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NMSU's Living Learning Communities integrate academics and social lives of students

Parents might say that partying and school do not mix, but at New Mexico State University, a program that allows students to combine their social and academic pursuits is helping them get better grades and stay in school. It is called a Living Learning Community where students with similar interests live and study together.

Maria Villa, a peer advisor at the Natural Science Living Learning Community, and Michelle Bernstein, the assistant director of residential education and assessment, plan activities for students residing in the hall. (NMSU photo by Tonya Suther)

"They receive support, they are in the same classes with those students, and they get to connect with faculty outside of the classroom, which research has shown is extremely beneficial to students in their academic success," said Michelle Bernstein, the assistant director of residential education and assessment at NMSU. "So, overall it provides a really holistic experience for the students."

The Natural Sciences Living and Learning Community, in its first year, is one of 10 groups like this at NMSU. Founded in 2007 as the biological LLC, Bernstein and faculty advisor Marvin Bernstein (no relation), a biology professor, brainstormed the benefits of expanding the community to students studying other natural sciences. It now includes biology, chemistry, biochemistry, geology and psychology.

"We have a focus in those areas, but we also found that there are a number of pre-nursing students who choose to live in this community and other students who have an interest in the sciences, even if it's not their major," Bernstein said.

"It seemed to us that making the LLC more inclusive, by broadening it to include students interested in several science departments instead of just one, would be more in keeping with the goals of the College of Arts and Sciences and the LLC Program," Marvin Bernstein said.

While retention and higher grade point averages are important reasons to join an LLC, students really enjoy living in an environment that makes learning fun.

"My favorite activity has been the Mitosis Doughnuts, because I got to demonstrate what I knew about mitosis and at the same time eat delicious doughnuts," said nursing major Bianca Martinez.

The Natural Sciences LLC is located at Garcia Hall, a residence hall where academics and social lives become integrated. Students find common ground together while interacting with faculty and participating in academically related programs.

"We've done a mad scientist party, which involved inviting a lot of the professors from the biology, chemistry, geology and psychology departments," said Maria Villa, natural sciences LLC peer adviser. "It was just pretty much an informal get together where we actually performed elementary-style experiments. It was really fun for the residents."

Villa, who is a biology major and part of the student staff at the LLC, is responsible for building a community by introducing activities that engage the residents.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that science is an everyday thing," Villa said. "So, I try to make it fun to where residents would want to come, and they wouldn't know that they're learning about science, when they did."

As faculty adviser, Marvin Bernstein assists the student peer advisor by making suggestions about the student activities and providing departmental sponsorship. Villa helps to make students aware of campus services such as tutoring, counseling and the health center.

Bertha Andrade, a nursing major who is originally from Deming, N.M., has enjoyed being a part of what has become a kind of extended family.

"I wanted to be around people with similar interests," Andrade said. " I like it. I get to meet great people and attend great activities."

NMSU faculty participate in something called "Pizza and a prof," informal talks given by professors where the students in the LLC can learn about a professor's research or outside interests.

Bernstein said the program was originally designed to assist first-year students with the transition into college life, but these learning communities have proven their value far beyond that.

Martinez and Andrade both agree that moving to the community has helped them.

"They automatically know they have a basis for what to talk about, so they automatically build friendships," Villa said. "They found a common ground, so they build from there."

Bringing together students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in activities that celebrate differences is also an important component of the Living and Learning Community.

"Something we really strive for is incorporating diversity, social justice and multiculturalism as well as community service into our programming," said Bernstein.

Other academically related activities Villa has planned for the year include exploring the Dona Ana Mountains during a nature walk, working with horses in a team-building activity and making a pinata while looking at the molecular structure of paper mache.

The natural sciences LLC is open to anyone who has an interest in the field of science at no additional cost.

"Students just self report a better college experience when they live in an LLC," Bernstein said.

For more information about the living learning communities at NMSU visit http://www.nmsu.edu/~housing/general/living-learning-communities.html.