BU’s Faculty-in-Residence program puts professors where the students are.
By Vicky Waltz
Photos by Kalman Zabarsky
Back in the ’70s, when Karen Jacobs was a student at BU, she didn’t live on campus. Then she decided to make up for lost time. When Jacobs moved to Boston from the suburbs seven years ago, she didn’t buy a fancy brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue. Instead, she settled in Warren Towers—one of the largest residence halls in the country, lodging about 1,800 freshmen. Last year, she relocated to the more luxurious Student Village II, better known as StuVi2, but her neighbors are still kids aged 18 to 22. The 60-year-old Jacobs doesn’t sweat the generation gap, though. “The students keep me young,” she says, laughing. “How else would I stay up-to-date on the latest music?”
A clinical professor of occupational therapy in Sargent College, Jacobs is one of 13 faculty members who make up BU’s Faculty-in-Residence (FIR) program. Designed to deepen the impact of teaching and research, FIR allows students and faculty to interact on an informal, day-to-day basis outside the classroom. “Students, particularly freshmen, are often intimidated by the concept of ‘The Professor,’” Jacobs says. “The Faculty-in-Residence program helps to demystify us.” Besides that, the program creates a warm, inviting environment for students. Jacobs (below, right) keeps her door open whenever she’s home and encourages students to drop by for homemade cookies and conversation. “I think students appreciate having an adult around,” she says.
Research on student retention and academic success indicates that faculty-student interaction outside the classroom leads to a higher rate of student achievement, says Jacobs. “Programs like this put more role models in the residence halls.” “I am constantly amazed at how easy it is to develop relationships with these students and at how long they last across their collegiate experiences and beyond,” says Bryan Stone, associate dean at the School of Theology and Warren Towers resident. “There’s a ‘specialness’ to being able to see students outside the classroom, where they live, eat, and mix with one another, and to having some influence—sometimes small, sometimes bigger—in their lives,” adds Ed Downes, an associate professor of mass communication in the College of Communication, who lives at 10 Buick Street.
To take part in the program, which provides a rent-free living space and partial meal plan, professors are required to offer evening “open hours” and attend RA meetings. Jacobs holds a weekly “Test Kitchen,” teaching the culinarily-challenged how to prepare dishes other than ramen noodles.
“I think it’s important that students have some life skills before they graduate,” she says. “I want them to know how to cook, and more importantly, cook healthily.” They make potato latkes for Passover and fried samosas for Diwali. After dinner, she and the students often play board games. In keeping with her efforts to encourage healthy habits, Jacobs introduced a new activity last semester: sunrise yoga to help relieve stress and boost concentration. She even arranged for a masseuse to give students free massages during finals week.
Other faculty members host Monday Night Football parties, community service excursions, and fishing trips to Gloucester.
Diane Meuser, an associate professor of math and statistics in the College of Arts & Sciences who has participated in the program for more than 30 years, takes her students on annual hikes to New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock and organizes bike rides to Concord and Lincoln. She also hosts homemade ice cream parties in her apartment, with such flavors as avocado, lemon meringue pie, and chocolate truffle.
“I like living on campus and being right in the middle of things,” she says. “It would be boring to live in the suburbs.”
Jacobs’s residents pitch in to help with some of her research projects, most notably one that determines the proper ergonomics for using a laptop computer. Partially conducted in Warren Towers, the study offers suggestions on how students can modify their laptops to function as desktop computer workstations. “Because laptop computers are so portable, students often use them on their beds and at tables,” she says. “As a result, some users are developing health problems like wrist, neck, shoulder, head, and back pain.” She is currently expanding the study to include information about iPads and iPhones.
But Jacobs doesn’t see her residents as research subjects. “The students and I, we’re a family,” she says. And she means that quite literally. “My son was a freshman during my first year at Warren Towers,” she recalls, “and I introduced him to a young woman on my floor. They fell in love, got married, and now I have a grandchild.” ■