by Virginia Weir
It was a Monday evening in September, the first official gathering of a “mentoring community” of six sophomores from the newly formed Creative Life Residential College. They sat on couches in a circle – students of biology, nursing, music, psychology, and marketing. After a moment of silence, the adult mentor asked the group: “What does ‘creative’ mean to you?”
It was quiet as the students scribbled in their journals. Their answers varied, from “thinking outside the box” and “challenging the normal,” to “finding ways to reflect my inner self.”
Each participant had also brought with them a personal item to discuss, as a way to get to know one another – a family photo, a necklace from Spain, a car key, an iPod, and even a self-composed string quartet.
After an hour and a half, the conversation was flowing freely. Plans were made to meet the following month, when each would talk about “who and what inspires them.”
All across campus, in each of Fairfield’s five residential colleges, similar mentoring communities began meeting this fall to share their experiences, and discuss “big, meaning-of-life” questions.
To be a sophomore at Fairfield these days is to be a member of a community that lives, laughs, and studies together in a mentored learning environment. These sophomore residential colleges are a critical dimension of the University’s strategic vision for how to best form students during their undergraduate years – helping them form bonds and real relationships – and, as of the fall of 2010, a number of these communities are now firmly in place.
The Ignatian Residential College, established nine years ago with a generous $2 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., is the successful model that has been the inspiration for all of Fairfield’s four new residential colleges – Service For Justice, Environment, Leadership in the Ignatian Tradition, and Creative Life.
Almost 75 percent of Fairfield’s 850 sophomores live in one of the colleges, each of which offers second-year students a structured way to explore what matters to them, and what their “vocation” might be. The hope is that an intentional community experience will then help each student as they focus their studies in their junior and senior years.
“This is a time when we want students to explore their deepest desires and passions for life, to try on many roles, see themselves more clearly – and have fun doing it! The students really do find questions of vocation meaningful and want to engage in a variety of ways,” said Dr. Joe DeFeo, director of Living and Learning, who oversees the four new colleges.
The newly renovated building for the Creative Life Residential College was a draw for many of the 128 students who submitted their applications to live there last spring. The building, now called “42 Bellarmine,” was formerly St. Ignatius Hall, built in 1977 to house Jesuits on campus, until they moved into the new Jesuit Community Center behind Bellarmine Hall last December. Construction crews worked on the vacant building from January through August 2010, replacing siding, adding pathways, and making the space more conducive to student life.
Most of the accommodations in the three-floor building are two-room suites housing four students. Each suite has a private bathroom. There are two study rooms on the upper floors, an interfaith prayer and meditation room, and a common room with a television, couches, and tables. An additional lounge, which had been the Jesuit community dining room, was recently completed.
“It feels a little new and too-bright right now,” noted Area Coordinator Tara Rupp. “But we’ll be getting some floor lamps and games and create some art for the walls. It’s been great watching the students start to take ownership of the community and help us develop what this residential college will look like going forward.”
Students with different majors were chosen deliberately to create a richer community life.
“When we picked out our housing, we were nervous,” said Joe Pintek ’13, who lives with fellow accounting majors Nick Paidas ’13 and Brady Dow ’13. “But we love it.”
They said they like the spacious rooms, the air conditioning, and the fact that four good friends live right across the hall. The three roommates joked about “creative accounting,” but Joe added, “Seriously, you have to be creative in whatever you do, and open to alternate ways of doing things. It’ll set you apart when you go out to get a job.”
Students in Creative Life and the other residential colleges are supported on many fronts, with four resident assistants; an area coordinator who is responsible for programming; a campus resource liaison who recommends lectures and events that might be of interest to Creative Life students; and the faculty academic chair.
The academic component of the college, chaired by Dr. Lynne Porter, associate professor of Visual and Performing Arts, includes choices among eight to 12 courses that are part of the core curriculum, such as “Literature and the Visual Arts” and “History of Rock,” as well as “Race, Gender and Ethnic Relations,” “Questions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy,” and others. Although students from other residential colleges can take the courses, each one has been slightly redesigned to relate to the overarching questions that guide the process of exploration in the Creative Life college: “Who am I as a creative person? How do I live a creative and examined life? How can I contribute creatively to our world?”
The answers to these questions will be as unique as the students themselves. For some it will be engagement in the arts – sharing their painting, poetry, and photography. For others, it will be less about the artistic life per se and more about discovering, as one student said, “ways to reflect my inner self.”
An overnight retreat each semester brings the entire community together. In September, at a camp in rural New York, students met in large groups and with their mentors, and listened to personal stories from fellow students and staff about being open to discovering themselves through creativity. At night, everyone enjoyed a bonfire by the lake. The next morning, the community’s Jesuit-in-Residence, the Rev. Mark Scalese, S.J., celebrated Mass, welcoming all students, of whatever faith – believers, atheists, and agnostics – encouraging them to simply be present to the ritual and to one another.
Fr. Scalese, also an associate professor of Visual and Performing Arts, teaches film and video production.
“The arts are very much my thing,” he said. “It’s great to be living with second-year students – and, although I never lived here when it was the Jesuit residence, it feels good to be in this building.”
Fr. Scalese is also one of 20 adult mentors for Creative Life. Overall, more than 100 mentors, including staff, faculty, and alumni of varying ages and fields, were recruited for the five colleges. “Their desire to accompany our sophomores is a gift – and a real sign of the health and strength of the Fairfield community,” Dr. DeFeo said.
“This kind of education does not just happen,” he continued. “Intentional community, new experiences, reflecting on your life and your deepest desires, exploring and responding to those desires – and accompanied all along the way – residential colleges are Fairfield’s way of providing authentic Jesuit education in the 21st century.”