A Place to Belong
Each fall, more and more University of Oklahoma students are becoming commuters—those living five miles or more from campus—jostling for parking each morning and returning to their apartments after class. On-campus housing is traditionally considered the domain of freshmen, yet a university-wide survey revealed that more than 8,000 upper-division students said they would live on campus if there was adequate housing. OU President David Boren is ready to welcome commuters home as two new residential halls open to 700 sophomores, juniors and seniors in fall 2017.
“A residential college is a smaller community within a large university where you can have your own neighborhood,” says Boren. “I think this type of environment is ideal for students involved with campus life. If you’re studying at the library or working on the Daily, you can walk home at 2 in the morning. Students can live where all their activities are.”
Statistics support the academic benefits of residential college life. Residents have higher GPAs and retention rates, yet Boren says the greatest merit may be on a personal level. As an undergraduate at Yale, and later as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Boren lived in residential halls and said the experience was life-changing.
“While I was at Yale, we had a wonderful senior fellow, a religion professor, who lived right in the quadrangle. We were welcome at all hours and we could talk about anything. It was like we almost moved into his house.
“The other faculty fellows who had offices in [Calhoun Hall] also became good friends. There was a professor who had been in the French underground during WWII and would share his stories of gallantry and espionage, and we loved it all. It was something we would not have known if he had not been a faculty fellow.”
The difference Boren says is this: When you go into a professor’s office, you talk about class. When you run into a professor where you both live, you talk about life.
OU professors Mark Morvant, an organic chemist, and Keith Gaddie, a political scientist, have been named the first two Senior Fellows who will live in the residential colleges. Both educators have a reputation for fostering inclusion, collaboration and academic success. For the past three years, Morvant has served as executive director of OU’s Center for Teaching Excellence, helping professors utilize technology to reach their tech-savvy students outside class, freeing class time for discussion and one-to-one interaction. Morvant also has taught "The Chemistry of Beer," which broke enrollment records for Janux, OU’s international online learning community.
Gaddie is one of the original founders of OU’s Public Opinion Learning Lab, a faculty-supervised student and staff research center dedicated to understanding the choices people make based on data. He says he is looking forward to the move with wife Kim, some combination of their four children, and bulldog Georgia.
“The residential college is not a dorm,” says Gaddie. “It’s an idea. It’s a group of people coming together to live and learn. It’s about creating a safe place where people can reach out and find a hand.”
Sometimes that hand will be holding a deck of cards.
Gaddie said outside his front door will be a reception and entertainment area with a grand piano and chairs. “I want students to feel free to sit down and play. I want to be able to walk into the common area with a deck of cards and find someone to play gin with. There’s too much opportunity to do fun stuff here. It will be the kind college I wish I’d gone to.”
The two residential colleges, which are under construction along Lindsey Street between Asp and Jenkins Avenues, will include private parking, dining, a library, faculty offices, intramural teams, and academic, career and personal advising. Residents will be welcomed to participate in “family” dinners, civic dialogue, intramurals and college traditions, such as house motto, colors and crest.
In addition to the Senior Fellows, a dozen faculty members are volunteering as Faculty Fellows, who will occasionally teach a class, serve as guest speaker or just drop by for lunch or dinner with the students. Evan White, who is majoring in mathematics and electrical engineering, says residential college students will inherently get more from the university experience.
“Students are already connected to their college, but not with others [colleges],” says White. “If you bring academic lectures into residential halls, it broadens your interests. You might not even know you are interested in a subject until you hear about it. And all you have to do is walk down the hall.”
Diversity in disciplines, race, religion and nationality is a key component of residential college life, says Boren. The more of a mix, the better, and there is no GPA requirement. “We are a community of learners working together. And the people you live with for three years become your friends for life. You bond. They are like family.
“I see this as a vibrant community, where attachments are made between students, faculty and the university itself. It’s one thing if you are a commuter student living off campus and another if you live in the heart of campus. You feel it beating. You are a part of it and it is a part of you.
“And it doesn’t keep you from being a part of the larger picture. It gives you a place to come home to. I think when people see the transformative difference the residential colleges make to this university and to the students, we will have donors who will say, 'Let’s do another one.' "