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Living and learning together, Salem State freshmen get along

Posted by Justin Rice  September 15, 2011 01:24 PM

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Justin A. Rice for Boston.com

Psychology freshmen Taylor Nelson (left) and Danielle Mathis talk shop with psychology professor David McAllister during a kickoff social for Salem State’s new living-learning community program.

Moving to Massachusetts from California this fall to attend Salem State University, Taylor Nelson didn’t know anyone but her mother, who also moved to take a job in Needham.

Fortunately, the psychology major signed up for a new program on campus that houses incoming freshman with their peers from their major. 

“I was nervous, you don’t know anyone but we’ve had so many group activities that it’s easy to meet people,” Nelson, 18, said. “We can talk about our future together. We can understand each other. We can all tell we’re psychology majors." 

The campus living-learning communities program has two “neighborhood communities,” — one for students majoring in education and one for psychology majors — established in Marsh Hall on the university’s Central Campus. The students have their own lounge, study room and faculty mentor who participates in social and academic programs with them. An upperclassmen mentor also lives on each floor.

Research on similar living-learning communities has shown improvement in students’ overall academic performance and university officials hope the program will help improve its retention rates. According to Salem State spokeswoman Karen Cady the school’s three-year average retention rate for first time full-time students going into their sophomore year is approximately 73 percent.

“Sometimes students do feel lost when there are a couple of thousand students living in a residential area,” said psychology professor, Joanna Gonsalves, who is a faculty mentor for the new program. “So this is a way to create a smaller community under 40 [people]. Very likely these students will become friends, they’ll be roommates, they’ll see each other on the floor.

"Because they are all the same major they are going to have some classes together. It may be they are all taking General Psychology and they can study together.”

This fall 33 students planning to or interested in the psychology major are living together and 34 students interested in studying education live together.

“In high school someone is looking out for them: if they are not in school someone calls their parents, if they are not in class someone goes looking for them," said Susan Allen, the faculty mentor for the education students. "But here there are a lot of resources but students need to know to ask for them. By being in a program like this we are going to bring some of those resources to them as well as going to be able to keep an eye on them.

“This kind of program brings us to them so that kind of cuts some of the ice that they may be feeling that ‘Professor so and so, they don’t want to talk to me.’”

Allen also noted that most jobs in education and psychology require advanced degrees. Building a relationship with professors outside the classroom, she said, is a good way to help navigate the process of applying to master’s programs.

Psychology senior Kristin Zukowski is the resident assistant living with the psychology students in the program.

“I was telling my students there’s not a lot of opportunity to meet professors outside the classroom and talk about fun things,” said Zukowski, 22, who added, “I’ve taken the classes you’re taking. I’ve been around the block.”

Last week Salem State secured an additional $218,149 in funding for the program when it was named one of the 18 Massachusetts state universities to receive additional state funding this year. The subsidy, which comes out of the Performance Incentive Fund, has to be used to support undergraduate programs.

Salem State will monitor and track the progress of the program’s participants throughout their studies and Allen said if the program is successful it might be extended to other majors.

“As time goes on and we develop the program further we need to think about 'Do we want to have them go through their sophomore year together or do we want to have them spread their wings?'” she said. “Or do we want them to go through all four years together.”

For now Danielle Mathis of Peabody is just happy to have her psychology peers to help her through freshman year.

“I love it, everyone is so passionate and upbeat,” she said. “I like the idea of being with the same people, we’re like a family. It’s comforting. If we’re all on the same page it will help us stay focused.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.

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