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A Home Away From Home

First-year students at American University are flocking to living-learning programs.

First-year students at American University are flocking to living-learning programs.

A Growing Trend

They're moving to a new city. They're living on their own. They're entering a world of academic rigor. In a nutshell, each student is embarking on a brand new life. As incoming freshmen gear up for the college experience, it's hard to overstate the life changes in store for them.

Yet American University has fostered special environments where like-minded, high-achieving students can live and learn together. An increasing number of AU students are enrolling in living-learning communities, such as the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars Program (FDDS), the newly revamped AU Honors Program, and the Three-Year Scholars bachelor's degree programs.

About one-third of all undergraduate applicants showed interest in these three programs, and many students submitted between eight to 14 essays as part of the process. While students have historically been invited to join the Honors Program, the number of applicants now dwarfs the number of available spaces. Some 2,400 students applied for FDDS, tripling the number from last year.

The university subsequently launched two new programs: AU Scholars and the Community-Based Research Scholars (CRBS). Now almost 70 percent of AU's class of 2018 will have the chance to participate in a living-learning program.

Opportunities Abound

Shyheim Snead is an incoming freshman in FDDS. Just before Welcome Week, he explained the appeal of this prestigious program: "One thing that stood out to me was the success rate of the students." The program has enabled scholars to visit with a number of dignitaries, such as Colin Powell. "You meet all types of people, icons in the country, to help you connect with your goals," Snead says. AU covers full tuition, room, board, fees, and books for FDDS students, as long as they maintain a minimum 3.2 grade point average.

AU Scholars is a program for first-year students. Scholars will take an Honors seminar and intellectually engaging supplementary modules. Those modules encourage scholars to collaborate with each other while pursuing controversial, historical, and societal questions. "These courses are based on what you are interested in, and that's why this was compelling to me," says new AU Scholar Luke Theuma.

The nascent Community-Based Research Scholars program is aimed at first-year students committed to forging partnerships with community agencies and organizations, in order to make research-informed contributions. Students in this program took part in this year's Freshman Service Experience (FSE).

A Range of Emotions

First-year AU students appear eager and enthusiastic about starting anew. "I feel like there are just so many new opportunities that I'll be able to have," says Meenal Goyal, who is in the Community-Based Research Scholars program. "I'm almost pressing the reset button on my life and getting to start all over."

But there is a process of acclimation and a fear of the unknown. Students describe a range of emotions as they descend on the nation's capital. "I think I can speak for a lot of students when I say that we are all nervous and excited, and we're simultaneously terrified and thrilled," says Theuma.

Yet many AU programs, such as living-leaning communities, help ease the transition for apprehensive students. "I think just coming into American as a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar, you have that kind of community feeling and you're automatically entering a family," says Snead.

"I'm really excited to have roommates who have similar interests," says KT Buckler, part of Community-Based Research Scholars. "We can have really intellectual conversations about what we're learning, and get other people's perspectives," adds incoming AU Scholar Abi VanPelt.

Unique Backstories

While living-learning programs can be cohesive, they also draw from a diverse talent pool. Students obviously possess their own unique backstories. And even at a young age, many of them have already demonstrated a commitment to public service.

Theuma was born on the island nation of Malta, lived in places like New Orleans and Minneapolis, and eventually settled in Des Moines, Iowa. His international experience has had an impact on his college plans: He's hoping to major in international studies, with potential minors in either Russian or Mandarin Chinese languages.

Buckler is from Marin County, California, and she was immersed in community service in high school. She got involved in an organization that raised money for a girls' boarding school in Afghanistan. "I have a huge passion for girls' education and human rights in general," says Buckler, who will major in international studies.

Goyal, a psychology major, comes from Hudson, New Hampshire. While in high school, she volunteered at a nursing home and played card games with some of the residents.

Snead was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The FDDS mission—supporting students dedicated to assisting underserved communities—is one Snead has fully embraced. In high school, he worked with the anti-poverty organization buildOn. He's tutored young students and helped out at food pantries and community gardens.

Both of VanPelt's parents served in the Coast Guard, and her father was involved in the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. She's an international studies major now, and she's contemplating a future of service in either the Coast Guard Reserve or the Peace Corps.

Incoming AU Scholar Zoey Salsbury took a trip with her Girl Scouts troop to Costa Rica last summer. During their stay, they lived on a sustainable ranch and repainted a local school. Salsbury, who hails from Seattle, will major in political science.

Home at AU

Even before the beginning of classes, some living-learning students have made meaningful connections here. This summer, VanPelt started helping out as a manager for the AU wrestling team. Theuma already got to know plenty of students through orientation and a Facebook group for the incoming AU freshman class. "The people, honestly, are what made the school worth it for me," says Theuma. "They were the kinds of people I could see myself spending a significant portion of the next four years with. So, ultimately, that's why I chose AU."

Beyond the living-learning programs, AU continues to be a popular destination. One-third of this year's freshman class is comprised of students admitted early decision.