KALAMAZOO, Mich.—On the cusp of graduation, Elizabeth "E.J." Taylor is ready to make the world her stage. Empowered by supportive faculty and staff, the Western Michigan University acting student is confident in her career path. It's a far cry from when she first arrived on campus.
"I'm a first-generation college student. (My family) has had some hard times, been homeless, lived in motels and stuff like that. I'm just so grateful that I found the path I did, because I always knew what I wanted to do—being in the entertainment industry—but I didn't know if I could go for it," says Taylor, who grew up in Troy, Michigan.
She initially enrolled at Western as an exploratory student, considering a public relations track. But the community she found in the College of Fine Arts gave her the courage to declare her passion as a major—a decision bolstered by her experience in the Fine Arts House, one of 10 Living Learning Communities (LLC) on campus.
"It feels good to be around people who understand that it's more than just a passion project; it's a career that you get to build and mold for yourself," Taylor says. She's taken on the role of guiding younger students to success as a learning community assistant (LCA). "Being (in a LLC) helps because it gives you resources, and I'm passionate about helping other students find those resources … and teaching them to advocate for themselves."
The new LLC will advance goals of the historic $550 million Empowering Futures Gift by creating community and belonging that enhance student retention. It's why the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Housing and Residence Life and Merze Tate College have collaborated to develop the Empowering Futures Living Learning Community, which will provide a space for recipients of the Empowering Futures Housing Scholarship to find belonging, explore their personal and academic interests, and engage with campus programs and resources.
"The Empowering Futures Gift is intended to help us give access to the full breadth of the Western experience to every student who wants one. And through efforts like this housing scholarship and new Living Learning Community, we’re doing just that," says WMU President Edward Montgomery.
Applications are now being accepted through March 15, 2022, for the need-based scholarship, which is open to first-year and new transfer students from Michigan, with preference given to graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools, any high school with a Detroit address and graduates of most Grand Rapids high schools that also have a Grand Rapids address. It will provide up to $6,000 in housing and dining assistance to 64 eligible incoming students for the 2022-23 academic year.
The Empowering Futures Community will be in Fox Hall, where students will have access to a computer lab, the Student Success Center and its tutoring services, and a conference room for things like in-hall advising and study groups.
"Our goal is to design a supportive, robust community—something that equally focuses on students having social support, having a kind of family here as well as support for finding their fit within Western, whether that's academics, student organizations, campus employment," says Laura Darrah, assistant director for engagement and assessment with Housing and Residence Life. "The first year of college is not 13th grade, so we're teaching students what college is, how to be successful at Western and providing avenues to do that, so they can tailor the experience to their personal interests."
Students living in the Empowering Futures Community will get an early start on their academic journey. They'll move in a few days ahead of other first-year students, getting the opportunity to begin finding their footing through community-building events and breakout sessions, introductions to campus programming and resources, and guidance on strategies for a successful transition from high school to college life.
In addition to resident assistants, the community will include two learning community assistants who will focus on weekly programming and connecting students to one another and to campus.
"Some key elements will include working with the Strengths concept, working with the Well-being Wheel, because life can be stressful as a college student. We want to help them out with that," Darrah says.
WMU Signature, a program that encourages students to explore their purpose and complete a culminating, resume-building experience, will also be a key component. Residents will be required to attend at least one event in each of the program's 10 pathways and identify a pathway they'd like to pursue.
"It's going to be really awesome for self-discovery as well as a career down the road," adds Darrah. "We'll also be intentionally pulling in some career components and connecting students with career development specialists for more one-on-one attention."
The ultimate goal of the community is to help students progress in their college careers and continue on their path to graduation. Data shows residents in Western's Living Learning Communities are 50% more likely to graduate in four years compared to students who live off campus.
It's one of the reasons Jessica John, a first-year student from Marietta, Georgia, chose to join an LLC.
"The support options are really nice; our LCA has office hours twice a week, so if you need help, you live right there. You can always go knock on his door and he’s happy to help with whatever you need," says John, who lives in the Honors Community in Fox Hall. She's especially benefited from learning new study strategies to help her transition from high school to the rigors of college courses. "It’s been really helpful, and I feel like it’s really impacted my grades.”
While John's major is aviation management and operations, she chose the Honors Community for its diversity in student majors and a support system in the event she chose to change her course of study.
“It’s interesting to talk to other majors (in my community). Seeing them excited about what they’re doing solidifies how strongly I want to do what I’m doing.”
The connections stretch beyond academics; students who live in an LLC also have a built-in social network, which is invaluable when making the transition to college life.
"Being in the LLC made me feel more at home on campus. It made me feel accepted in a way I have longed for," Taylor says.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.