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The Professor Next Door

Journalism Chair Connects with Students in Her Second Go at Residence-Hall Living

My mind wandered, as it often does during department chairs’ meetings with the dean. This time was different, though. My daydream was relevant to what was being discussed.

Michele Papakie ’93 in Stephenson Hall (Keith Boyer)

Michele Papakie ’93 in Stephenson Hall (Keith Boyer)

There I was—chair of the Journalism and Public Relations Department, reminiscing about my time in the late ’80s as an undergraduate in that very department. We didn’t have Living-Learning communities in residence halls back then, and that’s what we were discussing at this meeting.

I lived in Turnbull Hall, may it rest in peace, and our learning was in the buildings that encircle the Oak Grove. We lived in dorms, better known as cells, not suites, with cinderblock walls, linoleum floors, and metal-frame beds with prison mattresses. We had zero privacy. Two students inhabited one room. My space was also my roommate’s space. If you wanted privacy, you might hide in a bathroom stall in the latrine at the end of the hallway.

With “Dr. P,” from left: Shayra Munoz, Myesha Jones, Nikolena Bullock (kneeling), Anh Nguyen, and Keir Diggs (Keith Boyer)

With “Dr. P,” from left: Shayra Munoz, Myesha Jones, Nikolena Bullock (kneeling), Anh Nguyen, and Keir Diggs (Keith Boyer)

Those things didn’t matter, however. The only time we were inside those cells was to sleep. We hung out in the hallway. Formal learning was absent there, but social learning happened as we interacted with our peers. We learned about communicating, developing relationships, building trust, resolving conflict, and sharing stress and challenges.

That pesky internet wasn’t consuming or causing problems for us, because it wasn’t a thing for the masses just yet. Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man existed, but they didn’t rule our lives; our boomboxes and friends did. And we certainly didn’t spend every minute staring at our phones. Our heavy, black, bulky phones hung, attached to the walls, with their very short cords, dial tones, and rotary dials—not much to stare at. We didn’t even have voice mail.

My daydream was about a time “someone” on our floor scored a shopping buggy (shopping cart if you’re not from Pittsburgh) and lugged it up to the third floor of Turnbull. We conducted time trials. My roommate, Erika, and I were arguing over who would ride and who would push when it was our turn…

Near the end of her semester in Stephenson Hall, Michele Papakie, left, collected feedback from students who worked in the building. They are, from left, Alyssa Zabicki of Butler, undergraduate student assistant; Kyle Fisher of Bucks County, community assistant; and Cristina Nieves of Philadelphia, community assistant. (Keith Boyer)

Near the end of her semester in Stephenson Hall, Michele Papakie, left, collected feedback from students who worked in the building. They are, from left, Alyssa Zabicki of Butler, undergraduate student assistant; Kyle Fisher of Bucks County, community assistant; and Cristina Nieves of Philadelphia, community assistant. (Keith Boyer)

Back in reality, members of the Living-Learning Executive Team, our guests at the meeting, were asking department chairs for curricular ideas that would enhance their efforts. Students were spending 12-18 hours per week in the classroom; what were they doing the other 150-156 hours? How could we bring the disciplines to the living areas to promote collaboration? How could we integrate the pedagogy of intentional integration?

I returned to reality; I was intrigued. 

“Have we ever had a faculty member live in the dorms, among the natives?” I asked.

“Who would do that?” someone replied. 

As usual, my mouth engaged before my brain could completely process what I was about to say, and I blurted out: “I would.” 

Sondra Dennison D’17, the executive director of Housing, Residential Living, and Dining, scheduled a meeting with the provost. Before he invested in our ideas, Timothy Moerland wanted to know what kind of return he could expect. I would concentrate my efforts on advising undeclared majors. 

I drafted an Institutional Review Board protocol. When collecting data on human subjects, you must ensure you’re not inflicting any harm. The IRB determined that a 50-year-old professor attempting to posit positive interventions in the residence halls did not pose any unnecessary harm to anyone.

Let’s review: The Living-Learning team met with chairs in November. Follow-up meetings happened in December. Sondra and I met with Provost Moerland on January 7. I submitted an IRB protocol January 11. On January 15, I woke up in 167 Stephenson Hall, wondering what happened. I had become the first faculty-in-residence in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

Why would you do that?” and “How was it?” are the questions I get.

Why? I have been teaching at IUP for 12 years, and each year, I feel more distant from my students. I’m a Gen Xer. My son is a millennial. My students are Gen Z, and their generation will be here until I retire. Whether you believe in the sweeping generalizations made in the literature about generation gaps, I’m here to tell you they are real.

What They Said

From surveys of students who lived alongside Michele Papakie in spring 2019

“She did an amazing job at the workshop I went to, telling her story and encouraging students to find their paths!”

“We drank hot chocolate together, and Dr. P helped me to get a job interview.”

“One day, two friends and I went to Dr. P’s just to talk about anything, like life and classes. She was very helpful and kind.”

I’ve lived a successful life as a mother, military officer, PR practitioner, and public servant. To teach, you need to connect. I was finding it increasingly difficult to connect with my students.

Earbuds and cell phones are now anatomical appendages. Students don’t listen to radio stations; they stream their music on Spotify; and they listen to podcasts. No one has cable TV anymore; they stream Netflix and Hulu on their laptops. When we caught on to Facebook and Twitter, the students flocked to Instagram. 

It’s difficult to find and to share cultural connections when students’ over-reliance on technology isolates them from us. If I had the opportunity to navigate campus with them, to live alongside them, to share meals and socialize with them, then maybe I could better empathize with the challenges they face and ultimately better relate to them. I was right.

How was it? Amazing. Each day, according to my Fitbit, I walked 719 steps uphill (not both ways) to my office. I biked, traveling the same routes as students and feeling more a part of their community. I hunkered down with them during the polar vortex. I lived next door to the gym I visited regularly. I ate in the dining halls with students, and when I was being lazy, I heated SpaghettiOs in my microwave. (I ate them cold, straight out of the can, in Turnbull back in the day.) I had an office in Stephenson, and I held evening seminars for students on life in general. I hung a sign on my door that said, “I’m Homesick, Are You? Knock, Let’s Talk!” And, some students did!

Students don’t come out of their suites much and hang in the hallways like we did in Turnbull, so I did some “intrusive advising” (we called it “reverse trick-or-treating”) with Li Teng, the assistant director of Living-Learning. We knocked on doors to see how they were doing. 

Selfishly speaking, I grew. I have earbuds that I wear to class—but, I still greet everyone I pass with a smile and a friendly hello. I stream my music on Spotify, and my favorite podcast is My Favorite Murder. I cut the cord to cable. I have Netflix, but I still don’t have Hulu. I follow my niece’s Instagram account, littlespoontreatery. I know our students better, and I can teach them better.

I’m still crunching data to see if my experiment made an impact. The anecdotal data says yes. The feedback on the post-surveys brought me to tears. The bonds I built with the resident assistants are special to me, and I hope they continue.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. I was built for this. With 32 years in the military, I can easily handle communal living. I wasn’t invited to any shopping buggy time trials, but then, I’d probably break a hip now anyway.

Editor’s Note: Michele Papakie is a ’93 graduate of IUP. University officials plan to use her findings to continue and strengthen the faculty-in-residence program in future semesters.