Western Kentucky University

Creating Connection and Support Through a Unique Living Learning Community

The living learning communities (LLCs) at this university are vibrant hubs of transformation, fostering personal and professional growth, academic engagement, cultural diversity, and active involvement for our diverse student body. Collaborating with the Intercultural Student Engagement Center, the LLC program creates a strong support network for underrepresented minority students, ensuring they thrive in all aspects of their university experience.

Many postsecondary education institutions inadvertently perpetuate the myth that a student’s intellectual endeavors in the classroom and social connections outside of the classroom are independent experiences, but that’s not the case at Western Kentucky University (WKU). President Timothy C. Caboni didn’t believe these pursuits should be discrete and was determined to challenge this presumption. He envisioned a higher education experience in which students could live in a community where they shared an academic interest or affinity that would foster an authentic sense of support and belonging. That resulted in reimagining the structure of living learning communities (LLCs) at WKU by partnering with the Housing and Residence Life (HRL) and Academic Affairs departments. There are currently 20 LLCs in residence halls on the campus in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Each LLC is unique, with activities for students that are tailored to their designated majors or interests as well as opportunities for them to engage with other students and faculty throughout campus. Among the LLCs are academic ones, including agriculture, creative arts, education, F1RST Gen, and the various sciences, and interest-based communities such as the Chinese Academy, Mahurin Honors College, Stonewall Suites for LGBTQ+, ROTC, and transfer students. Supporting these LLCs are faculty and staff members who inspire a sense of collective purpose and responsibility that is aimed at retaining and matriculating students.

LLCs are not new to the higher education experience at some colleges and universities, but President Caboni took the idea a step further at WKU to create a tight-knit community within the broader university community for incoming students. Before he expanded LLCs into academic and interest-based areas, the Intercultural Student Engagement Center (ISEC) had instituted the ISEC Academy for first- and second-year students, who identify as people of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, multiracial); are first generation and Pell grant-eligible; and/or have some need with their transition, persistence, and graduation from WKU. The academy’s LLC has allowed the students to live together and participate in activities that help build the foundation of their postsecondary experience. The academy and its LLC have been in place at WKU since 2017 in an effort to close the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts.

Overall, LLCs put the students’ well-being first to ensure they complete their academic journey and are prepared to pursue their professional goals and serve the communities where they live and work.

The Methodology

When developing the new LLC model, WKU applied best practices and crafted goals that oriented all LLCs toward common outcomes without being overly prescriptive and/or restrictive. The sustainability of each LLC is dependent upon the residence halls where they are located and the cross-divisional collaboration among administrators, faculty, and staff members. The two new residence halls added to the campus are uniquely designed for the collaborative vision of LLCs with classrooms, faculty offices, and common areas on each floor. Fellows, which consist of university faculty and staff members, support the LLCs; the ratio is one fellow to about 24 students. Topical committees of LLC fellows and members of the university’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning as well as HRL dedicated to various aspects of the program ensure LLCs are not dependent on the presence of one individual to function efficiently.

WKU wanted the LLCs’ demographics to be as representative of Kentucky as possible and ensure that first-generation students, students of color, and students who need the extra support and services, participated in the LLC opportunity, particularly the ISEC LLC. WKU worked with its admissions team to be sure targeted emails were sent to students about the LLCs that best aligned with their preferences as indicated in their application to campus. With the partnership of ISEC who works closely in recruiting and assisting underrepresented scholars to WKU, the emails also included information about the ISEC LLC. WKU implemented a two-cycle admissions process that filled 70% of seats at the beginning of the semester and 30% of seats for the second cycle, allowing students who are not familiar with the concept to learn about LLCs and enroll later in the summer recruitment cycle.

For first-year students, the LLC program, and especially the ISEC LLC, unlocks the following key benefits and objectives:

  • Goal: Smooth Academic Transition
    • Objective: By the end of the academic year, each student will have earned a cumulative GPA of at least a 3.0.
    • Objective: As part of their organized LLC programming each semester, students will engage the services of at least one WKU academic resource, in addition to standard academic advising.
  • Goal: Smooth Social Transition
    • Objective: By the end of the first academic term, students will participate in at least two LLC-related activities, with the intention of creating opportunities to connect with a peer group.
    • Objective: At least once per semester, students will participate in a campus or LLC activity that will lead to an exposure to differing cultures and/or systems of belief.
    • Objective: Students will be exposed to strategies intended to enhance their ability to balance academic and life demands at least twice during the academic year, the first of which should take place during the first five weeks.
  • Goal: Sense of Belonging
    • Objective: By the end of the program, students will identify at least one WKU-affiliated individual with whom they’ve established a relationship.
    • Objective: By the end of the program, students will identify at least one academic unit or extracurricular/social group to which they belong.

