Shaking up Stuen: Students question diversity of new Residential Learning Communities

SARAH CORNELL-MAIER; News Co-Editor; cornelsm@plu.edu

Housing has always been a hot topic at Pacific Lutheran University, and is especially prominent as housing applications open for the 2017-2018 school year April 5. This spring, the Department of Residential Life announced that various Residential Learning Communities (RLCs) across campus would be implemented for the first time.

The Department of Residential Life introduced several new Residential Living Communities, including a 2-story STEM community in Tingelstad and a Lavender wing (for queer-identifying students) in Ordal. The most dramatic change is the expansion of the Social Action and Leadership community in Stuen to a hall-wide Diversity, Justice and Sustainability community, including floors for Students of Color, First in the Family, and Environmental and Social Justice.

This change to the RLC program is not unprecedented.  Although PLU has not added new RLCs in the last three years,  there were many additions before the gender-inclusive wings in Tingelstad and Hinderlie and the Wellness community wings.

Director of Residential Programs in the Department of Residential Life Jes Takla explained that the process of creating new RLCs is more extensive than one would think.

“It’s been a multi-year process. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with the [Resident Directors] of Stuen and Ordal for the past couple years,” she said when explaining how the Department of Residential Life made the decision to restructure the RLCs.  They used several focus groups, as well as researching what similar universities are doing.

The Department of Residential Life also looked into the various psychological impacts that RLCs can have on students. Takla explained that building community is an essential aspect to a fulfilling college experience, and having living spaces in which community is emphasized is the goal of these RLCs.  Several of the themed floors will have linked courses relating to the topics emphasized in the RLC, to further co-curricular learning in those communities.

Associate Vice-President for Campus Life Tom Huelsbeck emphasized the importance of RLCs in the overall retention of students from year to year.  “These residential learning communities and linked courses are our best practices when relating to retention,” he said.  “For me, the reason it’s connected to retention is because it assists with the student’s sense of belonging. We want our students to feel connected to this place, and to feel as though they belong at PLU.”

Providing communities such as these not only say ‘Hey we support you’, but it screams ‘Hey, we celebrate you!” senior Shelondra Harris.

There is some uncertainty on campus about the function of these new shared-identity wings. One concern that some students have voiced is that this would exclude students from living in Stuen without living on the Environmental and Social Justice floor.

“I’m frustrated about the lack of communication, and I’m not excited about the change because it really forces students to either fit into one of the new themes, hope to get into one of the few unthemed wings, or move to lower campus,” sophomore and current Stuen resident Siobhan Warmer said.

In response to these concerns, Huelsbeck said, “We wish we didn’t need to relocate students, because we want all of our residents to feel connected to their space and community. So, we will be working with current Stuen residents who want to stay together find a way to stay together.”

Some students are also concerned that communities for specific identity groups might be counterproductive in encouraging diversity on campus.

“I definitely think it is important for everyone to have a support system at PLU, but I also think it’s important for people to be around each other,” said Tingelstad RA senior Garth West. “It seems more exclusionary — maybe I’m not understanding it right, but I think, in my mind, it would be better in the long run to have people be together.”

Senior Jennifer Lewis said that she was grateful to have been part of an unthemed residential community. “I wanted to see just an entirety of diverse views of people from others I was able to live in close proximity to,” Lewis said. “I think this may provide an opportunity for division, while it also provides an opportunity for inclusion.”

When asked about concerns of division, Takla said, “We do not believe this will have a negative impact on the diversity of our other halls and communities on-campus. We also know that the SOC floor won’t be the first choice for every student of color at PLU. This is just one of many ‘homes’ students may find at PLU where hopefully they can find belonging and ultimately thrive here on campus.”

Despite concerns about diversity and exclusion, some students are encouraged by the new RLCs as they have potential to provide students space to share experiences.

Director of Multicultural Outreach & Engagement Melannie Denise Cunningham is all for the new wings. “There is something fabulous to be said about bringing people together who have similar experiences and allowing them to coexist together for the whole purpose of feeling like they belong,” she said.

As an RA in Ordal, senior Jorge Molinero believes that these new RLCs are a great idea, and that it would allow for people coming into PLU to have an environment surrounded by peers with the same or similar background.

Students such as senior Shelondra Harris, who participated in focus groups when new RLCs were planned, hold strong beliefs about the importance of having areas in which people can share common experiences.  She said, “The institution of higher education is flawed in the sense of supporting students of color and their experiences. Providing communities such as these not only say ‘Hey we support you’, but it screams ‘Hey, we celebrate you!’”

As the Resident Assistant with Additional Duties of Pflueger, senior Matthew Macfarlane had similar thoughts regarding the new housing options. “It’s great to see that PLU is actively taking steps to be more inclusive with those communities and the people who reside within them.”

Anyone with questions or concerns relating to this or other Residential issues can contact Jes Takla at jes.takla@plu.edu or Tom Huelsbeck at tom.huelsbeck@plu.edu

For another opinion on the Stuen housing story, read Diversity Debacle.

Reporting was led by Sarah Cornell-Maier. Brooke Thames, McKenna Morin, Rhiannon Berg, Dylan Foreman and Brianna Wiersma were significant contributors. 🅼

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