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Faculty-residential partners reflect on their successes: It’s all about planning and communication…and the food!

Submitted by Josh Ashcroft and Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson

Four years ago my colleague and I attended a campus meeting with a faculty presenter who shared his approach to student engagement. During the meeting, Dr. Tom discussed his plan for student-faculty partnerships, proposing his plans in the finest detail. When someone asked if he planned to serve treats, he retorted emphatically, “It’s not about the food!” As we left the meeting we glanced and smiled at one another, and simultaneously spurted, “Of course it’s about the food!”

It’s All About the Food

We listed all the activities we worked on to build community.... every one of them involved food!

There were so many, but here are a few highlights:

  1. House hours: This weekly event lasted for 2-3 hours and occurred in Faculty in Residence’s home (apartment). The aroma of fresh baked cookies during House Hours sent a welcoming message that invited students into a faculty member’s home.

  2. Moonlight Breakfast: This end of the term event served food to students in our dining halls before finals week with faculty and staff across campus (even the president flipped pancakes!). The message sent was very clear, “We know you are working hard and studying and we appreciate you!”

  3. Movie Nights: This event occurred once or twice a month, the Residence Life staff would pick the movie and faculty mentors would come on campus and bring homemade dishes and help facilitate a conversation after or sometimes even during a movie. Some movies were really tough; we’d have to stop the movie just to catch our breath. Food was comforting.

  4. Birthday Parties: In the halls we tried to honor everyone’s birthday from residents to staff, to guests, to faculty and even the Carrie Halsell, for whom our hall was named. Cakes and treats were so important that the resident director had an oven installed for community use.

  5. Traveling Hallway Dinners: Many spontaneous potlucks sprung to life and moved from room to room. These dinners provided social caring as people shared best recipes (and their worst). Stories and jokes were exchanged. Faculty, residents and staff meandered down the halls, enjoying chat and tasty dishes. The conversations were creative and the dishes were sometimes disastrous but not one neighbor ever complained!

  6. “The Event”: Each year we honored winter holiday traditions in our hall and we put on a ‘black tie’ event. Each year this event glowed with a magical light. Halls that were empty suddenly came to life at 9 o’clock. Holiday sparkles, streamers, stars, balloons and bubbly drinks in champagne glasses fizzed. Gourmet appetizers were served on silver trays by volunteers who where dressed to the ‘nines’. Residents from other halls were green with envy! Students would enter the hall, look around wide eyed, run upstairs, throw off their sweats and put on their fancy duds and come down to enjoy the festivities. Then, sadly, at midnight, like Cinderella’s carriage, all would disappear. In the morning only a telltale sparkle or two would remain on the floor.

  7. Chew and Chat: Once a term, the Faculty-in-Residence invited other faculty partners to dine with students in the dining hall. Residential life and education provided the resources to cover meals. All had great conversations. Students and faculty were encourages to sit together based on academic disciplines; however, more often, conversations emerged about hobbies, current events, movies, music, politics and life on campus.

All our programs involved faculty, students, and residence life staff coming together to break bread. We served food and always planned treats to match the theme. Food built community in our hall. During our days of community service, breakfast was served. Summer BBQs honored visiting international students and said, “Glad you are here at OSU!” Dr. Dale made tea and biscuits for resident assistants she mentored. Her husband, Dr. Bob made lunch for his mentees; baked pasta was an all time favorite.

As we continued our stroll together through the quad we reflected on why we believed food was so important to our students and us. First, students were always hungry, especially at 9:00 at night when most of the food services were closed. Home cooked food was one way for students to handle their homesickness. The act of breaking bread with another creates a sense of belonging. Sharing food is basic to care and concern. When every thing is stressful, and life is very stressful for students, a warm cup of cinnamon apple cider can help calm the nerves.

Okay…It May Not Be All About the Food: Planning and Communication in Successful Faculty Residential Partnerships

Throughout our partnership, we both honored and capitalized (not just on food) on our deep understanding of the developmental needs of our student neighbors. We knew them academically and socially. From day one we knew that if we were successful together we could better serve the residents of our hall. Our credo was always watch each other’s back and support one another’s activities. In our two years together the following nine tenets helped guide our way to success.

  1. Meet and meet regularly: check-in weekly and have a formal planning meeting at least once a month. Both parties were expected to bring agenda items. Set clear goals and deadlines (know who is going to do what by when).

  2. Focus on our different strengths and roles: Capitalized and share with one another our unique perspectives on student learning and engagement.

  3. Find common passions and strengths: Find projects that you both are interested in working on together.

  4. Establish clear boundaries: Make sure that each of you understands your roles within the hall. Example: Who deals with conduct and who does not?

  5. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate: Find a system that works for you, for us email was best. Have a code! What does the faculty-in-residence really need to attend? Our code was numerical, it worked like this: #1 Must be there, #2 Would be nice if you can make it, and #3 For your information, attendance isn’t essential. If you prioritize, you get the best value for your buck on everyone’s time.

  6. Plan: During those formal planning meetings and check-ins we would not plan only for the upcoming week but term to term, and more importantly the entire academic year. Everyone’s time is important; faculty members’ free time is very precious so planning in advance allows them to engage fully.

  7. Celebrate: Find ways to acknowledge the efforts of all, cooked end of the year breakfast, gave fun and silly presents, wrote thank you cards, hugged one another and poured many cups of Java!

  8. Develop Trust: Follow through with what you say you’re going to do.

  9. Serve Food: Make it good; make it count, and make the aroma inviting!

We had a great time in our two years together. We still meet, connect and chat. We laugh when we remember one year later after Dr. Tom’s initial presentation we went to another presentation. This time, Dr. Dale sat next to “Dr. Tom” and asked him how house hours were going. He looked at her sheepishly and he said, things were kind of slow in the beginning but then they picked up. Dr. Dale said, “Really, what happened?” Dr. Tom whispered, “I started baking cookies.”

About the Authors

Josh Ashcroft, Area Complex Director and Dr. Dale Pehrsson, College of Education served together as Faculty-Residential Partners for Oregon State University from 2003-2005.