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It Takes a Village

September 9, 2000

Will Coviello
Michael DeMocker

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in February, and 25 Tulane students are crouching in a wide circle. Wearing flip-flops and sweats, they're rocking back and forth on their heels. Their eyes are closed beneath brows hidden by mostly tousled hair. A slight breeze comes off Lake Pontchartrain and skirts across the campground in Fontainebleau State Park on the Northshore. Many grin in vague discomfort as two students explain the rules of a game that looks like nothing so much as a very mild form of hazing.

"The first rule is, don't cheat," says Hamilton Simons-Jones. "The second rule is, if you're tapped once, repeat the rules. If you're tapped twice, stand up. And if you're tapped three times, do whatever you want." Simons-Jones and Kirsten Eby repeat the rules. While the game is more disorienting than fun, the students know it has a point; they just haven't figured out what the point is.

The exercise is part of a retreat for members of Tulane's new Urban Village residential community, a group of students with common interests who not only share living space but also special academic classes. They organized the weekend trip themselves to discuss issues in community service, education and leadership. The two facilitators finish the rules and start walking around the circle, occasionally tapping someone once on the shoulder. The first students tapped repeat the rules. Some project it like a mantra; others whisper as if it were a penalty for being tapped only once.

After a few minutes the game is going nowhere. A handful of students are standing, and many are repeating various parts of the rules. The game's logic seems circuitous. Finally, two women get three taps. They stand up and retreat to a picnic table to watch. After a minute, one glances at a squatting friend and gets an idea. She walks to the circle and taps her friend three times. They both return to the picnic table. Then they both get the point and start tapping everybody's shoulders three times.

Soon, no one is left squatting, standing or playing. That's the beginning of a discussion about empowerment. "When did you realize you could end the game?" asks observer Penny Wyatt, then Tulane's director of residence life, who has since taken on the job of project manager for the living-learning communities as a whole. Why did the students walk away from the game at first? Why did they return? Why did they decide to take charge?

The conversation quickly changes as the same types of questions are applied to their experiences in the Urban Village. The selective program offers students special courses and evening programs, but the concept of the village is to create an engaging environment. Many of these students chose Tulane over other top schools specifically to live in the Urban Village. Organizing the community was left to the students.

There was some confusion as the students, most newly arrived for the beginning of their university careers, hesitated to take up the gauntlet. "We lost a whole month," says Martha Braithwaite, a freshman from Vermont. "A lot of us were frustrated and wanted to get things done." Eventually, students stepped forward to organize the group. By the end of the first semester they had renegotiated their spring colloquium course, started their own rather anti-authoritarian method of running the dorm, and created their own activities, such as the February retreat.

They developed a strong sense of ownership over the village specifically and Tulane in general--strong enough for some to enter a sit-in over university policy and risk being expelled from both. The Urban Village is part of an effort by Tulane to enrich the residential experience on campus, particularly for freshmen. While the first year came together quickly and was experimental in nature, the project aimed to integrate academic and social life.

Students would share a residence hall and be classmates in a group of core courses. Additional programming would bring their professors to the residence hall and, ideally, into their community. The project evolved from a 1997 report by former provost Martha Gilliland (now chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City). On a retreat to discuss new ideas, focus groups of administrators and faculty agreed that the freshman living experiences at Tulane needed improvement.

Recently tenured associate professor of English Amy Koritz wasn't even supposed to be at the retreat, but went as a replacement for someone who couldn't make it. She ended up volunteering to head a committee that would shape the First-Year Experience project. The committee's initial efforts created "Explore New Orleans" field trips and "Lagniappe Thursday" events on campus that featured informal discussions with local celebrities such as jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis.

While such programs were popular, there was no link to academics or residence life. "We wanted to shift the culture of the residence halls to at least have the possibility of an intellectual climate," Koritz says. As she delved further, researching programs at other universities, she realized that more faculty-student interaction was necessary and that the freshman program needed a more academic structure. Thus, the concept of the living-learning communities was born.

While social-living groups such as fraternities and sororities offer social grounding, they don't integrate the academic side of university life, Koritz notes. Even the existing theme-living opportunities at Tulane--the honors dorm and residence hall floors devoted to students interested in the creative and performing arts, engineering and technology, and women in science--don't offer much in the way of classes. They centralize students with common interests but don't have a lot of faculty involvement.

The Urban Village does it all, offering a structure that facilitates both social and academic integration. The idea to focus on urban themes came from faculty members who wanted to originate a living-learning community where urban issues ranging from art and architecture to social psychology would be studied. It also seemed like a good introduction to the freshman participants' new home in New Orleans, Koritz says.

The Office of the Provost, the Collins C. Diboll Foundation, and Tulane board members Peter Aron, on behalf of the Aron Foundation, and Phil Carroll provided funding for the Urban Village project. The Department of Housing and Residence Life and the School of Architecture contributed staff resources. The university committed space for the Urban Village in the new Willow Residences, near the corner of Willow Street and McAlister Extension.

