Although she will graduate before it goes into effect, Fiona Phillips ’01, a child and family studies major in the College for Human Development, supports the new plan. Phillips fits the profile of a “self-segregating” student. As a freshman, she opted to live in Brewster/ Boland, where she spent a multicultural weekend before she enrolled at SU. For a roommate, she requested a high school friend from the Bronx. When Phillips moved to South Campus as a sophomore, she requested an apartment close to her African American friends. “If there had been a diversity initiative when I was a freshman, I would have gone with the flow,” Phillips says. “I see people as individuals, and I’d be comfortable anywhere. My first experience with people of other races was freshman year, on our little wing in Brewster/Boland. We had Asians, Caucasians, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans. On the other side of the floor there were all white students, but they spent a lot of time on our side. Our RA pulled us all together. You realize when you live with people from other cultures that you have more similarities than differences.”
      For students who wish to dig into diversity issues, the new Multicultural Living Learning Community—open to all SU and SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry students—was launched this fall in Haven Hall. “Our focus is racial and ethnic issues,” reports Dale West, Haven’s residence director. “Our goal is to examine our own identities and those of other cultures—especially African American, Jewish, Asian, Native American, and Latino. We want to help students understand themselves better, then go out and become active with that knowledge.”

If it seems that the University is devoting a substantial amount of energy to the residential experience, it’s partly because that experience affects retention. Although SU is emerging as a national leader in assessing the impact of its residential programs, it’s too early to definitively measure this impact. However, Barbara Yonai, associate director of the Center for Support of Teaching and Learning, reports that SU’s first-year dropout rate fell from 12 percent in 1989 to 9.4 percent in 1999.
      “Overall, it’s the nature of the academic experience that determines retention,” explains School of Education professor Vincent Tinto, a national expert on college retention. “But residence life adds or subtracts from that experience. This University has paid a lot of attention to retention. It has poured energy into its curriculum and its buildings. It has earned national awards for teaching. Residence life is the next step in this long-term commitment to students. I don’t know of another university that is quite as remarkable in this commitment.”
      If the University is concerned with retaining students, it is equally concerned with equipping them for useful, responsible lives. Their college residential experience is emerging as fertile ground in which to cultivate character development and important living skills. “The University is shifting its attention toward developing the whole person,” explains Cavanagh. “We cannot be exclusively concerned with turning out top-notch physicists, engineers, and television producers. We also have to turn out confident individuals and committed citizens. People are looking for intelligent, flexible, problem-solving, leadership-caliber individuals who are committed to their communities.”
      Cavanagh believes many of these qualities can germinate in the residence halls, especially through programs like learning communities. “There is potential in our residence halls that we have not begun to tap, a power of collaboration we have not begun to imagine,” he says. “No institution has yet unleashed the power of student learning—what students can do for themselves and for each other. Once students get a taste of success from learning together, they never back off. And the more students demand of themselves, the more they demand of the faculty. And when students start to really challenge the faculty, that’s when you see a ball game.”

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