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Learning communities help first-year students excel

Moving into a residence hall and beginning classes as a freshman is an exciting experience -- a new home, new friends, the start of adulthood.

Moving to a campus with more than 38,000 other students can be a daunting experience as well.

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But on five floors in Earhart Hall, the many freshman women who share that excitement and nervousness also share a choice of major.

The Women in Science Programs residential program invites first-year women students to live with other students in science and involves them in mentoring and tutoring programs as well as small groups for studying and socializing.

"Putting these students together in their first year helps them learn how to study, gives them role models and establishes a real connection to their department," says Barbara Clark, director of Women in Science Programs. "We work hard to do everything we can to give them an idea of what it will be like to be professionals in science or engineering."

It is no secret that freshmen are far more likely to drop out of school -- or not return for their sophomore year -- than any other class of students.

In the four years since the Women in Science Programs residential program began, the four-year retention rate for program participants is higher than for a matched control group.

Studies at Purdue and other universities show much the same pattern. If students can get through their first year, they are much more likely to continue and eventually graduate.

Women in Science Programs is just one of several retention initiatives that have been developed over the past decade or so at Purdue to help students establish a connection early in their college career.

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The Women in Engineering Program, which began in 1969, began a similar residential program in Earhart Hall in 1994. It provides mentoring and tutoring programs for first-year students and also works with students throughout their years at Purdue. The Women in Engineering Program supports about 1,200 undergraduates in the Schools of Engineering.

And, in 1999, the Lilly Endowment Retention Initiatives used part of a $5 million grant to establish Learning Communities and Purdue Summer Start.

"Simply said, these learning communities work," says Andrew Koch, senior project officer for the Lilly Endowment Retention Initiatives. "Research results at Purdue and programs across the country show that students who take part in a learning community earn higher grades, make friends faster, and are retained at higher rates than students who don't participate in a learning community."

At Purdue, learning communities come in both residential and non- residential forms.

Some students live in the same residence hall, take some of the same courses and have the same majors or career goals. Others join learning communities because of similar interests or activities, or similar academic majors, but don't live together.

Information about learning communities is mailed to admitted students in the spring before their freshman year. Students select the learning community they are interested in and choose either the residential or non-residential option.

While Women in Science Programs and Women in Engineering Program were predecessors to Learning Communities at Purdue, the goals are essentially the same.

Jessica Christenson, learning communities coordinator, says, "We want to help students feel integrated on campus. We want them to feel linked to the resources that are here for them; we want them to have better relationships with their professors. And we want them to be successful, here at Purdue and beyond."

Beth Holloway, director of Women in Engineering and a Purdue engineering graduate, says having a residential program and its opportunities when she was in school would have been wonderful.

"It is so nice to have someone else who is going through what you are," Holloway says. "In engineering and in science, you have to develop very particular sets of study skills to get the grades to get through. And those skills are very different than what is needed in some of the other areas."

Mentoring and tutoring programs, as well as study sessions and computer labs, help students adjust and keep up academically. Leadership and service opportunities, team projects and social gatherings help develop the "whole" student.

"One of the goals of these programs is to help students build a foundation that first semester," Christensen says. "They can establish early a group of study partners that they sometimes keep through their entire time at Purdue."

Holloway points to a group of students who started in a residential engineering program as freshmen, continued to live together through their sophomore year and then established a cooperative house that continues to include many women engineering and science majors.

"They started their support system their freshman year and wanted to continue living in that supportive environment," she says, "It really makes a difference for a lot of students to have that support."

Learning Communities established through the Lilly Endowment Retention Initiatives began with just one program in 1999 that served 47 students. For the fall 2002 semester, there are 19 programs offered with more than 1,000 students expected to participate.

"Mostly, our growth is due to school and departmental interest," Christenson says. "We've taken a very collaborative approach to this and are working with staff and faculty around campus to develop the kinds of programs that will make a difference for these students."

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In addition to the residential academic-related programs offered by Women in Engineering and Women in Science, the Learning Communities that are available this fall for various interest groups include:

  • Amigos Bilingues -- a community for students who want to improve their Spanish language skills and learn about Spanish-speaking cultures. An English course and a Spanish course are part of the community curriculum.
  • Global Village -- a community that provides students the opportunity to explore international topics and cultural issues inside and outside the classroom. The curriculum includes a course with weekly discussions about current world events and customs. Timothy Ortega, a consumer and family sciences student who participated in the Global Village community last fall, says, "As a member of the Global Village Learning Community, I expanded my group of friends and grew in my understanding of international concepts and issues."
  • Health Lifestyles -- a community that focuses on health awareness and disease prevention, as well as overall themes related to healthy living. Students take an English composition course and a health-related course with fellow learning community students.
  • Leadership and Service Learning Scholars -- a community that offers opportunities to develop leadership, communication and service learning skills. Students take part in co-curricular activities and community service programs.

    Some other Learning Communities developed for students in specific schools include: Animalia and Wood, Water and Wild Wonders for students in the School of Agriculture; Team HTM for students in hospitality and tourism management; Consumer Sciences and Retailing; Engineering, which includes a residential option for honors students; Pre-pharmacy; Science Connections for students admitted into the School of Science; Technology for students in computer technology or electrical engineering technology; and Explorers for students admitted into the Undergraduate Studies Program. There also is a Naval Science Learning Community for first-year students in Naval ROTC.

    Further information about all the Learning Communities is available at or by calling (765) 496-3619. More information about Women in Engineering Program is available at

    More information about Women in Science Programs is available at

    Orientation programs designed to help freshman students and their parents

    Initiatives to help students be successful at Purdue begin even before their first days as freshmen.

  • For students who are unfamiliar with campus, several Day on Campus sessions are offered throughout much of the summer. Day on Campus allows accepted students and their parents to take tours, meet with counselors to set up their fall schedules, take placement tests and gather information.
  • Summer Start is a residential summer school program that invites first-year students to get a jump start on college by taking up to nine credit hours before fall classes begin.
  • Boiler Gold Rush, open to all incoming freshmen, is a five-day program the week before fall classes begin that helps to familiarize students with the campus and Purdue traditions, and provides sessions and information about campus safety, cultural diversity and healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Parent orientation sessions are included in Boiler Gold Rush and are available for parents of students who don't participate in Gold Rush during move-in weekends in the fall.

    For information about Day on Campus or Boiler Gold Rush programs, contact the Office of Admissions at (765) 494-1776 or go to

    For information about Summer Start, call the Lilly Endowment Retention Initiatives at (765) 496-3619. Summer Start information also is available at

    PHOTO CAPTION:   Students in the Horizons Learning Community take an English class together during the first semester of their freshman year. The Horizons Learning Community is designed for first-generation college students, to familiarize them with the campus environment and increase their academic success.

    PHOTO CAPTION:   Students in an engineering learning community take part in Physics on the Farm, a hands-on day of various physics experiments and activities.

    PHOTO CAPTION:   Students who took part in the Nursing Nexus Learning Community spent many evenings together discussing issues pertinent to the nursing profession. Gathering in a social setting helps many freshmen feel part of the campus community and helps them get to know a variety of other students, faculty and staff.

    Story by Julie Rosa
    Photographs by Nick Judy