The red brick building has a definite urban feeling. Its walls begin at the edge of the sidewalk, which leads to and from the Reily Student Recreation Center. And, like many urban buildings that serve multiple purposes, the Urban Village has its living quarters--the dorm rooms--on floors above first-floor "commercial" space, although this commercial space, with tall picture windows, is actually made up of the dorm's vestibule, front desk, kitchen and meeting spaces.

The meeting spaces also can serve as ad hoc classrooms; last spring, Don Gatzke, dean of the School of Architecture, held an Urban Village seminar in one of them. Upstairs, three floors circle a central courtyard. Each floor has its own balcony space, commons room, kitchen and study rooms. Compared to other residence halls that may house as many as 450 or 500 students, the Urban Village, with only 95 residents, promotes a more intimate sense of community. The layout fosters group interaction, whether it's for meeting formally, playing music or cooking a vegetarian meal.

Residence spots were filled by application. Two-thirds were earmarked for incoming freshmen, with the remaining third open to returning sophomores. A committee of faculty and staff selected students with all sorts of academic interests and intended majors, from architecture and engineering to the humanities.

While their academic pursuits are diverse, the common ground for these students is their interest in cities and in citizenship, says Koritz. "We looked for community-service orientation as an indication of the type of students who would get involved in Urban Village activities," she says.

Once villagers were selected, they moved in and began organizing their new environs. Wyatt attended residence hall meetings and directed students to appropriate university channels for various undertakings. She and Koritz helped students negotiate the inevitable red tape for special projects--for example, helping them draft proposals or, with the aid of university attorneys, create permission slips for public school children to participate in a mentoring program. The students were required to take one of five Urban Village courses.

Choices included Koritz's writing seminar, Gatzke's architecture seminar, a communication class on film, and sociology and psychology classes. In the spring, students were required to take a one-credit colloquium course. Those seminars integrated the different academic approaches to urban issues. Students then worked in groups on projects investigating New Orleans.

Having grown up in the small town of Glover, Vt., Martha Braithwaite wasn't sure what she was going to do following high school. She even considered delaying college. She didn't find her small high school challenging and spent her junior year shadowing her father, a journalist, through Slovenia. Another semester, she engaged in an intensive four-month program in New York City at the Masters School at Dobbs Ferry. That experience generated an interest in urban issues.

The Urban Village influenced her choice of Tulane over the University of Chicago and George Washington University. "I thought it would be great to get to know another city," she says. Braithwaite also reasoned that the village would be a self-selecting community and that she would live with other motivated students. As an Urban Village resident at Tulane, Braithwaite found motivation to get involved in the New Orleans community.

In spring 2000, as part of the internship/service-learning component of the Urban Village sociology class, Braithwaite and a couple of other villagers began a mentoring program, bringing students from New Orleans' C. J. Peete public housing to the residence hall on Friday afternoons. Since several Tulane campus groups and departments already have tutoring programs, Braithwaite and the other villagers decided to spend the time with younger children, focusing on personal growth.

"We wanted to bring out the things they do well," Braithwaite says. "We wanted to not focus on deficiencies." Villagers running the program each took responsibility for a week's activities. On any given Friday afternoon, the children might draw outlines of their bodies and then write words associated with themselves, including things that they wanted to become.

On another Friday, they might take a field trip to the Aquarium of the Americas. One week, they made a game of life out of the village. In different rooms, the children faced different challenges and choices. Advancing to different floors meant choosing between a job or college. Some chose to start a family early. "We made them carry around cushions if they wanted a baby," says Leslie Garrote, another Urban Villager. "One kid kept neglecting his 'baby' so another kid adopted it."

Others chose careers as cartoonists or military personnel, and several gave beauty school a try. "A couple of brave villagers volunteered to get their hair done. They had a couple of new hairdos," Garrote says. A freshman from Austin, Texas, Garrote chose Tulane over Brown University, the University of Southern California and Boston College.
Tulane's study-abroad program in Cuba first drew her to the university but, for living on campus, the Urban Village suited her interests to a tee. "I knew I wanted to be an active student," Garrote says. "I wanted to be in a place where enthusiasm was high."

The Urban Village application caught her eye. "I knew I'd be with people who wanted to be there," she says. "I thought we'd get a lot of say in what it would be." Vanessa Cortinas also wanted to hit the ground running when she arrived at Tulane. Although she describes herself as shy when she entered her women-only Catholic high school in Los Angeles, she developed into a leader, mainly through sports.

She chose Tulane over Wake Forest and the University of California-Berkeley, and the Urban Village was a major draw. "I chose this because no one would have a superficial attitude, because everyone would have taken the time to write the essay. They would want to do community service," she says. When she arrived at Tulane, Cortinas immediately joined the Green Club and Stand for Children, a group working to reinstate the university's teacher certification program.

Cortinas also was elected president of the Aron Quad, a residential quadrangle that includes the Urban Village, the leadership dorm and other Willow Street residences. By her second semester, she was in charge of planning the February retreat. "In high school I would have said that I'd never have taken all this on," she says. When the villagers started to shape their community, Cortinas, Braithwaite and Garrote were in the middle of it.

