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Faculty-in-residence: a mentor, bridge builder and away-from-home parent

What is life like for faculty members who live in student residence halls?

Melissa Foster never imagined moving back into Shepard Hall after completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Northwestern, let alone calling the same residence hall she lived in during her time on the Evanston campus “home.”

But six years ago, nearly two decades into her professional career and with a husband and a young daughter, that’s exactly what happened. 

Foster is an assistant professor of instruction and specializes in musical theater in the School of Communication. But in her role as faculty-in-residence, Foster also is a mentor, bridge builder and an “away-from-home mom” for more than a thousand students. For the last six years, she has been the faculty-in-residence covering the South area residence halls. This fall, Foster will move to the Northeast residential area, and Medill professor Ava Thompson Greenwell will become the new faculty-in-residence for the South area.

“When I heard that this position was a thing at Northwestern, I came home and told my husband that I would love to move back to campus,” Foster recalled, adding that her husband initially thought the proposal was a joke.  

“I think residential life is one of the best parts of college,” she said. “I love building community and as a faculty-in-residence, I can be who the students need me to be for them.”

Easing the transition from home

The faculty-in-residence program was founded in 2010 and comprises five faculty members who live full-time in the residence halls. In addition to helping facilitate a smooth transition for first-year students, the program also aims to encourage student engagement, enhance learning and strengthen students’ overall sense of community and connection to Northwestern.

“The programming is nice because it allows you to meet people that are in your residence hall and neighboring ones as well,” said first-year student Dan Murrieta. “You have a person that you can trust if there is an issue or if you need help with something.”

First-year student Lilly Sorkin went to the same small school for 13 years and said she was nervous about making the transition to a college environment. Getting to know Foster as her faculty-in-residence helped make the transition easier.

“Having someone who is a faculty member like Melissa living nearby is so welcoming,” Sorkin said. “She’s more than happy to share advice when I need it.”

“Melissa facilitates community very well,” said first-year Karis Liu. “College is very stressful, but coming to an event planned by Melissa helps because I can make new friends. It’s escapism. You don’t have to worry about what you’re doing or studying.”

Creating community and reducing stress 

Students live in a residence hall for two years as part of Northwestern’s live on campus requirement.  Learning how to live with others while being away from the creature comforts of home can be nerve-racking and thrilling all at once. To reduce stress and turn up the fun, Foster and her Faculty-in-Residence colleagues organize and plan dozens of events over the course of the academic year. 

“Whine Wednesdays” is one of Foster’s favorite events. Students are given a forum to voice complaints and opinions about various topics. On “Sunday Funday,” residents enjoy games and prizes, food and fellowship. During special “faculty dinners,” a smaller group of students are invited to enjoy a catered meal and conversation with other Northwestern faculty members or administrators.

“One of the things that’s so great about the program is that every faculty-in-residence is extremely different,” Foster said. “I love making sure that I’m reaching as many different niche subsets of students and populations as possible. I try to plan things that are large and small enough for the casual student who wants to interact with me on a very surface level. Those two-to-three-minute interactions at a huge event are sometimes extremely meaningful in how the students may relate to their other professors.” 

During height of the COVD-19 pandemic, Foster was forced to pivot programming online.

“I could see the grief through the Zoom screen over and over. It was palpable. But we continued as best as we could. I would mail treats home to everybody who registered for an event. I was trying lots of different ways to connect, but more importantly, connect them to one another so that when they came to campus, they had friends.”

Beyond the fun and games, Foster said she often spots a student struggling and will help connect them to their resident assistant and to other resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

“Being a faculty-in-residence is so rewarding,” Foster said, wiping away tears. “Being in an environment full of warm, open-minded, curious people who want to make the world a better place is gratifying. And the fact that these 18-year-olds invite me into their world and let me be a part of their lives and college experience — I love it. I’m so happy I had this opportunity.”