Q&A: Living-Learning Communities Build Strong Foundations

Back to Parent and Family Updates

Paul J. McLoughlin II, Colgate’s vice president and dean of the college, shares the goals and philosophy of the Residential Commons system.

What is the purpose of Colgate’s Residential Commons? 

The four Residential Commons bring first- and second-year students together with members of Colgate’s staff and faculty — as well as with their peers. The Residential Commons are integral to the University’s academic mission and to Colgate’s residential liberal arts education; they help extend where learning occurs, whether in first-year seminars, on residence hall floors, or within co-curricular opportunities. They also provide intergenerational peer mentoring and leadership opportunities for upper-level students as well as social and service opportunities.


What is the philosophy behind them?

Residential colleges in American higher education are inspired by models at the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge that place academic activities within a residential setting and where students remain affiliated with their residential commons throughout their collegiate careers. Colgate in particular focuses these intellectual connections with faculty members and among students by linking the first-year seminar they take to the Residential Commons they are members of and by forging strong co-curricular connections within their living-learning communities. Some classes are even held in the commons residence halls.


What are your goals with the Residential Commons?

The Residential Commons offer every student a foundational community, providing inclusive offerings in order to meet the needs of our diverse student body. That’s critical to building an academic community where students feel that they belong, are willing to take risks, explore new ideas, and grow. This happens in many ways. Students may join weekly dinners with professors; perform community service; participate in intramural sports on behalf of their Residential Commons; or take advantage of trips to places like museums or ski slopes. The Residential Commons should evolve as our students’ needs change.  


How is membership in a particular commons determined?

An important element of Residential Commons affiliation is that all students become members without the need to earn it or try out for it. After, students are assigned to their first-year seminars according to their intellectual interests, we build each commons’ membership through a diversity of first-year seminars representing all of the University divisions (e.g. natural sciences, humanities, etc.). Students are then assigned to their commons according to their first-year seminar; they will remain affiliated with that commons for four years. Sophomores will likely change rooms or residence halls, within their original commons (more on that later in this discussion). In this way, commons affiliation isn’t exactly random, but it is also not something students can choose. We think that placement provides an important ‘equal footing’ and ensures that every student has a foundational community that did not need to be earned.


How is the experience similar or different between the four commons?

Our goal in creating four distinct Residential Commons is that each has a specific set of traditions, rituals, and spirit that grow organically and reflect their specific residence halls and history. While the events and traditions may be different, we expect students’ experiences to be equally positive. Each commons is led by two faculty directors, a residential fellow, and residential life area director, as well as the community leaders (student staff). Ciccone is known for their brunches, Hancock is known for its dinner series with professors, Brown brings nationally known and up-and-coming performers to their coffeehouse events, and Dart Colegrove hosts a series of events focused on mind and body that counts towards Colgate’s Physical Education requirement.


What are examples of the peer mentoring and leadership opportunities for older students?

Each of the Residential Commons has a student-led Commons Council, a student government of sorts, that plans events for that commons. In addition, beginning this year, the Student Government Association now elects its senators by commons (rather than by class or residence hall) to ensure that the representatives of student government are working directly for, and informed by, their commons constituents. In addition upper-level students can serve as community leaders for their commons; choose to live in their commons social house on Broad Street as a junior or senior; and can plan events for all four class years in their commons. There are many other ways for upper-level students to remain involved with their commons even after they move off the hill and into junior and senior housing.


How does commons membership relate to housing selection after the first year?

Sophomores will remain on the hilltop in their Residential Commons, although they may choose to change residence halls or roommates. There is also an intra-commons transfer process whereby a student may request to change affiliation to a different commons if they want to live with someone from another commons in a one-for-one swap. As juniors and seniors, students may live in their Residential Commons’ social house on Broad Street or they may live in one of many other options while still remaining actively involved with their commons.


What are some recent initiatives?

A recent and important connection was forged between the four Residential Commons and the roughly five dozen first-year seminars taught by our teacher-scholar faculty. This past year, we began housing first-year students according to their intellectual interests and with their fellow seminar participants (with some except for the scholar cohorts such as the Benton Scholars, Alumni Scholars, and Office of Undergraduate Studies students). While still a developing connection, this provides students with opportunities to extend the conversations that begin in seminars into the residence hall lounges. On the social side, Residential Commons are offering signature events such as coffeehouses, brunches, and weekly dinner discussions with faculty and staff members. For example, a new series in Brown Commons, called “Seekers, Believers, and Doubters,” brought students together to answer important questions on identity and meaning.

The two new residence halls that opened this fall provide Brown Commons (Burke Hall) and Dart Colegrove Commons (Jane Pinchin Hall) with social, academic, and study spaces on the hill. As the University deepens connections between the Residential Commons social houses along Broad Street and their residence halls on the hill, juniors and seniors will offer additional peer mentoring, leadership, and social programs for first-year and sophomore students.


How can parents be helpful in encouraging their students to make the most of the Residential Commons experience?

For some students, the Residential Commons affiliation is deeply important to their sense of community at Colgate. For other students, this affiliation may have less meaning because they find community through an intramural club, student organization, athletic team, or fraternity or sorority. In the first two years of a student’s residential experience, the amount of programs, events with professors, and other opportunities exposes students to Colgate’s rich resources and connections outside of the classroom. It also provides a community where one lives (and more recently, takes classes). The Residential Commons are a great way to meet other students, both within and across commons.


Read more about the Residential Commons system in the Colgate Magazine feature article “On Common Ground” (spring 2019).