Live and Learn

USD students on kayaks


In the spare space of La Jolla Playhouse’s Shank Theatre, impassioned dancers turn back time, bringing the audience with them to the Dominican Republic and the heart-wrenching murder of three sisters who participated in the country’s 1960 resistance movement. For the USD freshmen that fill the theater, this trip to see “Las Mariposas” is much more than a cultural excursion. It marks the beginning of a year in which their passion for social justice and their first-year experience at USD mesh into an invigorating mélange of inquiry and intellectual awakening.

The students are all residents of USD’s Social Justice Living-Learning Community (LLC), one of three LLCs offered during the 2011-2012 academic year. Putting a new spin on the tradition of freshman residential living, themed communities such as sustainability, social justice and honors connect academics to residential life.

For many students at “Las Mariposas,” a new understanding dawned about the universal struggle for justice, beginning with a faculty-led conversation on the bus ride back to school, and continuing among the students themselves back at the residence hall.

“I had never heard anything about these atrocities (of the Trujillo dictatorship),” says Bre Burgos, a freshman English major from the San Francisco Bay Area. “It really put on my radar something I had never thought about before.”

That’s the idea behind the LLC program, launched by a task force led jointly by Noelle Norton, associate dean, College of Arts and Sciences, and Margaret Leary, associate dean of students: to build a bridge between academics and student life, as well as connections between students, faculty and staff, creating a salon of sorts that isn’t constricted by time or place. At the core of the program are the freshman preceptorial classes — small, core-curriculum courses taught by faculty/mentors — that tie to the LLC theme.

“My hope is that this (program) changes the students’ introduction to the intellectual community,” says Leary, “that they realize it doesn’t have to be bound by the classroom and they can carry their intellectual discourse into the residence hall.”

“Not only have I been given a community of people who have similar interests and goals as I do, but the LLC has expanded my view of how I see the world,” Burgos says. “It’s inspired me to get more involved in social justice issues that I hadn’t considered before.”

Discourse at USD includes access to a full staff of mentors for every LLC resident, including their preceptor, preceptorial assistant, resident assistant and resident minister, who work together as a team to ensure that the students — and the larger university community — are well served.

“What the students are seeing is RAs and faculty who are integrated and care about them together, so they are getting that true holistic experience,” adds Dayanne Izmirian, assistant dean of residential life. Excursions and events in the last year have included dinner with an Irish priest and social justice worker from Pakistan, a rock-climbing session with a focus on environmental justice, a trip to the California Wolf Center in Julian, Calif., and an exploration of art exhibits in Los Angeles to learn about the birth of the L.A. art scene.

“My goal the first semester is to get the students connected to each other, and then the second semester, to use those connections to broaden their experience beyond the LLC and help engage them with the wider campus,” says Jonathan Bowman, faculty director of the Social Justice LLC.

“The group experiences we’ve had have been a good way to start my four years here,” affirms Connor Self, a freshman international relations major from Maryland and member of the Honors LLC. From swimming with sharks in La Jolla and paddle boarding in Mission Bay to sharing classes with his housemates, Connor says living in an LLC has eased his transition to college.

For freshmen, settling in is a huge adjustment, agrees Del Dickson, faculty director of the Honors LLC. “The students really do see that they are not alone and that there are places for them to fit in, and they do it quickly,” he says.

Next year, organizers anticipate that about 50 percent of freshmen will participate in five themed communities: sustain-ability, social justice, the natural world, honors, and space, place and sound. The program is expected to grow to 100 percent participation by 2014.

As Burgos transitions to her sophomore year, she says the effects of her first year in an LLC will be lasting. “Coming to college your freshman year, you’re a little nervous that you’re not going to find a group of people that you’ll really get along with, or that they’ll be superficial friendships,” she says. “I’ve made some really great friends. I’ve loved college so far and I don’t know if my experience would have been the same without my Social Justice LLC. I couldn’t have asked for a better first year of college.” — Trisha J. Ratledge