AMES, Iowa — Twenty-five years after learning communities began at Iowa State University, they are now a thriving and integral part of the first-year student experience. And for the nearly 93,000 students who have joined a learning community during that time, the relationships and connections made often extend beyond their college years.
Learning communities are small groups of students who take one or more courses together, share academic interests, interact with peer mentors, participate in extracurricular activities, and may live in the same residence hall. Peer mentors are upper-class students who help teach classes, run study groups, organize activities and help students with the college transition.
Today, there are 93 learning communities at Iowa State, but the program began in 1995 with 12 learning communities based in residence halls and with course-based opportunities. Martin Jischke, then-president of Iowa State, called for a three-year $1.5 million investment in the growth and institutionalization of learning communities. The program is a partnership between the Divisions of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs.
“Learning communities began as a grassroots effort that was pulled together by a variety of people on campus at the time,” said Jennifer Leptien, director of Learning Communities.
At first, all learning communities had a residential component. Over the years, various departments initiated their own learning communities. Today, 19 of the 93 learning communities have a residential component.
Their popularity has exploded, from 35% of first-year full-time students joining a learning community in 2000 to 91% this academic year. Out of the 5,787 students in learning communities this year, 80% are first-year students. The other 20% are primarily transfer or change-of-major students.
“It’s such a bedrock of the Iowa State experience,” Leptien said. “Students and parents come in asking about it.”
Logan Kellogg, a 2015 graduate in agricultural studies, says his experience in that department’s learning community, and later as one of its peer mentors, developed leadership skills that continue to benefit him in his career today. He credits Ben Chamberlain, an AgEdS learning community co-coordinator and an academic advisor, with seeing his potential and encouraging him to step out of his comfort zone.
“Never stop doing all of the good work that you do on a daily basis,” Kellogg wrote in a message to Chamberlain. “Continue to actively seek and develop what I call the ‘latent leaders’ that come through the department. You invested in me years ago and I have had the opportunity to pay it forward to others in my career thus far. Know that your work has changed lives.”
7 women, 6 states, 1 community
Heidi Hassel graduated from Iowa State in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She was a member of the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) learning community at the time, and says it was a transformative support system for the transition from high school to college.
“We’re a minority in a lot of those classes, but we also have a lot in common,” said Hassel, who is now a structural engineer living in Kansas.
Hassel and six other women formed a close bond during their time in WiSE, and remain close after all of these years. They are all engineers, they live in six states, have 13 children among them and still make time to stay in touch and travel together when possible.
The group planned to reunite last summer for a winery tour in New York, but of course the COVID-19 pandemic postponed those plans. Instead, the group met over Zoom – and realized since they live far apart that this should become a common practice anyway.
“Looking back on those two years I lived in Friley Hall, it was a great experience because if we had a big test one week, pretty much everyone on the floor would have that same test,” she said. “There weren’t people encouraging me to not study.”
The women hit milestones at the same time as they moved through Iowa State, from the core courses freshman year to senior design projects to job-hunting after graduation. Even today, as they all stayed in engineering, the support system stands for them to share experiences and offer feedback.
“In a room full of men, I don’t feel uncomfortable. But I do think it is powerful to meet other women in STEM fields,” Hassel said.