It was a boisterous bunch. Saint Mary’s first Living Learning Community in 2012-13 was made up of 26 first-year students with different majors, from different states, with different temperaments and very different opinions.

CAPTION: Dr. Joseph Tadie ’91 leads an evening discussion with a Living Learning Community.

But after a year of living and learning in community, the group discovered a closeness and understanding of one another and a deeper appreciation of the university, as well as the world around them.

Living Learning Communities are residential groups within the greater Saint Mary’s community that help students connect and grow during their first year at college. The program combines academics with residence life, providing students with out-of-class opportunities to participate in social, cultural, recreational, academic and community service programs.

The success of last year’s pilot program has spurred the launch of four separate freshman LLCs in 2013-14 in the newly assigned Saint Edward’s Living Learning Center. About 60 students are enrolled in the LLCs this fall. Brendan Dolan, director of residence life, said the purpose behind this new endeavor is to improve collaboration and integration of academic affairs and student affairs to produce a more substantial living experience and inviting first-year experience. Living Learning Communities have been proven to also increase freshman retention.

The first LLC pilot program had four topics: leadership, sustainability, wellness and spirituality, all taking a global perspective at societal issues that are relevant today. Faculty members Dr. Moni Berg-Binder (biology) and Dr. Joe Tadie ’91 (philosophy) – along with a team consisting of Dolan, three resident assistants, and hall director Mary Bambenek M’93 – led the experience.

“We explored those themes in a way that was compatible with residential life programming,” Berg-Binder said. “Our goal was to get them thinking about areas they are not necessarily getting in the classroom.”

Tadie said he was once given some sage advice that in order to engage the whole student, you have to pay attention to the living side of their college experience. So when the opportunity to expand learning outside of the classroom was extended to him, it was an easy decision.

The two built a curriculum around the work of Aldo Leopold, author of “A Sand County Almanac.” The community watched a documentary on his life, took a nature walk, discussed Leopold’s classic essay “Good Oak,” and brought in other guest lecturers from the SMU community to talk about sustainability, faith, stress management, the Lasallian heritage, nutrition and strength training.

Simultaneously the residence life staff took students to the farmer’s market and cooked a meal that was largely locally produced; picked apples at a local orchard; went canoeing; made Christmas cards for SMU’s Gifts for Winona program; made Christmas tree decorations; and volunteered with “Make a Difference Day.”

Berg-Binder considers it a success that students could see the connections between the academic offerings and the residential life offerings.

Tadie enjoyed the team-teaching approach, utilizing other faculty and staff and working across disciplines.

“Moni’s type A, I’m type Z; I’ve been here 15 years, she for 2; I’m philosophy, she’s biology,” Tadie joked. “We have different perspectives and that’s the fun. That was valuable for students to be able to see how you can relate a topic to yourself.”

“I think students most enjoyed the heightened sense of community and support,” Dolan added. “They made a pride connection and really felt part of Saint Mary’s and that it was a home. They got it. They were able to talk about and vocalize the learning outcomes we hoped to achieve. They have been more involved at the university and the majority are continuing on at Saint Mary’s.”

Katie O’Leary, a sophomore from Chicago, Ill., decided to join the pilot LLC program last year because of the focus areas of faith and leadership. As a religious education major, she said, “My faith is very important to me, and I thought it would be a great experience to be around people who also wish to grow in their faith. I also liked the branch of leadership.

“The Christmas party was really festive and everyone was in a good mood despite the stress from finals,” she said. “That evening we also had Brother Larry Humphrey (associate vice president for mission) over with his dog. He came to talk to us about the Lasallian heritage of SMU. It was really great to hear more information and receive some quotes from Saint John Baptist de La Salle. I also really enjoyed the canoeing trip in the beginning of the year. It was one of the first events and it really brought us together.”

O’Leary admitted she hadn’t known much about sustainability prior to her LLC experience. “It has really helped me realize what I can do to live a more sustainable life, and I have made some small, but important changes in my life. I also was able to learn about how sustainability and spirituality should be seen as one and how they relate to one another.”

She would “definitely” recommend the experience to freshmen and cherishes the friendships she made in her community.

“We were a really diverse group. We all had something different to offer. We had majors ranging from business to theology, biology to psychology, accounting to youth development, education to theatre; we were really a great mix. I think this was personally my favorite part. I think that the people you live with your freshman year will probably become some of your closest friends throughout your college career. This is true for me. I am very thankful and blessed to have encountered the people and opportunities that the LLC has provided me.”

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