. Social Advocacy and Scholars Program LLCs were formed in 2018, while the Women in STEM, Cinephile, Creative Writing and ROTC LLCs were formed in fall 2019.
Millersville’s LLCs differ in size. The Honors College LLC houses approximately 115 students and continues to grow in size. The group was moved to the South Village from Reighard Hall beginning in 2019. Interest in the other LLCs continues to grow each year.
The goal is to create an immersive experience for the residents, Knepp said. The students already have similar class schedules, and by living together they can form study groups and talk about their experiences.
“We reach out to faculty and work with them to figure out what the need is, what they’re seeing in the classroom and how we can partner together to not only enhance the in-classroom experience, but the out-of-classroom experience as well,” Knepp said.
HARP Director Dr. Scott Helfrich believes the University is at a critical mass of interest in LLCs, and that there is a lot of potential for success with additional learning communities in the future.
“We have created a Living-Learning Community Council, which met for the first time in November to bring together stakeholders who are currently involved with our LLCs, or who are interested in creating something for the future,” Helfrich explained.
Part of the council’s goal is to establish formalized partnerships between HARP and the faculty coordinators so that students in different LLCs are receiving comparable benefits, and responsibilities are clear.
A new idea that HARP is pursuing is the potential for corporate sponsored LLCs that would unite local employers with students for programmatic experiences based on industry needs, and internship and employment opportunities upon graduation.
Additionally, the HARP staff is working to offer more housing scholarships specifically for students enrolled in an LLC. This spring, they will offer $40,000 worth of scholarships for eligible students in the Social Advocacy LLC. The goal is to offer this option for all LLCs in the future.
The Social Advocacy LLC, which is overseen by Dr. Karen Rice of the social work department, has established a robust program of extracurricular activities that push students outside of their comfort zones.
“The LLC allows them to engage with others they may have never talked to or befriended otherwise,” said Rice.
Thomas Wilson, a sophomore social work major, was a member of last year’s inaugural Social Advocacy LLC.
“A lot of the people living there plan to dedicate their professional lives to understanding and helping others,” Wilson said. “It was amazing to get some of the experiences we were privileged to have.”
Those experiences included a Skype session with a Syrian refugee currently living in the United States who talked about the struggles of escaping a war-torn country and adjusting to a new culture.
In the fall 2019 semester, Social Advocacy students were challenged to create an art exhibit, which was displayed during the screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect.” The exhibit offered insight into the struggles and challenges surrounding mental health, in addition to offering hope to those who were struggling, Rice said.
Research shows that students involved with Living-Learning Communities are more likely to persist at that institution, earn a higher GPA and feel a greater sense of community, Knepp said.
Helfrich is sure that Millersville “has the potential to be a role model for other universities, particularly Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education institutions, with the success of Living-Learning Communities here on campus.”