Residential faculty members build community amid pandemic

Photos: Evan Garcia, Mike Montero/University of Miami
By Brittney Bomnin

Photos: Evan Garcia, Mike Montero/University of Miami

Residential faculty members build community amid pandemic

By Brittney Bomnin
Residential faculty members increase faculty-student engagement opportunities and contribute to the development of an intentional intellectual community in the Residential Colleges.

A few University faculty members hold integral roles on the Coral Gables Campus, where they are embedded in the residential colleges along with undergraduate students. Serving as a resource, these faculty members advocate for and mentor students as they make important decisions during their college careers—like choosing majors, minors, and courses—and plan for their post-college lives. 

Physically present day in and day out, residential faculty members hope to put a human face to the faculty and informally engage with students as they walk their dogs, check mail, or grab a bite from the cafeteria, explained Kysha Harriell, senior residential faculty member at Mahoney Residential College. As chair of the Residential Faculty program and executive director of the Office of Academic Enhancement, Harriell argues that with so many changes right now, students need support and access to as many resources as possible. 

“Students come to college to not only learn in the classroom, but to also learn from our interactions with others, especially faculty,” said Harriell. “Residential faculty increase faculty-student engagement opportunities and contribute to the development of an intentional intellectual community in the Residential Colleges.”

A health care professional by trade and clinical professor in the athletic training program at the School of Education and Human Development’s department of kinesiology and sport sciences, Harriell is cautious, and tries to lead by example. A first-generation college graduate, she currently lives at Mahoney Residential College with her dog, Patella, and 14-year-old niece who just started high school. Excited and anxious, Harriell is happy to see the campus alive again and be able to do what she loves—teach.

Adapting to change

This fall will be different for many reasons. It will be harder to learn names and faces with a mask. Programming that formerly took place at faculty apartments will likely be held online or outdoors, careful to adhere to University policy and guidelines set forth to keep everyone safe during the pandemic. 

“We recognize that the start of this academic year is really unique, we all have had a challenging few months, and still face numerous challenges,” shared Lien Tran, professor at the School of Communication. Along with their roles as professors in the interactive media program and senior residential faculty members at Pearson Residential College, Tran and her husband, Clay Ewing, juggle managing hands-on projects with student members of the New Experience Research and Design Lab, or NERDLab—which they both co-direct. In addition to designing and developing social justice initiatives, they care for their toddler, Ruby. 

“While our roles technically haven’t changed, all aspects of how we go about them have,” noted Ewing. Students are adjusting to different teaching modalities and faculty members are too, he explained. “Even though we are very knowledgeable and experienced with technology, it still requires a lot of time and energy to adjust courses for virtual teaching and innovate in a short amount of time. It’s exciting,” he admitted, “but also a little nerve-racking—how will students respond to it?”

This semester, Ewing will incorporate a new podcast that he launched during the summer to teach his course on internet, media, and society. He hopes to engage with his students in novel ways through this new format of teaching that will be accompanied by fireside chat discussions. “Putting it together over the summer was very demanding. But as a new way to teach, it’s exciting,” he said.

As senior residential faculty members, Tran and Ewing plan to keep their programming fairly flexible and responsive, allowing space where students can come together to engage with each other and share whatever is on their mind. The two are considering hosting virtual or outdoor events emphasizing physical and mental health and well-being. “We’re taking each day as it comes,” Tran pointed out. “With so much uncertainty, we need to be very mindful of our community. We need to be patient, compassionate, and kind."

Embracing new opportunities

For Melvin Butler, associate professor of musicology at the Frost School of Music, his third year at Stanford Residential College as the only Frost School faculty member opens opportunities to be creative in the kind of programming he plans to offer undergraduate students. With cautious optimism, he’s hoping to build on what he has done in the past as an associate residential faculty member by incorporating musical activities in a new way, leveraging technology to enhance what’s been done, and tapping into the students’ world. 

“Students, in many ways, are more accustomed to engagement using technology,” noted Butler. “Music is an area that works well in this format.” As part of his programming, he’s considering planning an online talent show, which is something that has not been done in the past. But he sees it as a fun way to draw students out, virtually, and include those who may be nervous about physically performing in front of a crowd.

Butler and his wife, Lori, have decided to homeschool their keyboard-playing, seven-year-old son, Stanley. A second-grader, their son is on the autism spectrum and they want to tap into his gifts—he has great pitch retention—and embrace the flexibility this learning format affords. “It’s nice that we’re on campus with so many resources,” Butler said. 

At this point, Butler is refining the skills he has been acquiring to effectively teach and engage with his students online. This fall he is teaching two hybrid sections of an undergraduate course on experiencing music. “The most exciting thing I’m trying is petitioning a collaboration with Lien Tran from the Interactive Media program in the School of Communication,” he said, referring to a project Tran launched—with the help of a CREATE grant—to work with the University’s public sculptures program and produce an interactive virtual tour. 

As part of his class project, Butler’s students will tour the campus sculptures on their own, get to know the campus, and think about how they might sculpt music in response to the sculptures they see. “Students on campus will be able to get outside safely to physically tour the sculptures. And with the help of the virtual map, students learning remotely can access the art online,” Butler added. It’s a new project inspired by new circumstances, but one he would like to continue offering in the future.