Linguistics professor Julie Sykes is building a bridge on the University of Oregon campus.
It’s not one that can be crossed physically or that can be found on a map. But as the live-in faculty member at the Global Scholars Hall, Sykes’ goal is to connect faculty and students in a way that hasn’t exactly been done before at the UO.
Living with 430 students as one of the first participants in the university’s faculty-in-residence program, Sykes knows what they talk about with their friends’ roommates on a Saturday morning; she hears it when they’re anxious or concerned about academics and life on campus. As a result, she connects to students in ways most faculty members typically can’t.
“There’s a certain amount of authenticity in being a faculty (member) in residence,” Sykes said. “For me, that was really important both on the student side and on the faculty side. And I’ve really tried to live that authentically with the students.”
Sykes, director of the Center for Applied Second Language Studies, said even after three years she doesn’t know each and every student in the building. But her presence is a boon to students who just need someone to talk to.
That may include discussing the new federal travel ban with a student from an affected country, or it might be helping an honors student understand that their first B on a paper is not the end of the world.
It’s this relationship between a faculty member and students that illustrate the need for faculty-in-residence positions, said student housing director Michael Griffel.
“Having a connection with faculty members outside of a classroom is one of the top factors that relate to student’s success,” he said. “When they get to know one faculty member, it breaks down the barriers that students tend to have with other faculty members.”
When students come to college, Griffel added, they’re often mystified by faculty members and can be intimidated. With the faculty-in-residence program, students get to know a professor or instructor outside the classroom and are more likely to go to office hours, ask questions and get connected with other faculty members.
“This creates an entrée and really humanizes the relationship,” Griffel said. “They often occupy very different psychological and physical spaces, so the ability to find commonality really helps.”
Sykes, who lives in a suite with her two daughters, ages 3 and 6, wanted to make the experience of living in a large student residence hall as “regular as possible” for her children.
“It’s just like a normal house,” Sykes said. “Three bedrooms, two baths. It was important to me that the kids are just as much of the experience as I am. We’re not just the faculty (member) in residence, we are the faculty family.”
Sykes holds “mystery dinners” in which students are invited to attend a gathering in her home with an unknown guest, who might be a dean or even the president of the university. And she and her daughters often can be found delivering desserts to students on a Sunday afternoon and participating in as many hall activities as they can.
“The Japanese language group was having a sushi event, so my daughter rolled sushi,” Sykes said. “She thought it was the best thing she’s ever done.”
Living in a community with so many students from different backgrounds and countries has had an enormous effect on her children, she said, like when her 3-year-old, now in kindergarten, learned she was about to have a new classmate from China who did not speak English.
“She said, ‘Mom, we have to figure out how to say hello in Chinese! Text so-and-so and find out!’” Sykes said. “And she carefully wrote the characters to say hello, and she was so proud of that card. I attribute a lot of that to being in a space with domestic diversity and international diversity. I was really proud of her; it showed how she thought about the world.”
Sykes’ experience in the faculty-in-residence program has been so positive she’s decided to apply for another three years. And because of her success, the program will expand to a new residence hall opening next year and every hall renovated after that.
“I would like all students who live in residence halls to have a faculty member in residence and to know that the resource is there,” Griffel said. “Students might be walking through their hall at 9 o’clock at night and see a faculty member in residence on a couch or near the fireplace talking to other students. They could join in and think, ‘That’s part of my college experience.’ That is a pretty amazing thing for this university to be able to offer.”
The bridge from faculty to student works both ways, Sykes said, and she is able to bring her experience into her other academic roles.
“If I’m on a strategic planning committee or when we are rethinking undergraduate education, the lens into their world from a nonclassroom perspective really matters,” she said. “I’m really grateful for the privilege to get to be part of the students’ world in a certain way, and I get to bring that to the faculty. It’s fun to get to work in both of those spaces.”
The next faculty member in residence will move in next fall. Sykes expects that person will find it as rewarding as she has.
“I’m so glad that the University of Oregon supports this program and it’s growing because it’s a powerful resource for students but also for faculty relationships with students,” she said with a smile. “Which is inherently what we do, right?”
—By Laurie Notaro, University Communications