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A New Residential Life System that Meets the Needs of Our Current Students

How We Got Here

For some time, students have voiced the need for changes to residential life—a critical element of the student experience at Middlebury. Their input led to How Will We Live Together (HWWLT), an 18-month effort that began in the spring of 2018. In partnership with our Community Council, a steering committee of faculty, staff, and students—led by Senior Associate Dean of Students Derek Doucet, Assistant Professor of Psychology Rob Moeller, and Peter Dykeman-Bermingham ’18–conducted the first comprehensive review of student residential life and the Commons since 1998.

Much has changed at Middlebury since then, including the diversity and size of each class, which has grown from about 400 to about 700 students. Residential life must continue to evolve and adapt with the rest of the institution. The changes to a post-Commons model described below will improve residential life at the College and reflect Middlebury’s core commitment to a community that welcomes everyone and prepares our students to lead engaged and consequential lives. Some of the new initiatives are already under way, while others will begin in the fall of 2020. 

The HWWLT Steering Committee gathered extensive data and feedback from students, faculty, and staff through surveys, focus groups, in-person interviews, group interviews, online forms, past reports, town hall meetings, and peer schools. The committee also invited a panel of reviewers from other schools to campus and incorporated their findings into its final recommendations.

The committee produced its recommendations from listening deeply to the student feedback provided. The majority of our students said that they want to live in a close-knit community, with a strong sense of belonging to their class and to the student body at Middlebury. They appreciate the support of residential life staff and deans, and they want a more engaged and fun social life. Many of these recommendations are the same ones also shared in the Enhanced Residential Plan from 1998, six years after the Commons began.  

In direct response to current student input, the administration and the trustees have endorsed a new residential system that places students at its center and focuses on student choice.
The current residential life structure will evolve into one that will foster life skills, focus on the holistic well-being of students, and bring together students and mentors with shared interests. Called BLUEprint, it will be based on the following four components:

Bringing your best self: well-being and preventative care

Launching at Midd: cohesive first-year experience

Umbrella mentoring support: building your guidance network

Engaged learning for life: building the skills you need 

Building on Our Foundation

o   Deans, First-Year Seminars, Staff in Residence Halls

Residential life at the College will retain the features that students have said they value, including first-year seminars and the housing organized around them. First-year students will live in two clusters in four first-year dorms (Stewart and Hepburn, Allen and Battell). Based on feedback from Feb students, starting in 2020 Febs will be housed in closer proximity to first-year and sophomore students.

o    There will be a dean’s office in each of the two clusters of first-year residence halls, and each office will be staffed by two deans and a coordinator. Either a dean or an area director will be located in each FY residence hall. Deans and professional residential life staff will continue to be an important component of the new system. Student staff will also continue as indispensable members of the residential life team, and the College will keep working to improve upon the training, stipends, and support they receive.

o  The deans will each work with one of four equal-sized student cohorts (of about the size of Brainerd now) assigned via first-year seminars, and the four-year relationship students enjoy with their deans will continue into the future.

o   Students have said they value interaction with faculty outside of the classroom. Dean of Faculty Sujata Moorti will work with other faculty colleagues during this academic year to create a plan for how best to enhance faculty engagement. She will also review the role of the Commons houses.

o   Improve Social Life

  • Planning for a renovation/replacement of Battell Hall and construction of a new student center has been formally undertaken as a response to student and staff feedback about space on campus. 
  • Based on student input and its overwhelming success, the College will now fund Nocturne as a new and uniquely Middlebury tradition. Similarly, new funds will continue to be available for ski lessons during winter term so that this activity is accessible to more students.
  • There will also be additional funding for more social life programming.

Community, Education, and Support

New Office of Residential Life

Supervision and programming for residential life has been consolidated into a new Office of Residential Life. Moving supervision of Commons residence directors to one person will allow deans to have more time to focus on building strong relationships with students and helping them navigate the ups and downs of life at Middlebury.

The role of student residential life staff will continue to be critical in the development and success of healthy and supportive communities on campus. In recognition of their important contribution, the College will continue to work to increase their compensation. 

The new Office of Residential Life is committed to reviewing and clarifying the housing processes and developing the residential education program. Its goal is to streamline and create transparent housing processes and communication, and to provide housing that supports the unique needs of students.

