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Living and Learning Communities: A Home Away from Home for Diverse Students
Other Living and Learning Communities
Lavender House, American Sign Language (ASL) House, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) House, and STEM Diversity House serve students from underrepresented backgrounds. Like other LLCs, they provide housing, academic and personal support.
Lavender and ASL houses are unique in that, although they do not specifically serve ethnic or racial groups, they do serve students interested in a particular community. In Lavender House’s case, those are the cultures of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally communities; and with ASL House, students learn the cultures of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Both houses allow students who do not identify as members of those communities to learn and participate.
WISE is open to first-year female students interested in science or engineering, while STEM Diversity House is for students of color interested in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Both houses create a smaller, inclusive space where first-year students interested in those fields can learn from faculty, students, and professionals with their interests.
Like most other first-year students in her class, Paja Xiong was treading unchartered waters at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities when she was admitted in 2011. But as a Hmong American first-generation college student, Xiong’s multilayered identity and unique background motivated her to seek supportive campus spaces relevant to her lived experiences.
That is why when Xiong applied for campus housing, she also decided to apply for Tsev Hmoob (pronounced “jay Hmong”), a living learning community for incoming Hmong first-year students.
“I had no idea that a program like that existed but I was curious about living on campus so I decided to research and figure out which dorm I wanted,” explained Xiong, now a linguistics and speech-language-hearing sciences sophomore. “So I went online and...found the Hmong House. I had never heard of it before!”
Tsev Hmoob is one of four cultural houses that provide multicultural students like Xiong with connections, volunteer opportunities and mentors to assist in transitioning to life at the University. The cultural houses also provide academic support.
The cultural houses are part of the 32 living learning communities (LLCs) for first-year students at the University of Minnesota. Students in an LLC usually live together on a residence hall floor. The cultural houses are unique from other LLCs in that they serve students of a particular ethnic, racial, or cultural demographic underrepresented at the University.
“I would be really lost to be honest [if I had not joined Tsev Hmoob]. When I got into it, I found so many resources,” Xiong said. “I was with a group of students who were new to campus; we were able to navigate the U, to use the resources and make the most of our opportunities.”
In addition to Tsev Hmoob, the cultural houses include American Indian Cultural House, CASA SOL, and Huntley House for African American Men, which launched this academic year. LLCs such as Lavender House, American Sign Language (ASL) House, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) House, and STEM Diversity House also serve students from underrepresented backgrounds (see sidebar).
A cultural house success story
Paul Wenell was a South High School graduate, passionate about music when he started thinking of applying to the University. In fact, the University was the only college he applied to, partly because of the American Indian Cultural House.
Wenell is from the Anishinabe nation, also known as the Ojibwe. He went through some struggles in his teenage years, such as depression and dealing with antisocial tendencies. His personal struggles affected his academics in high school, and it took him two attempts to be admitted to the University of Minnesota. Despite that, he graduated in five years with a major in American Indian Studies and a minor in sociology, law, criminology and deviance, and has thrived since.
“The most important [thing] for me was that there were other Native students there. If I just went to the U and I didn't have other Native students around me, I don't think I would've succeeded as much as I did,” he said. “And not just students, but Native advisors as well, a Native support system, the American Indian Studies major, and having that communal aspect helped me.”
Now 25 years old, Wenell is a youth worker for the Division of Indian Work, a nonprofit organization that provides social services for Native Americans. He is also a reading coach with Anishinabe Academy. Wenell said the social spaces the American Indian Cultural House provided him and having close relationships with mentors helped him to discover himself.
“I think a lot of that made me stronger as an individual because I started breaking out of my shell more in college, and it was due to the culture and being around my people,” he said.
Jillian Rowan, the lead coordinator of the Circle of Indigenous Nations (COIN) and coordinator of the American Indian Cultural House, still keeps in touch with Wenell as a mentor.
“It’s amazing to see how much he’s grown, he’s like my adopted son,” she said, laughing. “He’s grown so much from the place of not talking and keeping his head down!”
How it all began: the American Indian Cultural House
Rowan was working at the American Indian Resource Center (now COIN) and as an American Indian admission counselor when she realized the need for culturally appropriate campus housing opportunities for Native American students.
Prior to the existence of the American Indian Cultural House—over ten years ago—some admission counselors would have to call and ask prospective self-identifying Native students if they wanted to room with another Native student. It was a difficult and time-consuming process, compounded by the small numbers of first-year Native students, Rowan explained.
“One of the common threads I found is Native students wanted to live around and connect with Native students because we’re so marginalized,” she said. “Students asked for resources.”
That’s when Rowan, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe, approached the American Indian Studies department and Susan Stubblefield—assistant director of Housing and Residential Life (HRL)—to lay the foundations for a Native American LLC. In 2003, the American Indian Cultural House was born. The Chicano Studies department worked with HRL to start CASA SOL soon after. Tsev Hmoob and the Huntley House began in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
All living learning communities originated in—and are funded, at least in part—by Housing and Residential Life. An LLC is usually a partnership between HRL and an academic department or college. First-year students apply for an LLC when applying for campus housing, and they can choose their house depending on academic interests or cultural background.
The four cultural houses share a common structure, with a staff coordinator, partnering academic department, and a community advisor who is usually a student peer mentor. Cultural houses provide identity exploration and workshops, such as cooking cultural dishes and learning the language. The number of participating students in each house and cohort varies.
American Indian Cultural House and CASA SOL are unique from most houses in that they do not have a residential requirement. This is to be more inclusive of students who may have overlapping academic interests but also want to be included in a cultural house’s activities and programming, Rowan said. American Indian House is also unique in that it honors incoming first-years and graduated seniors at the annual Fall Feast. This February, American Indian House is collaborating with Huntley House for a movie series on black Indians.
Retention and community connections
Juavah Lee has high expectations of his students. As Assistant Director for Engagement and Outreach in the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE), and staff coordinator for Tsev Hmoob, Lee knows that cultural houses play a crucial role in supporting academics. The purpose of the cultural houses is to keep first-years connected not only with one another, but also with academics. In fact, students in Tsev Hmoob are required to work closely with MCAE’s academic mentoring program for multicultural students.
“We focus on academic support, not just cultural. We introduce different academic resources and services to [first-years] to make sure they have a strong starting point and we'll support them from day one,” Lee explained. Students also have weekly study groups.
Lee said Hmong students tend to come to the University with a strong academic background, but many drop out before declaring a major. Students need holistic support systems to ensure academic success, he said. Lee hopes that by giving first-year students a head start through Tsev Hmoob’s multi-pronged approach, the likelihood of Hmong retention rates will increase.
That’s why Xiong believes joining Tsev Hmoob was one of the most powerful experiences in her undergraduate career.
“Interacting with the other students was the best thing because we were eager to develop our own bonds,” she said. “For me, I was able to work toward one goal, which was to stay in school and work hard.”
-- Lolla Mohammed Nur