Maggie Gaspar stands in the Green Quad.

Nationally ranked living learning communities transforming undergraduate experiences

Students at the University of South Carolina are in good hands with nationally recognized learning communities that provide unique opportunities to engage and build community.

On her way to the University of South Carolina, Maggie Gaspar prepared herself to see no familiar faces from high school, live with totally random roommates, and move into a dorm in a city six hours from home. It’s safe to say she was a bit nervous.

That changed as soon as she stepped foot into the garden at Green Quad living-learning community, a residential community for students interested in sustainability. “I could still work in the garden and go weeding, so that made it feel like home a lot more,” says Gaspar.

The strong communal aspect of living and learning alongside her Green Quad peers sealed the deal for Gaspar. “I immediately felt at home within two weeks of school,” she says. “I felt like I already had best friends. Like I had a family.”

This experience isn’t unique to Gaspar. Living-learning communities, which are a partnership between the Office of the Provost and University Housing, are one of the many opportunities offered by the university to provide students with a meaningful undergraduate experience. Incoming students can apply for or be invited to one of seven faculty-led living learning communities, which create an intentional space for students to engage passions ranging from health science to music to engineering, all within their own living spaces.

“It does not make a whole lot of sense to come to this university and just do your classwork, that’s not the point. Students should get involved and take advantages of all the experiences that USC offers.”

Sandra Kelly, vice provost

The university has a long history of offering transformative first year experiences through living-learning communities, and U.S. News and World Report recently ranked USC no. 16 nationally for learning communities. One aspect that makes these communities so successful is their ability to provide students with convenient hubs for club meetings, conferences and workshops relevant to their interests. Another element is the networking component.

Bre Grace is faculty principal of International House at Maxcy College, where international and American students live alongside one another with a goal of fostering diversity and interaction between a variety of world cultures. Grace invites a faculty fellow to engage with the community each semester by giving research talks and getting to know the students.

“It’s building familiarity with people on campus and what they do so that students have a greater sense of community,” Grace explains. As students seek out internships, she says, they can lean on the faculty connections they have made during their time as part of the living-learning community to access more robust professional networks and mentoring opportunities.

Living-learning communities are doing more than building relationships between members and associated faculty and staff — they are forcing students outside of their comfort zones, pushing them to experience what the larger campus and Columbia communities have to offer. “It does not make a whole lot of sense to come to this university and just do your classwork, that’s not the point,” says Vice Provost Sandra Kelly. “Students should get involved and take advantages of all the experiences that USC offers.”

Take Aidan Thomason, a recent graduate in international studies and history who was a member of International House at Maxcy College. As a student, she took advantage of the resources and connections provided by Maxcy, which allowed her to get to know members of Columbia’s refugee population. Faculty arranged to purchase audio equipment that allowed her and fellow Maxcy students to start the Seeking Refuge podcast.

“That really expanded my mind and how I thought about the world and immigration, all these really big topics, but it also made the world smaller,” says Thomason. “All these people from around the world are in Columbia and somehow not that different from me.”

The global perspective she gained during her time interacting with refugees and international students changed the trajectory of her career, positioning Thomason to pursue work in immigration. Now, she is set to travel to Brazil as a Fulbright scholar, where she will teach English and hopes to interact with Venezuelan migrant communities.

Even closer to home, in the Capstone Scholars living-learning community, students like Alex Hutton are presented with regular opportunities to engage with the broader Columbia area. Capstone Scholars, which is invite-only and USC’s largest living learning community, emphasizes students flourishing outside of the classroom, and community service is a key experience Capstone encourages.

“I had lot of fun going to service events, helping our community, giving back,” says Hutton. “Especially just moving here, it was a way to learn about the area and people in need. It was a great learning experience, and it felt good to give back to this place that’s welcomed me with open arms.”

Living-learning communities at USC are remarkably successful in easing the transition into the college environment. Just as impactful is the ability of these communities to empower students to succeed after graduation. Like Thomason, Gaspar has reaped the long-term benefits of being a member of a living-learning community. Empowered by opportunities to engage at her literal doorstep, Gaspar ran for student government, served on Residence Housing Association’s executive board, and joined a variety of outdoors and sustainability clubs.

Equipped with leadership experience and an extensive network, Gaspar recently returned to Green Quad as the community’s graduate assistant. She is currently pursuing her master’s in marine science, and she has not forgotten the role that her own graduate assistant played in shaping her undergraduate experience. Her goal is to provide current students with advice and connections so that they too can benefit from her advice and lived experience.
She says, “That all contributed to me growing up at Green Quad and me growing up as an adult.”

Editor’s Note: Students at the University of South Carolina have the opportunity to be a part of one of 7 different faculty-led living learning communities. These are Capstone Scholars; Entrepreneurship and Innovation Community; Galen Health Fellows; Green Quad; International House at Maxcy College; Preston Residential College; and Information, Design and Computing (Rhodos Fellows).

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about