Students went to weekly village seminars but they expected the community to be about more than classes. They decided to have "town hall" meetings instead of electing a president. They delegated responsibilities for individual projects and maintained a loose structure.

Use of a computer listserv helped keep villagers aware of goings-on and presented a wide-open forum for other campus issues. During the course of the year, the villagers did everything from hosting a talent show before the holidays to running van trips to New Orleans' Farmers Market, parks and festivals.

Near the end of the year, they decided to pass on their acquired experiences and recommendations by creating a handbook for the next year's villagers. Although the Urban Village for 1999-2000 was mostly made up of freshmen, it also appealed to returning sophomores who wanted more from their Tulane experience. Central California native Matthew German applied to the village, having been part of a similar summer school program at Berkeley.

He knew the villagers would have a chance to shape the program. German had already been involved with Tulane's television station, the Hullabaloo editorial staff, students supporting Bill Bradley, the water polo club and student government committees, but he still thought he had extra time. "The campus shuts down at a certain time every day," he says. "Students need alternatives to the Greek system." He hopes that the students' efforts at the Urban Village will give something back to the Tulane community.

Community service is a major topic of conversation on the retreat, but the weekend getaway is relaxing as well, and students leave the mark of their wry collegiate wit and roving interests. They hit the cabin with a flurry, postering the gray walls with everything from Polaroids of attendees to bathroom designations of "Stanleys" and "Stellas." They have even posted rules of an egalitarian nature, including "Smell good" and "Don't dominate conversation." Braithwaite leads an afternoon discussion about community service.

She begins by calling for a roundup of organizations for which people have volunteered. The staggering list includes tutoring groups, camps for abused children, Special Olympics, Meals on Wheels, and many campus community-service organizations. Braithwaite records the names in magic marker on a flip chart resting on a barbecue pit. One villager reclining on a blanket shifts his attentions from the discussion to a Palm Pilot and a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities.

But mostly, the retreat-goers are engaged. They question everything from their own motivations for doing community service to whether they are actually initiating social change. A peer mentor to the younger students and a vital part of the village leadership, Simons-Jones is chair of CACTUS, the umbrella organization of Tulane community-service groups. He has come on the retreat for just such a discussion. He says it's great to get 200 volunteers to paint a public school.

"But did we do anything to address how the school got that way?" he asks. "How many people have been back since?" Braithwaite asks how many have read Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol's study of schools serving neighboring rich and poor communities.

Half of the retreat participants have read it. Braithwaite has had it assigned in three different courses. As she looks at Tulane and all the tutoring programs in underprivileged New Orleans public schools, she wonders why the connection so often seems merely academic.

Amy Koritz has found teaching her Urban Village seminar rewarding. The small class size works effectively, allowing her to personally become acquainted with the students, which, in turn, improves the classroom environment. Major research universities tend to create a gap between faculty and students, says Koritz. Institutions too often become organized around research in ways that do not engage undergraduates.

To counteract this tendency, the Urban Village encourages more faculty involvement in student life. "It's an investment in quality," Koritz says. For faculty members, however, such involvement becomes a competitor for precious hours that could be devoted to research. A commitment to the students is required. As architecture dean, Don Gatzke has no shortage of projects competing for his time. But, he says, he appreciates the benefits that students gain from interacting with faculty on an informal basis.

If he had designed the Willow Residence Hall in which the Urban Village is located, he says he would have included a faculty residence. But even without a faculty member in residence all the time, it helps to have faculty stopping by the dorm for seminars or meetings or just to eat dinner with students, he says. "I think it is a good continuing experiment," Gatzke says. "There's something substantially positive about breaking down barriers between academic and social boundaries."

At year-end town meetings, villagers discuss how to carry forward what they have created. There is the handbook. A possible logo. And an inventory of group-project reports on New Orleans, covering everything from cheap restaurants and art galleries to jazz and economic development. Villagers start looking ahead. Some have pledged and joined Greek organizations, and others are prepared to move off campus with friends. More than half reapplied to stay in the village a second year. And several applied to return as resident advisers.

Garrote, Cortinas and Keith Spain, another villager, were appointed to the three vacant adviser spots. As the village begins its second year, it is one year wiser and has plenty on which to build. But many of the returnees are also aware that new villagers need room to contribute, create and make the village their own as well. Tulane now includes information on the Urban Village in its packet to all prospective freshmen. A second living-learning community, the Global Village, is also taking its first steps this fall with 28 students.

A third community, focused on the Mississippi River and environmental issues, is in the works, with substantial support from the university's Center for Bioenvironmental Research. Koritz ponders the possibility of an urban studies major. The Urban Village is not open to juniors and seniors, and she'd like to see participants have the option to build on their coursework and experiences. She marvels at how the project has grown and opened up other possibilities.

"At a certain point, you just stop asking if you can do this and you just do it," she says. "You have to fish or cut bait and, so far, we're fishing."

Will Coviello is editor of Visitor magazine in New Orleans and is a former intern in the Tulane University publications office. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Tulanian.


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