Housing Processes

Housing will become more open for sophomores so that they can choose to live anywhere within sophomore housing options. The residential education program will support sophomores in new and creative ways, aiding in their success at Middlebury. 

Starting this spring, there will be a review of all specialty housing on campus (social houses, superblocks, etc.) with the goal of addressing two main questions: 

  • How do, or should, these houses contribute to a robust, varied, and inclusive campus social life? 
  • Do we have the policies, processes, funding, and advising in place to effectively support them in pursuit of their charges?

We expect to enact recommendations from the review during the spring 2021 room draw process. 

Residential Education

The new system will feature a residential education program that emphasizes personal health, connected communities, and the practical life skills that will help students thrive at Middlebury and beyond. This fall, first-year students across campus are participating in a pilot residential education program called Life @ Midd that emphasizes life skills and builds on current health and wellness offerings. Next fall, a comprehensive program will begin that will follow a four-year arc tailored to students as they progress through their time at Middlebury. Topics will range from financial literacy and cultivating healthy relationships to leadership development. A number of schools have adopted similar programs with good results. The initial response to Life @ Midd has been positive. Kristy Carpenter is developing this program in partnership with different campus collaborators, including the Innovation Hub, Center for Careers and Internships, Health and Wellness Education, and Center for Community Engagement. One of the program’s goals is to bring these resources to residential spaces so all students have access to the many student resources and opportunities available on campus.

Restorative Practices 

To help foster a strong sense of community, residential life staff and students have expanded their use of restorative practices (RP). Students initially learn about them during orientation week, and they are an integral part of training for residential life staff, who are adopting them as the first step when student conflicts arise. Additionally, residential life is using RP as a framework for how we, as a community, make decisions and provide leadership. 

 In collaboration with the Office of Community Standards and Health and Wellness Education, students found in violation of alcohol and other drug policies will participate in educational sanctioning. Moving from a punitive conduct model to one focusing on growth and education will provide students an opportunity to reflect on their decision making and, beyond that, how their decisions impact others.

Student Support

Over the next one to two years, the College will implement a new support system for students. The new system will continue to offer support to students who experience crises and will also build capacity to provide help earlier to more students who need it. This shift in posture, from a reactive, crisis-intervention-focused model to a more proactive, prevention-based one, will also include enhanced care plans and skills development. A new assistant director for student success has been hired to manage the improved student support efforts, and the recently expanded Office of Health and Wellness Education will be a critical partner in this work.

The Counseling Office has also revised its appointment protocol so students at risk or in crisis have access to a counselor quickly. It has expanded the counseling telephone support line to 24/7/365, ensuring that students have access to support any time of day or night, on or off campus, and anywhere they happen to be studying or traveling, including during breaks, over the summer, and during study abroad. They also offer SilverCloud, an online counseling platform to support students struggling with mental health–related issues. SilverCloud can be accessed from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. A search is currently under way as well to recruit a counselor to serve historically marginalized groups.

Student Affairs staff are also seeking ways to enhance the experience of the increasing number of students who remain on campus over breaks and working on how best to support them. Making more campus food resources available during breaks will be the first priority.

More Information

Below are a number of links to additional information about the changes to residential life and the evaluation process.

· The HWWLT web page provides a summary of all of the phases of the project from January through the summer of 2019 as well as helpful links. 

· The HWWLT Steering Committee’s final report includes all their recommendations.

· The HWWLT self-study summary: The internal review portion of this project presents

a broad and detailed perspective on what our present residential system does well, where there is a need for improvement, and what elements of a high-functioning system consistent with best practices in the field are missing altogether.

· The external review report summary: This report, submitted by a group of four senior student affairs and residential life professionals (from Kenyon, Carleton, Rice, and

Connecticut College) who visited campus in October 2018, presents their observations and perspectives, and offers concrete suggestions regarding how we might move forward.

· The Terhune Report on Social Life: Broadly focused on students’

perceptions of social life in 2017 when this study was conducted by consultant Jim Terhune, this report does nevertheless contain some insights relevant to the HWWLT project.

· The 1998 Enhanced Residential Plan: Effectively the founding charter of the present

Commons system, this report provides fascinating context.