Academic Credit for Wesleyan Student Leaders

Students earning academic credit for serving in roles as interns, work-study employees, and other placements is not unusual in student affairs. But it’s at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where students earn academic credit through the campus housing program by doing the work that is similar to that of student organization leaders: planning topical forums, scheduling and running concerts, and organizing film festivals. Wesleyan’s system is run through residential “program houses” akin to the safe spaces typically offered through campus cultural centers, many of which are located in student unions.  

Driven by a unique combination of student activism, faculty engagement, and staff supervision, program housing allows students to live communally based on shared interests and sociocultural identities. Wesleyan enrolls approximately 3,000 undergraduates each year, with 99% of students residing on campus. As a liberal arts college in New England known for a focus on social justice, program houses operate as much more than a student housing assignment. Every house has a mission, with a clearly established and publicized role on campus and recognized within the student body. 

Program houses can offer a location for student organizations to regularly assemble, like spaces within student unions, as well as create an easily identifiable environment for non-white students who may need to escape the stressors that can be present in a predominantly white campus. In line with the work of campus professionals who manage student organizations on other campuses, the success of program housing at Wesleyan allows the Office of Residential Life to support the most marginalized student populations.  

In the Wesleyan residential curriculum, program houses share an educational plan specifically designed to encapsulate the community-building efforts of house managers, as well as the managerial aspects of living and learning in a standalone house. Program housing has existed as a staple of Wesleyan University for more than 50 years, and each house has emerged as the result of student advocacy, just as student organizations are created. 

The Office of Residential Life accepts proposals from students for new program houses whenever a vacancy arises, which usually occurs when the university acquires a new building or through diminished student interest in an existing current house. The office currently oversees about 30 houses, and each is categorized as either interest- or identity-based. Some of the specific interest-based houses include Music House, Film House, and Art House, each of which have become popular spaces for student populations with an interest in theater. 

La Casa de Albizu Campos, an example of an identity-based house, serves Latinx students as well as allies interested in issues facing that community. La Casa also serves as the regular meeting space for Ajúa Campos, Wesleyan’s Latinx identity and affinity group. In that same spirit, Womxn of Color House and Outhouse have symbiotic relationships with student organizations Womxn of Color Collective and Outing Club respectively, and each interchangeably bolsters the success of the other. 

The roster of interest- and identity-based houses has shifted throughout the history of Wesleyan, responding to current events as well as ever-changing student needs and interests, but what has remained is the uniqueness associated with the way residents in each unit commit to working toward and supporting the house mission throughout the academic year. The spirit of program housing is clearly analogous to the energy and commitment required of successful student organizations, with both campus compartments fueled by and responding to student needs.   

Just as Wesleyan’s program houses display the inherent diversity on campus, its course catalog is equally broad, and credit-bearing courses are not contained to classrooms or academic buildings. Student-led forums, where undergraduates act as course instructors, are regular academic features offered each semester. Forums may enroll between five and 15 students, must enlist one or more faculty sponsors, and can earn undergraduates academic credit toward degree requirements. Forum topics have ranged from “Russian Movement Training for Performers” to “Why Things Fall Down.” Each forum offers an opportunity for undergraduates to stretch their knowledge, in addition to providing an opportunity for them to practice with pedagogical design in a supportive, empowering environment. Above all, these forums grant academic value to the passions that students pursue outside of the classroom, equivalent to the vigor student organization leaders often display.  

Area coordinators with Wesleyan’s Office of Residential Life directly oversee the program houses on campus, and those coordinators recently introduced something call an engagement contract, a learning tool utilized by all program houses to support their unique missions. Each program house consists of an undergraduate paraeducator, known as a house manager, and anywhere from eight to 25 residents. House managers complete an engagement contract with their residents in the first week of each semester, setting ground rules about communal living and planning their mission-based initiatives throughout the semester. 

Just as student organizations reserve, maintain, and operate spaces for various events, program houses create ideal venues for mission-based activities, and the contracts help embed that culture of activism. For example, residents in Malcolm X House might support that house’s mission of exploring the African diaspora by hosting a film screening of related documentaries, with the associated engagement contracts serving as one onus for residents of the house to actively support and engage in the house’s mission. Residents of the house go through brainstorming sessions with the intention of implementing exciting, often academically oriented initiatives. House managers guide their residents through the completion of their engagement contract, while also addressing other residential issues that may arise throughout the semester. That’s not dissimilar from student organization leaders taking some leadership roles with respect to programming, while also often having some responsibility for budgets, marketing, and collaborations with other campus entities.  

The concept of hosting student forums in program houses, and in turn granting academic credit for the advocacy and educational work occurring in these spaces, originated in 2018 as the Office of Residential Life decided to liken the engagement contract fulfilled by each program house to that of an academic course syllabus. It was clear that both contained a roster of educational and community-building opportunities, and through fruitful discussions between representatives of student affairs and academic affairs, the Office of Residential Life was able to better understand the process for creating student forums, with the aid of the engagement contracts, into full-fledged academic syllabi. 

By working with faculty members who sponsor the various student forums in program houses—just as student organizations usually have professional or faculty advisors—the goal of gaining course credit for residential learning activities was actualized in Spring 2019. For example, Music House’s initial plans to host a series of resident-led concerts throughout that semester transformed into a scholarly exploration of creating “venues.” Residents continued to host the concerts, featuring on-campus bands composed of Music House’s residents, while also historicizing performance spaces via peer-reviewed articles.  

Three successful student forums launched that spring—at Music House, Womxn of Color House, and Science House. A student leader from each house partnered with a faculty member to plan class topics, track attendance, and follow final projects from forum participants, in turn earning academic credit not only for themselves, but for their housemates and co-residents as well. 

In addition to those three pilot forums, the program house La Casa de Albizu Campos followed up by hosting what could only be described as a drool-inducing student forum around Latinx foods and culinary traditions. Even after the pandemic forced campus closure, forum participants continued to study cooking techniques, reflect on personal relationships with culture and food, and produced dishes indicative of both historical and present times. The La Casa forum and other long-running forums inspired by programmatic communities, like Farm Forum, frequently based out of Farm House, and Outing Forum, based out of Outhouse (Wesleyan’s wilderness community), underscore a real value in learning that can occur away from lecture halls and laptops.  

The process of creating, approving, and hosting a student forum takes roughly two semesters, with house managers typically collaborating with their residents in the fall semester to identify a topic they want to explore and identify the professional and faculty support they will need to work with to make it a success in the spring. While the impact of the pandemic continues to span across campus, the Office of Residential Life at Wesleyan is continuing its support in hosting student forums in interested program houses throughout the Spring 2021 semester. The success of previous student forums in various program houses increased student interest in the program at other program houses, and the campus Music House is now devising a new syllabus for the upcoming semester. As the pandemic upended most undergraduates’ sense of normalcy, the proliferation of student forums in residential spaces demonstrates the renewed importance of finding and strengthening community, which resonates within campus student organization structures on campus, and virtually, as well. 

Much of the heavy lifting needed to connect academic credit opportunities with student organization leadership may already be in place at many institutions: internship models, symbiotic relationships between organizations and faculty/staff structures via the advisor roles, educational programming models, and student support. The final piece in that puzzle might well be something like Wesleyan’s engagement contract model that injects responsibility, review, and assessment into the academic component of the program. 

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