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April 30, 2009

View From Outside the Classroom

Sandy Bly, a junior accounting major and a resident assistant in Holland Hall, is planning her next floor program, a trip to the Carnegie Science Center to view a new release of the IMAX film “Under the Sea.”

As an RA on a floor of first-year students, Bly is accustomed to planning social events such as ice cream outings and movie nights. This year, however, Bly has had an extra visitor for several of her floor’s social programs — instructor Mike Beach from the School of Nursing.

Beach doesn’t have a particular interest in learning about underwater ecosystems or devouring Rocky Road ice cream, but he does have a special passion for engaging in the lives of students outside the classroom. He is part of the Pitt faculty associates program, a new venture this year that matched faculty members from various academic units with first-year residence hall floors.

The program is a joint venture between Residence Life and the First Year Experience offices in the Division of Student Affairs. A major goal of the First Year Experience programming is increasing new students’ connection to the University and thus improving Pitt’s retention rate. The Pitt faculty associates program provides an opportunity for students to interact with faculty members outside of the classroom. The programmatic elements are simple: Resident assistants and their faculty partners, such as Beach and Bly, plan social programs for small groups of first-year residence hall students so that students and faculty can connect in a relaxed setting.

In the first year of the program, 21 faculty members from a variety of disciplines were paired with first-year student floors in Tower A, Tower B, Holland Hall, Lothrop Hall and Forbes Hall. Recruitment efforts are underway this summer to expand participation next year by involving additional faculty members and floors.

Program events this year have ranged from students and faculty taking salsa dancing lessons on campus to taking in a show at the Byham Theatre during the holiday season. For faculty who enjoy sharing their personal hobbies and interests with students, the program provides the perfect opportunity to connect with students over these experiences. Last semester, a faculty member who was paired with a Tower B floor took her students bowling in Lawrenceville and shared her favorite Squirrel Hill pizza with them afterward, giving first-year students the opportunity to explore a couple of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods outside of Oakland.

While new to Pitt, programs similar to the faculty associates program exist on many campuses across the country. Shawn Brooks, associate dean of students and director of Residence Life, said: “Studies have shown that students who have contact with faculty members outside of the classroom show greater progress with their interpersonal and academic development than do students without that exposure.”

While most Pitt faculty members participating in the program this year were nominated by students, the program is open to any faculty member who wants to participate.

Bly did not know Beach before being paired with him for the program. She said she has enjoyed the exposure to a faculty member in a very different academic program from her own, and feels that all of her first-year residents, regardless of their major, have benefited from Beach’s involvement.

“It’s been great having him be a part of our floor, and it’s been especially helpful for my residents who are interested in nursing and pre-med majors to be able to talk to a faculty member in that area. He has helped several of them make very useful connections,” Bly said.

Beach also views his experience with the faculty associates program as a positive one. In addition to assisting several students on the floor with learning about potential majors and networking in health sciences departments, he said he appreciates the opportunity to spend time with students outside of his classes.

“I enjoy teaching and interacting with students very much and it’s been particularly enjoyable to get out and interact with younger students,” Beach said. “The program broadens the interactions I am able to have with students in addition to my teaching, and it is rewarding to help students connect to the University.”


Karin Asher is the assistant director of Residence Life for First Year Experience initiatives. To learn more about the faculty associates program or to get involved, contact her at or 8-1200.

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