Faculty-in-residence program bridges gap between campus living and learning

Vicino—like Mindelyn Buford and Shan Mohammed—is charged with facilitating, strengthening, and expanding the relationship between students and faculty. All three say that the program has improved their teaching prowess and enhanced their understanding of the student experience, shedding light on the ins and outs of college life. As the crucial link between campus living and learning, they’ve become quintessential mentors and confidants, equally adept at listening and doling out nuggets of hard-earned wisdom.

“I’m much more relaxed in the classroom now and better able to relate to students,” says Buford, assistant professor of sociology, who joined the program in 2012. “I’m more comfortable integrating hands-on activities in class and making explicit connections between what students are doing academically and what they will go on to do in post-grad life.”

By hosting potluck dinners, running timely educational programs, and holding one-on-one meetings with students, the faculty-in-residence effectively lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding the life of the college professor. They present themselves as people first, sans academic title. Says Vicino, associate professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs, who joined the program in May: “I want to ensure a culture of excellence, but I try to do it in a welcoming way that makes students feel like they have a stake in the learning process.”

Students say they love this approach, that it’s helped them better integrate into the Northeastern community, improved their relationship with the faculty, and expanded their academic horizons while putting them on a path toward lifelong success. “I think the value of the program lies in students seeing professors as people with the ability to mentor and assist them with their academic goals,” says Nick Polanchik, S’16, a fourth-year behavioral neuroscience major who lives one floor above Mohammed in International Village. Notes Alex Hatter, SSH’18, a second-year international affairs major who knows all three faculty-in-residence pretty well: “They’re the type of people who care about student learning. If you’re having a bad day, they’ll want to talk to you. If you need academic advice, they’ll want to talk to you.”

A holistic education

Northeastern’s Department of Housing and Residential Life created the faculty-in-residence program in 2008. Including Vicino, Buford, and Mohammed, a total of five faculty members from four different colleges have participated in the experience.

“We really look for faculty who are willing to be a little bit vulnerable,” says Kara Curcio, who oversees the program as the assistant director of residential life. “Our students really enjoy faculty who are interested in learning from students as well as teaching them, faculty with life experience and the desire to give back to students in a different way.”

Research suggests that faculty-in-residence programs, which have proliferated on college campuses nationwide over the past few decades, are mutually beneficial for students and faculty alike. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of College & University Student Housing, the programs transform faculty into more polished educators with a deeper commitment to connecting classroom experiences to life in the real world. “Living with students gives faculty the opportunity to further develop as educators through increased interactions, playing new roles, and experiencing a holistic learning environment,” the study found. Another paper, published in 2009 in Research in Higher Education, noted that frequent bouts of quality contact between students and faculty positively impact students’ learning outcomes, “including subject matter competence, cognitive skills and intellectual growth, educational attainment, and career choice and development.”

Mohammed, left, and Anthony Formicola, S’17, meet for breakfast in the International Village dining hall. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Carey Noland’s experience in the faculty-in-residence program is a prime example of its power to bridge the gap between campus living and learning. As one of Northeastern’s first two faculty-in-residence, Noland served from 2009 to 2012 and routinely ate lunch with students in the International Village dining hall, where she quickly discovered the complexities of college. “It made me more aware that school was just one part of students’ existence,” she recalls. “When you’re in the classroom, sometimes you feel like you’re in a little bubble and you forget people have outside lives.”

After being enlightened, she began incorporating campus events and student clubs into her classroom lessons and even created a freshman capstone course based on her newfound appreciation for the college experience. The class, titled “Quality of Life,” focused on choice-making and the meaning of happiness. “One of the biggest things undergrads struggle with is making choices, including what to major in, where to move, and what job to take,” says Noland, associate professor of communication studies. “Before the program, I hadn’t thought about how many decisions people are making at 18.”

As mentors, the faculty-in-residence help students navigate the academic landscape while working hard to guide them toward a life of fulfillment and accomplishment. Take Maggie Dahill, BHS’19, a first-year health science major with an interest in public health. It was September, her first month as a college student, and she and Mohammed were discussing her career path over breakfast in International Village. As an associate clinical professor in the Department of Health Science and the director of the Master of Public Health Program in Urban Health, Mohammed was the quintessential sounding board, briefing Dahill on his career trajectory and then offering her a few pieces of keen academic advice.

“I had never before met anyone who pursued a career in public health and it was very cool to hear about possible career options,” Dahill recalls. “Shan helped me understand what courses I should be taking and also encouraged me not to feel too much pressure about being pre-med. I initially considered minoring in business simply because it would ‘look good’ when applying to public health programs,” she says, “but Shan made it very clear that he would rather see students pursue classes they were truly interested in. This encouraged me to take political science classes, which will help me become more well-rounded.”

Mohammed’s meeting with Dahill—like so many other one-on-one conversations that he’s had with students since joining the faculty-in-residence program in August of 2015—left him feeling particularly hopeful about the future: “Northeastern’s students are incredibly bright and keep you on your toes in terms of understanding a whole different generation’s perspective on currents events and approaches to career development,” he says. “It’s not hard to find hope when you get to know these students on an individual level.”

Programming with purpose

A few months after his meeting with Dahill, Mohammed hosts a chocolate tasting and trivia program in the International Village lounge. Fifteen students are divided into three teams, all of them looking to win a $50 gift card to Max Brenner, and chocolate samples from six different countries are placed along a rectangular table. There are milk chocolate and dark chocolate squares, organic roasted cacao nibs and cups of coco pulp, which looks like an off-white goop.

