May 14, 2024

Staff Excellence: Learning Communities

Seemingly endless opportunities are available to new and returning undergraduate students when they sign a housing contract with University Residences. Some take part in residence hall clubs. Others apply to become resident assistants. And around 3,500 apply to join Purdue’s learning communities, opening doors to unique mentorship and academic opportunities that set them up for success during their time at Purdue.

“The focus is on academic enhancement through faculty-partnered engagement opportunities, residential connections and academic support programs within residence halls,” says Dr. Bryan Austin, associate director of Residential Academic Initiatives (RAI). “RAI and learning communities are the bridge between a student’s lived experience and their academic experience.” 

Austin and his team of six employees help manage and support the approximately 60 learning communities currently offered by the university. The communities include groups of 20-30 students who take some of the same courses together or share the same academic interests and live together in a residence hall, and these staff members are there every step of the way to ensure students get the most out of the experience.

“That’s something that distinguishes Purdue, particularly what we provide for students,” Austin says. “Every student is treated as a unique individual in this learning community puzzle. We look at all of the inputs they give us to not only provide them individualized experiences but also offer opportunities for integrative experiential learning.”

Once students select their learning community preferences, Austin’s team steps in to help them find the best match. They’ll take every piece of information into account to masterfully pair these Boilermakers with courses, schedules and roommates that align with their interests and positively impact their college experience. They’re adaptive, innovative, highly skilled individuals whose dedication is unwavering and expertise unmatched.

"RAI is built with a foundation to support and positively impact the lives of students,” says Connor Wilson, a program coordinator on Austin’s team. “Working with my colleagues, I see the genuine passion to support and impact students in all the work they do.” 

But they’re not just working with students. Austin’s staff also support more than 100 learning community instructors through the entire academic year, working alongside them to ensure they have everything they need to organize successful events and programming. They’ll book buses for trips to places like Wolf Park, Turkey Run State Park and Fair Oaks Farms; establish regular activities like study tables, movie nights and group dinners at the dining courts; and offer routine funding and budgeting guidance.

Collaboration is at the heart of the learning communities staff, who regularly support other University Residences initiatives like the Faculty Fellows, Faculty in Residence and Executive in Residence programs. In April, this team was crucial in hosting 20 visiting executives as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Executive in Residence program. For five days, these employees worked around-the-clock to create a welcoming, engaging environment filled with panel sessions, networking opportunities and keynote lectures.

Recently, the group worked with the Engineering in the World of Data learning community to host an event where students pitched startup ideas — “Shark Tank” style — to President Mung Chiang and two visiting executives, who provided advice and encouragement. Another gathering in April gave some learning community students the opportunity to present two-minute pitches to Chiang and Patrick Mosher, this year’s executive in residence, about impactful learning events associated with the Executive in Residence program.

“This is what Purdue student life is all about — working with students to bridge the learning that happens both inside and outside of the classroom,” says Cheryl Brantley, assistant director for learning communities.

Their desire to do more and achieve more is only growing. Learning communities staff are currently developing executive summaries for deans and academic leads that feature key information about the history, majors, events and opportunities associated with each learning community. It’s something the team has never done before, but it’s a critical undertaking that will help the university’s learning communities share their stories with the campus community.

“I love when I discover something that my staff are better at than anybody else,” Austin says. “And on my team, everyone and their individual skills are uniquely suited to the job that they are doing. Every single one of them does their job in particular ways that are so much better than I could ever do, and I love that.”

This is the construction crew that helps piece together every component of learning communities at Purdue. They build the foundation that supports the development of positive, impactful experiences for thousands of Purdue students, and no matter what they accomplish, seeing students succeed is the biggest win of all. 

“That’s the excellence at scale — it’s not just a transactional thing,” Austin says. “We’re with these students and supporting them all year long, so all the folks in my office are committed to the students as long as they’re here and even beyond.”

University Residences

University Residences is the official Purdue University department that is responsible for assigning and managing all University-owned housing facilities, including traditional residence halls, apartments and master-leased properties. More than just a place to sleep, University Residences offers numerous employment opportunities, clubs, programs, learning communities, cocurricular educational opportunities and retreats that serve as a catalyst for personal and professional growth. University Residences programming provides opportunities for students to build treasured relationships as well as leadership and professional skills that will last a lifetime.

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