With change there can often be skepticism, but change can also be beneficial because it can function to provide new and innovative learning opportunities and aims to be constantly improving. One area of the Gustavus Adolphus College community that has undergone recent change is in the Office of Residential Life where the Head Resident program has transitioned to the Faculty/Administrator in Residence Program (FAIR).
“There was a rich tradition of having faculty and staff members live in the halls with the Head Resident program,” commented Director of Residential Life Charlie Potts ’01. When a program is around that long, however, it goes through changes. “The head residents were doing a good job, but there’s this push nationally to make more intentional and focused opportunities to allow faculty and staff to engage with students outside of the classroom.”
There are four new FAIR positions this year. Associate Professor of Political Science Kate Knutson works with the First-Year Experience, which focuses on getting students acclimated to college and discovering who they are within the Gustavus community. Heather Dale, Director of Health Services, works with the Sophomore Experience and focuses on who students are as a person and how to build healthy relationships. Adam Lugsch-Tehle, Assistant Dean of Admissions and class of ’07, focuses on the Senior Experience to help students make meaning of their four years at Gustavus and how that translates to moving away from campus. Associate Professor of History Sujay Rao works with the Crossroads Experience, which focuses on broadening the reach of the intercultural Crossroads program through the campus and expanding cultural experiences.
“The main goal of the FAIR program is to provide students opportunities to work closely with faculty and staff as they discover who they are, not only individually but also within a community, and to tie together classroom experiences with outside-the-classroom experiences,” Potts explained. “The structure the FAIR program provides allows for development of class year identity as well as a system for connecting with students in a progressive, linear way as they move through their Gustavus experience.”
When Professor Knutson applied for the first-year FAIR position last year, she put together a proposal based on a review of research on the importance of the first-year experience. She presented a philosophy of how she would approach the job, and administrators from the Residential Life Office, as well as students and other faculty, reviewed her application. Professor Knutson was then interviewed, and she was chosen based on her desire to work with the program. “I think she had a passion for connecting the academic world to the student life world,” Potts said in regards to the committee’s subsequent selection of Knutson.
“The research all showed, very convincingly, that in order to be successful—academically, socially, and emotionally—students need to make connections with other students, campus resources, and faculty within the first six weeks of the semester,” Knutson said. “That’s the critical period for first-year students.”
From that foundation, Knutson considered what challenges first-year students face and what kinds of things they need in order to make connections. Knutson intentionally focused on the first six weeks of the school year, finding ways to get students connected to each other and to campus and academic resources. “The purpose of my job is to help first-year students be successful in college,” Knutson stated of the FAIR program, thus she set out to find ways to accomplish that goal.
Knutson began a few initiatives in September to help first-year students become better connected and involved. The Gustavus Activity Card program was one such project, where students attended a set of events and got their card punched for attending the event. This program consisted of a mix of academic, social, athletic, and artistic campus activities. At the end of the program, students who participated were entered in a drawing for prizes. This program functioned to “give students an excuse to get out there and find out about the many exciting things that happen at Gustavus, and to help them figure out where they fit in with all that,” Knutson said.
Another idea that Knutson rolled out this fall involved adding the important resource of tutors to the first-year residence halls. She partnered with tutors in the chemistry, biology, and math departments, as well as the Writing Center, to give students academic assistance within the comfort of their own residence halls. Tutors are available once a week in residence halls where first-year students reside.
“That’s been a great resource for students to get some academic help and learn that going to a tutor is not a bad thing,” Knutson commented. “It’s great to have this resource, that’s free, to help students study for exams and get them engaged in the academic life of the college, and to put them in contact with peer mentors.”
Knutson hopes to bring back the Gustavus Activity Card next year and hopes to expand the in-hall tutoring program to include other academic departments and make it a more regular event in the residence halls. During the spring semester, Knutson plans to add a few programs to the docket. One of these would be hosting dinners with professors and first-year students. She says this will provide an environment where students can have dinner with a professor to discuss a topic or connect on a shared interest.
“Being involved with the students is the reason I became a professor,” Knutson remarked. “Relationships a central part of this job, and I think that they chose me for this position because they could tell that I really care about students and enjoy my work with them.”
Living on campus in Sohre Hall with her family is an opportunity for Knutson to get to know students outside of the classroom. She says the reason that she feels the first-year experience is so important is because all students are different, and some people transition easier than others.
“The goal is to figure out, how can we as a college come around students to a) help them avoid a crisis moment, or b) if they have a crisis moment, help them recover, because it’s possible,” she said.
Inside the classroom, Knutson teaches a variety of courses in American politics, including U.S. Politics and Government, Public Policy, Congress, Interest Groups, and Media and Politics. She has helped organize the College’s annual Day at the Capitol event and has also accompanied students on travel courses to Washington D.C. and Hawaii.
Annalise Dobbelstein ’14 is a political science and Scandinavian studies double major, who has had Professor Knutson for two classes. “Kate is a wonderful professor and because she lives on campus, I don’t see her as someone who is just a professor but someone who is approachable and available for any situation,” Dobbelstein said. “Her students come first and her attitude about teaching is something that is particular to her.”
Political science major Kyle Hilding ’14 agreed that “Kate is very relatable to her students, is approachable, and works hard for her students.” Clearly Knutson’s dedication to her students, in and out of the classroom, has been impactful. If Knutson strives to help students succeed, it seems that she has been abundantly effective in doing so. “I have learned so much from Kate, and not just related to political science but also in areas that enhance my college experience,” Dobbelstein said.
Students are not the only ones giving Knutson praise for her efforts this year. “Kate has been a tremendous example of what a faculty member living in a residence hall and working with a residential life program can be. She’s done an incredible job of really taking this position and making it her own,” Potts said.
Through her different initiatives and constant assessment of how well the program is working, Knutson is always looking for ways to improve. She wants to learn from the program this year and find areas that can be changed to better help students. This desire for constant improvement is one of the many characteristics that has set Knutson apart and made her a “real champion for the student experience, both in and out of the classroom,” Potts praised.
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