Joseph E. Aoun

As the students indulge in the chocolate, satisfying their collective sweet tooth, they get quizzed on their knowledge of the stuff: What country consumes the most chocolate per year? How much money does a cacao farmer in West Africa make per day? When was the Hershey’s kiss created?

Carla Martin, Mohammed’s cousin, is there to help enlighten the students, to help boost their knowledge of all things chocolate. She is a lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, where she specializes in the global politics of fine cacao. “Switzerland consumes 22 pounds of chocolate per person per year, the size of a small dog,” she’s telling the students. “Americans eat 10 pounds per person per year, the size of a small cat.” For Mohammed, the program is a prime example of his work to organize activities that are simultaneously fun and intellectually stimulating. As he puts it before the event begins, “This is an opportunity to give students a chance to think critically and delve deeper into food, one of the subjects many of us take for granted.”

Vicino hosts a potluck dinner in his East Village apartment. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Most of the programs run by the faculty-in-residence dovetail with their research and scholarship foci. Vicino, director of the Master of Public Administration program, hosts presidential debate watch parties and panel discussions on topics like the globalization of coffee. Buford, whose scholarship lies at the intersection of race and migration, once took a group of students to the Boston Opera House to see Rogers and Hammerstein’s version of Cinderella; the goal of the outing, she recalls, was to compare and contrast Disney’s take on the classic tale with how it is told in other countries around the world. And Mohammed, an expert in the prevention of risky sexual behavior among urban youth, runs so-called “Sex in the Dark” events in which students anonymously ask and answer questions related to sexual health. “We want students to learn something from every program,” Curcio explains. “There needs to be some purpose behind it and it needs to be intentional.”

Kathryn Schmitt, SSH’17, attended one of Vicino’s debate watch parties this fall. As a fourth-year political science major, she is heavily invested in the 2016 race for the White House and was looking to increase her voter knowledge before the presidential primaries. “Even though I follow politics closely, it was great to hear Tom’s perspectives and predictions about the candidates,” she recalls. “I learned more about their positions on different issues and was able to make a more informed decision about whom my views most align with.”

Schmitt lives on the 10th floor of East Village, six floors below Vicino. In the fall, she set up a meeting with him to discuss her career path and chew on miscellaneous topics like the future of the MBTA. “Once I met him in his role as a faculty-in-residence,” she says, “I immediately felt comfortable reaching out to him to chat and to ask for academic advice.” Her freshman year experience—when she lived in International Village with Buford and Rifat Sipahi, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, who served as a faculty-in-residence from 2011 to 2015—was equally crucial to her progress as a well-rounded college student. “I attended many of their programs my freshman year,” she says. “It helped me integrate into the International Village community while making a faculty connection.”

As International Village’s residence director, Arminia Khwaja works closely with Buford and Mohammed. It’s not uncommon for them to participate in staff meetings and resident assistant training sessions, she says, noting that “it’s important for all of us to feel like one team.” She recalls that Sipahi hosted an annual crepe-making program in his apartment during his tenure as a faculty-in-residence, educating students on culture and food while encouraging them to cook for themselves. It was just one more example, she says, of the program’s ability to connect students and faculty outside of the classroom. “I think that the program really enhances the notion that faculty are people too and that students should feel comfortable speaking with faculty outside of the lecture hall.”

Northeastern is home

For Vicino, Buford, and Mohammed, Northeastern is home. All three live with their families on campus, where life is good and the people are kind. As Buford puts it, “Everyone here is wonderful.”

Joseph E. Aoun

Mohammed lives with his husband David O’Malley, associate professor of social work at Bridgewater State University; Vicino lives with his husband Charles Galantini, a journalist from Brazil; and Buford lives with her husband Augustus Anderson, a statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau. Buford and Anderson have three daughters, a 4-month-old baby named Miri and 3-year-old paternal twins named Olivia and Vivian, both of whom have lived in the family’s apartment on the second floor of International Village since birth. Vicino jokes that the twins “run the place,” and Buford says that “they love pushing the elevator buttons and playing in the rooftop bamboo garden.”

Vicino and husband Charles Galantini. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It’s not uncommon for the faculty-in-residence and their families to hold open houses for the students, events in which there is often a lot of food and witty banter. In December, for instance, Vicino and Galantini host a potluck dinner for 10, a feast including spaghetti, lasagna, and a big salad. As the night unfolds, students assemble in the living room, splaying out on chairs, couches, and floor pillows. They talk shop—class, co-op—while Vicino listens intently from the kitchen as he periodically checks the status of the lasagna in the oven, a sliver of which is conspicuously missing. “Charles and I had to taste-test it,” Vicino says, making no excuses for their indulgence.

For him, “it’s very important for students to see that I have a real life too. Living on campus is a great way for me to improve my relationship with students while helping them succeed.” Galantini, for his part, has quickly made friends with Vicino’s colleagues in the political science department. As he notes, “It’s great to be in Boston, and I’m ready to build a social network here.”

While Vicino and Mohammed have only just begun serving as faculty-in-residence, 2016 marks Buford’s fourth and final year in the program. When she’s done, she says, she’ll miss the people the most—the students, the facilities team, the dining hall staff, who have so often made her twins laugh. As she puts it, “I’m really going to miss my International Village family.”