Through this intentional approach, students can be elevated by high-impact experiences that do not burden them financially and prevent them from working to support themselves.

Overall, the LLCs become a home away from home, where the students can not only receive academic support but also become part of a community of students, staff, and faculty who are there to support them.

The Impact

WKU cares that students succeed academically and continue to matriculate, and LLCs are proving to help the university achieve these goals. Over the past three years, the number of participants who applied and were accepted into an LLC has grown by 27% as follows:

  • In the 2021–2022 academic year, there were 962 applicants and 602 acceptances.
  • In 2022–2023, there were 1,071 applicants and 770 acceptances.
  • In 2023–2024, there were 1,265 applicants and 804 acceptances.

LLCs are also generating strong retention rates, which were pulled from the 2021 cohort and 2022 cohort. The statistics are as follows:

  • In the 2021 cohort after the first semester, enrollment of students in LLCs increased by about 12% from 58.7% to 70.7% over students not in LLCs. Enrollment of first-generation students in LLCs increased by 17.2% from 47.1% to 64.3% over first-generation students not in LLCs.
  • In the 2022 cohort at the end of the first year, enrollment of students in LLCs increased by about 11% from 74.7% to 85.7% over students not in LLCs. Enrollment of first-generation students in LLCs increased by 19.5% from 64.9% to 84.4% over first-generation students not participating. Enrollment of underrepresented minority students in LLCs increased by 16.1% from 61.2% to 77.3% over underrepresented minority students not participating. And enrollment of low-income students in LLCs increased by 17.5% from 62.3% to 79.8% over low-income students not participating.

LLCs offer several key benefits for the students as well as faculty members and administrators involved. Living in an environment that supports their academic and personal growth can help students feel more connected to WKU, increasing their likelihood of staying enrolled and completing their degrees. LLCs that focus on career preparation can provide students with networking opportunities, internships, and other opportunities that make them more competitive in the job market. Living and learning in a community of peers fosters personal development, including leadership skills, cultural competence, and a sense of responsibility toward others. For faculty and staff members, engaging with students in a meaningful way and witnessing their growth can be deeply rewarding. LLCs encourage collaboration across different departments and disciplines, fostering a more integrated and innovative approach to education. A successful LLC program can contribute to a positive campus environment, making WKU a more attractive institution for prospective students and employees.

Key Takeaways

Through the LLCs, institutions should strive to integrate academic programming directly into the residential setting, facilitating a seamless connection between what students learn in the classroom and how they live and interact within their community. The fellows who consist of faculty and staff members should be able to evolve and change to meet the needs and priorities of the students so that the LLC program continues to be sustainable.

“I think one of the things that makes our program successful is that we’re constantly evolving. Students don’t learn the same way that people learned 20 years ago. So, being able to look at the students that you have coming in and changing so they can be successful will make the difference. Sometimes, it’ll make you uncomfortable because it’s easier to just do things the way you’ve been doing them. However, we’re constantly looking at how we can be better at what we’re doing while still being student-centered.”

Dr. Cres’Sena Thomas, Associate Director, Intercultural Student Engagement Center, Western Kentucky University

“I love being with people who look like me and share the same feelings as me. I get to see my Intercultural Student Engagement Center (ISEC) family and don’t have to feel alone. I’m thankful that ISEC was created for minority students and gives us a chance to be around and learn from each other. Without ISEC, there would be nothing for minority students at this predominately white institution school. All of the other Black programs branch off from ISEC; ISEC is like the tree of life for us in the program. I would not be the person I am today without ISEC Academy.”

Student, living learning community, Intercultural Student Engagement Center, 2023–2024

“I’m appreciative that this living learning community (LLC) even exists in the first place. It’s extremely crucial that queer students be given a safe space to be themselves and congregate with each other, and this LLC does a wonderful job of that. I’m grateful for the numerous events and opportunities given to us to not only socialize but to also inform ourselves on current issues, get resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health care, resources for self-help, voting registration, etc. I’m especially grateful for the annual event that educates students on how to vote and gives them registration ballots. I think now more than ever it is important for queer youth to be given a political voice, and having a direct channel to go through to register and learn how to vote is phenomenal. I’m thankful for some of the friends I’ve made on this floor as well as the good choice in residential assistants.”

Student, Stonewall Suites living learning community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender-themed LLC), 2023–2024

“I am thankful for the community of people who are also experiencing this for the first time with their families. It’s very refreshing to know that there are other people who are also struggling. The living learning community makes me feel more at home here knowing I am closer to people who understand the struggles.”

Student, First-Gen living learning community, 2023–2024

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