Winter 2016

First-year students develop friendships and pursue their passions through DU’s distinctive residential learning program

Urban farming is among the many activities undertaken by the Environmental and Sustainability LLC. Photo courtesy of the ELLC

Urban farming is among the many activities undertaken by the Environmental Sustainability LLC. Photo courtesy of the ELLC

When Sydney Limond, a junior majoring in environmental science and mathematics, got the news that she would be attending the University of Denver, she puzzled, like so many soon-to-be college students, over what the first year would hold.

Where would she find friends? Would she like her classes and professors? Would she get to study the things that interest her most?

For Limond, any trepidation she had about that first year was eased when she discovered the University’s Environmental Sustainability Living and Learning Community (ESLLC). One of six such communities on campus, the ESLLC brings 22 like-minded students together to take a quarterly 2-credit class on environmental sustainability, to share a floor in a residence hall, and to participate in community engagement projects related to the topic.

“I applied for the ESLLC almost as soon as I found out about it after I’d gotten accepted to DU,” Limond recalls. “I’ve been interested in the environment since the seventh grade, when I took my first environmental science class. I did a lot of research online about the program before I applied, and I was dying to get in. It just seemed too perfect: I was going to college as an environmental science major, and here was the opportunity to live with students who had similar interests to myself and to learn more about sustainability and how my interest in the environment could be useful outside of the traditional classroom. And I was nervous about making friends, so I figured it would kind of be an automatic group I’d be included in.”

Limond wasn’t disappointed. The ESLLC not only gave her an instant social circle — one populated by people who relish a dinnertime discussion of, say, composting — it allowed her to dive into a meaningful topic her very first weeks on campus. What’s more, through field trips, classroom work and community service, she learned how to make a difference.

That’s the idea behind the University’s theme-based living and learning communities, which debuted on campus in 1994, part of what was then a national movement to craft first-year programs that foster a smooth transition to college life while cultivating a culture of community engagement. The programs arose at institutions across the country out of growing concern that Americans were becoming increasingly detached from the civic activities and institutions so essential for a thriving democracy. That’s still of concern today, and as the University seeks to implement its new strategic plan, which calls for additional initiatives to enhance the student experience, programs like the LLCs will provide a solid foundation for future efforts.

Although DU wasn’t the first university to introduce living and learning communities, it was among the early pioneers. “There are different models [for LLCs] all over the country,” says Linda Olson, DU’s executive director of learning communities and civic engagement. She also serves as a teaching professor in the Pioneer Leadership Program LLC.

“The idea is to incorporate curricular content with an engaged learning experience,” Olson explains. “It’s a chance for students to be in a classroom with a professor — very hands-on, relationally based learning — and then go back to their residence hall, talk about it further and engage in co-curricular activities. You’re integrating a common academic content experience with a living experience, to which we then add a civic engagement and problem-solving focus. It’s high-impact learning at its best.”

DU added its signature twist to the concept by opening each community to students from across the disciplines, Olson says, adding that many universities organize LLCs around a specific major. In other words, students majoring in Spanish might study and live together in a community dedicated to exploration of the language and its literature.

The advantage to DU’s interdisciplinary approach, Olson says, is that the LLCs attract students from a variety of majors who bring different perspectives to an area of shared interest. They appeal to students who want “an active voice on the topic.”

Make that a voice powered by insight and hands-on experience. Donald Sullivan, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment and director of the environmental LLC, works with the rest of the ESLLC staff to fashion a goal-focused curriculum with related programming. “What we want [students] to do is not just get a better idea of the complexity of sustainability and the environment, but also do something, working toward goals,” he says.

Although the curriculum always covers certain front-and-center topics, such as water and air quality, it varies from year to year, depending on the issues and opportunities that arise. For example, in fall 2015, students focused on urban sustainability, reading a recently published book on walkable cities, visiting Denver’s new Union Station transit hub, and learning about everything from urban farming to bicycle-sharing programs.

In winter and spring 2016, Sullivan says, the emphasis will shift to water. “That’s a very exciting issue now, and not just in terms of drought, increasing population and different demands on water, but also looking at the long term, at the potential impacts of climate change,” he explains.

To introduce them to the challenges facing water planners, Sullivan takes ESLLC students for a retreat at the Keystone Science School, located at 9,200 feet in the Rockies. There, they get up close and personal with the all-important snow pack.

Before they go, Sullivan says, students research the “various stakeholders that have a claim on Colorado water, which runs the gamut from the Forest Service, which wants to maintain the watersheds, to groups like Trout Unlimited, the whitewater rafting industry, cities like Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora, and agricultural users, and downstream users outside the state.” They learn about how each group uses its allotted water and about how groups may negotiate with one another for additional use.

Once at Keystone, students don cross-country skis and head to the backcountry, where they dig snow pits and, as Sullivan puts it, “do a little snow science.”

“They [learn how to] estimate the water content of the snow, so they have an idea of how much water is stored in the snow. That’s actually how water planners use the snow pack to determine how much water is going to be available,” Sullivan explains.

Back at the Keystone Science School, they participate in a staged town hall meeting, where the staff presents them with scenarios and questions. The snow pack is 70 percent of normal, so how should that water be used? How should water authorities weigh competing demands? What steps need to be taken to ensure there’s enough water for basic needs?

For Limond, that experience remains one of the highlights of her time at DU. “Actually getting to be out in the snow, working with the scientists and putting into practice what we’d been taught was the most immediately applicable and real education I think I’ve ever gotten,” she says.

Experiences like these, Sullivan says, not only stoke a student’s interest in such larger environmental issues as climate change and resource management, they also reinforce the desire to take action. It’s no surprise to Sullivan that, after their year in residence is up, ESLLC students go on to participate in sustainability initiatives on and off campus. On campus, they serve on the Sustainability Council, staff the recycling and composting bins at zero-waste hockey games, weed beds at the community garden, and aid efforts to repair and tune bicycles for students eager to reduce their carbon footprint.

For Olson, this roll-up-the-sleeves commitment to community is testimony to the value that an LLC brings to the student experience and to the country at large.

“We want them to understand the role of their citizenship — not passport-wise, but that they’re a member of a community,” she says. “And the civic world needs informed activists who are taking seriously the life of the community and preserving democracy.”

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