Engaging Students Where They Live

Engaging Students Where They Live

By Tosha Jupiter

Morning sun casts a gilded shimmer on tender green leaves. Here, the walls are alive.

When we think about what construction really means for us, there’s perhaps no better symbol than a living wall. We build to enhance our lives. Not every wall grows and responds to light and care like the one in the Pavilion at Laurel Village on the north side of Colorado State University’s campus, but they all support human existence. Metaphorically, our buildings and spaces grow with us. Or they humbly bow to wreckers and hammers to make way for new buildings and spaces that can give us refuge to create and think and push progress forward.

“I had never seen anything like it,” says third-year communications and international studies student Madalyne Staab of the Living Green Wall in one of her favorite places to gather on campus. The wall’s leaves twirl and twist upward and reach toward the sun together. The wall is a focal point in the Pavilion and a reminder of what can be when we pay attention to how it’s all connected.

If we glimpse beyond the orange cones, the caution tape, the fencing, and the dust and detours, it’s all connected. Higher education is, and always has been, learning under construction. It’s always been about the building and knocking down of – and the rebuilding of – ideas. At Colorado State, the constant is the strength of the foundation and the steadfast commitment to student success.

Building the experience

Brick and mortar must keep pace with the minds of students, and today’s students are aiming high and letting their curiosity decide what’s next. Buildings can’t contain them or their bold ideas. But buildings and spaces can enhance learning and inspire, and that’s why CSU is an active and evolving construction zone: Progress and students – and their dreams – require it.

“We’re building the experience – this sense of ‘you don’t just go to class here’ – and today’s students are bringing with them an engagement we haven’t seen before,” says Tonie Miyamoto, director of communications and sustainability for CSU Housing and Dining Services. “They are asking for volunteer opportunities and experiential learning. It’s exciting. We’re responding by building spaces and programs that support the whole student.”

Build, together

Miyamoto came to CSU in 2001 for graduate school and became an employee in 2003. Campus is very different now. What she notices today is a revived mission to build an integrated student experience. She nearly glows with pride when she thinks back to the planning and building of Laurel Village, the residential learning community featuring the Pavilion – certified as CSU’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum project. Laurel Village’s residence halls, Alpine and Piñon, hold LEED Gold certification.

The spaces in Laurel Village are beautifully designed and proving effective for living and learning, but what Miyamoto really appreciates is the “why” behind that outcome. She attributes the success to involving the campus community – especially students – in the “dreaming phase.” Together, the design team was thoughtful about merging life and learning through thoughtful, sustainable construction. Academic and programmatic leaders also were at the table to help create a true integrated experience. Such collaboration brought to life buildings that welcome learning space and faculty offices alongside student living and common spaces. It’s a progressive living-learning model that’s working for CSU and enhancing engagement at all levels. It’s also contributing to a campus trend that blurs the line between academic learning spaces and living learning spaces. Today, it’s becoming more common for faculty, staff, and resources to have offices and teaching spaces within residential communities. Learning is happening everywhere
on campus.

Lisa Dysleski, assistant dean of undergraduate programs for the College of Natural Sciences, was part of the team who created the vision for Laurel Village and the College of Natural Sciences Learning Community. “I wouldn’t be surprised if intentional design can make people more comfortable in a space, and possibly then more willing to engage,” she says. “We designed the classroom and academic commons space to be as flexible as possible so that the maximum number of people are able to interact with the space in ways that work best for them. Students can study individually or in groups, and faculty can easily convert the classroom from a traditional lecture format to an arrangement where students can work together collaboratively in small groups. I think that flexibility in the design of the space is most important so that it can be used in a variety of ways.”

It’s a thoughtful approach to living and learning that Staab appreciates as a student. “I like being close to everything on campus including the library, computer labs, dining centers and areas to meet up with other students to work on projects,” she says. “The campus really is its own separate world inside Fort Collins with everything a student would need to succeed.”

Honoring every student story

Dysleski says the main change she has seen across campus since she started advising and working with students is “a real effort to reach students where they are at.” When she started, she saw faculty and advisors who cared about students and their success, but who were a little more passive about engaging students. Back then, the students who were most successful were the ones who knew how to navigate the system and actively sought out opportunities. “Now, I think that there has been a shift in realizing that every student has his or her own story to bring to our campus community,” says Dysleski. “Every student is coming to CSU from a different place, bringing different experiences. As a result, not every student will connect with CSU in the same way. Our job, then, is to make sure that learning opportunities are available to all students to engage in, and to help them connect in whatever way works best for them. It also means being much more intentional with learning and advising activities, so that students have opportunities to make the most of their time here by engaging in learning in meaningful ways.”

Beyond thoughtful study and living spaces and academic empowerment, students need additional person-to-person support to thrive. That’s where resources like the Center for Advising and Student Achievement (CASA) step in to enrich student experiences that can have a direct link to increased retention and graduation rates.

“We continue to become a better institution by being more intentional about encouraging student success. CASA has been a core component of CSU’s efforts to improve student success,” says Gaye DiGregorio, CASA’s executive director. “Our services connect curricular and co-curricular experiences which is a cornerstone to a successful residential campus.”

CASA will move from its current divided location, in the TILT building and Aylesworth, to space in the new on-campus stadium. The location will be next to many classrooms making access for students even more welcoming and convenient.

“We are excited to bring all of our services – Orientation and Transition Programs, Key Learning Communities, Undeclared Academic Advising, Health Profession Advising, Opportunity Scholar Programs, Outreach and Support – together in one location,” says DiGregorio. “The stadium is a great location for us since many of our services are focused on first- and second-year students who live in the residence halls. CASA illuminates the pride of being part of CSU and will bring a large volume of students into the stadium on a regular basis.”

Connecting heart and mind

Colorado State is putting heart into thinking about student success. Dysleski offers some sentiments about the future for the College of Natural Sciences Learning Community and its students who are learning through living in Laurel Village.

“I really hope that it will become an avenue for students to explore how the science that they are learning in the classroom is connected to our larger society,” she says. “Science plays such a large role in how we live our lives and how we interact with each other (think smart phones), and it’s important to me that students get to explore this part of science as much as they are exploring the content parts. Sometimes this can get lost in the traditional classroom. By engaging students in this human side of science (through undergraduate research projects, for example), I hope that we can help students deepen their understanding of the physical and social world around us, as well as deepen their understandings of themselves.”

Miyamoto affectionately calls the Pavilion the heart of Laurel Village. Buildings inspire dreams and humans breathe life and vitality into buildings. It’s all connected.

“We are moving away from cookie cutter models for living and learning,” she says. “We are building intentionally. Together, we’re creating an experience and our students are seeing it, feeling it, and living it.” 

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