How would she handle her health sciences major? How would she connect with her instructors? How would she create a social group from scratch?
So Ms. Rodríguez, 18, decided to join the group of 92 students who piloted Bellarmine’s new Galileo Learning Community, living alongside other freshmen studying health science majors such as exercise science, pre-nursing or physical therapy in the same two floors of the Kennedy-Newman residence hall.
Before long, she had a fellow nursing major, 19-year-old Miranda Sikorski of Columbus, Ohio, as a roommate. She could study with next-door neighbors taking the same physiology classes. Several Galileo instructors held office hours and late-night prep sessions right in the dorm. And there were planned off-campus social trips to baseball games and the zoo that helped her social connections gel quickly.
“Hey, that paper is due Wednesday, right?” she asked a passing health sciences student in the dorm on a spring day as she chatted with a group of Galileo friends in the hallway.
Research shows that learning communities can smooth first-year transitions and improve freshman retention and graduation rates. With the successful 2012-13 launch of Bellarmine’s Galileo Learning Community, the university is going ahead with plans to build several other living-learning communities.
This fall, Bellarmine will launch the four-year Eureka Learning Community for students studying science, technology, engineering and math, as well as the two-year Brown Learning Community, refashioned from the Brown Scholars Program, which is being phased out. Bellarmine’s Honors Learning Community, open to any student with an ACT of 28 or above, also has an optional housing component for residential students.
“The aim is to make the transition from high school to university as stress-free as possible, and all the research shows one key way to make sure students are retained is to have them connected to a group,” said Dr. Graham Ellis, assistant vice-president for academic affairs, who is helping guide the new efforts. “When we look at student athletes, who have some of the highest retention rates – a lot of that is because they’re part of a group that works together and plays together.”
The idea of learning communities isn’t new, but they have expanded at universities nationwide in recent years. Studies show that learning-community students get better grades, adjust well to higher academic demands and develop close relationships. Those findings ring true for Galileo students.
“As a freshman, I knew absolutely nobody. It was like coming in blind,” said Haley Wienke, 19, who is from Illinois and lives down the hall from Ms. Rodríguez. “Galileo has given me a chance to talk to people, to adjust to the academics and grow as a person.”
The idea to start such a program at Bellarmine arose several years ago, Dr. Ellis said, but it gained steam with the help of a $1 million J. Graham Brown Foundation grant. In the spring of 2012, the university hired two new full-time instructors solely dedicated to the program.
By summer they were recruiting students who planned majors from exercise science to pre-med and pre-physical therapy, all of whom would live and learn together under the theme of “mind, body and spirit.”
“At first I wasn’t really sure. It was the first year,” said Michael Helton, 19, who is from Northern Kentucky and followed his older sister to Bellarmine. “But they talked about the benefits. Because you’re living side by side and taking classes, you’re more comfortable to be yourself and ask questions.”
Ultimately, more than 90 students, including Mr. Helton, signed up for Galileo’s first year. Three-quarters of them live on campus; the rest participate as commuter students. Students, whose rooms are separated by gender on different floors of Kennedy-Newman Hall, take five courses together throughout the year, including freshman English, science and interdisciplinary courses, along with outside coursework.
Both Ms. Rodríguez and her roommate, Ms. Sikorski, plan to pursue degrees in nursing – Sikorski in pediatric oncology and Rodríguez in nurse anesthesiology. They often mull these career goals at night, along with course tips and professors’ expectations.
“We’ll be sitting there, like, ‘All right, did you do that paper yet?’ It’s really nice, both being nursing majors. We help keep each other on track,” Ms. Rodríguez said.
But it’s not all work, as evidenced by the outings to a Louisville Bats baseball game and the Louisville Zoo – events students said they hope learning community organizers will expand next year. And community mates often found themselves forming basketball and ultimate Frisbee teams.
There were educational outings, too. One professor took a group of 50 Galileo students to Cave Hill Cemetery for a course on death and dying, while others visited the Body Worlds exhibit at the Kentucky Science Center as part of an interdisciplinary course that studied themes of the body. Another group held a late-night study session before a test in the dorm that ran until almost midnight, a rarity outside of Galileo.
Instructor Jessica Hume, who began working in Galileo last fall and teaches English and freshman courses, said she also acts as a mentor to students. She keeps office hours right in the dorm that sometime stretch to 10 p.m.
“They’ll drop in all hours with registration questions, wanting me to read through a paper for feedback, or to just say hi and tell me what’s going on – maybe they got a job or something,” she said. “I’ve had students just roll in in their pajamas and they’re able to tell me, ‘I’m really sick, I can’t make it to class.’ ”
Anecdotally, she said, she’s heard that the program has had a positive impact on grades and on students staying with their majors. “They’ve had a tremendous experience,” she said.
In fact, many of the students want to serve as mentors or otherwise get involved with next year’s group of Galileo freshmen, who will live in Petrik Hall. And while a second year wasn’t planned, some of the students from the first year are being grouped together unofficially in dorms next year.
Dr. Ellis said the university plans to study the impact the learning communities have on retention, graduation rates and grade-point averages over the summer and report the findings. But Mr. Helton is among those students who say it’s already a success, calling it a “huge benefit.”
By Chris Kenning | email@example.com
Photo by Amber Sigman