Details of Eastern Kentucky University’s residence life model — specifically, its Living Learning Communities, in which students who share interests are housed together — may help lay the foundation for similar programming at a British university nearly 4,000 miles away.
EKU’s Office of Housing & Residence Life recently welcomed to campus Elizabeth Russell, a Cardiff University staff member tasked with building the institution’s residence life program. On December 18, Russell visited the Richmond, Kentucky, campus to meet and share strategies with Lisa Mendenhall, an assistant director in EKU’s housing office who oversees the Living Learning Community (LLC) program.
It was a bit of a homecoming for Russell, who grew up in Louisville, graduating from the University of Louisville with a bachelor’s degree in history. While earning her master’s in medieval history at the University of Oxford in England, she began working in Oxford’s housing program.
“I was responsible for the well-being and discipline of about 500 Oxford students,” she said. “And I loved it. I realized, ‘This is what I’m meant to be doing.’” After marrying her husband, who is a native of Wales, she took a job at Cardiff University in student support.
Living, learning and working in two different countries has given Russell a broad perspective. She hopes to use her global experience to bring the best of American and British universities together at Cardiff, a respected research institution with a student body of more than 31,000.
British universities are consistently ranked among the best study destinations in the world, noted for their strong academic programs, meaningful research, rich history and scenic beauty. However, centuries of tradition and cultural differences have made the creation of residence life programs more of a challenge in the U.K. than in the U.S., she said.
“Americans are great at wanting to participate,” Russell said. “Generally speaking, young people in America want to feel involved. They want to feel like they’re doing something and making a difference in a really overt way. British students are more likely to sit back, observe and then decide if they want to participate.”
On top of that, students at British universities almost never share bedrooms, making it easier for them to get lost in the shuffle if they’re struggling in class or dealing with issues that may affect their mental health. “It makes it more possible to be isolated, and makes it more possible that no one will know if you’re not okay.”
In the last decade or so, many British universities have begun to implement a more personal, holistic approach to learning, incorporating academics and involvement opportunities outside the classroom. Strong residence life programs, like those at EKU and other American universities, are instrumental in keeping students engaged. Higher engagement correlates with higher retention and graduation rates, and increased student satisfaction.
“That has become an increasingly important piece of the puzzle in higher learning,” Mendenhall said. “We get students to college, now how do we help them stay and graduate and succeed?”
Russell initially met Mendenhall in May, at a conference co-sponsored by the College and University Business Officers organization and the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International. Mendenhall, who was a keynote speaker, discussed EKU’s approach to Living Learning Communities. EKU has 14 LLCs, which group students together based on their academic areas and personal interests, making it easier for students to connect with other students and with the University.
Russell, who also plans to visit MIT in Boston to discuss residence life strategies, approached Mendenhall after the presentation and arranged the impromptu strategy sharing session.
“The U.K. market has only really been doing residence life for the last decade or so, so it’s still new there. We’re still figuring it out, although there are some institutions that do it well,” Russell said. “For institutions like Cardiff, it’s good to learn from U.S. universities that have been doing this for years, decades. It’s really, really helpful to see the vision of where we could go.”