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Photo of signs to Dunne and Swig halls at SCU.

Photo of signs to Dunne and Swig halls at SCU.

The Physicist Behind SCU's Innovative Residential Learning Communities

Residential Learning Communities are more than a place to live. They're an opportunity to grow. Phil Kesten helps make that happen.

Residential Learning Communities are more than a place to live. They're an opportunity to grow. Phil Kesten helps make that happen.

Unless their major requires them to tackle one of his physics classes, most first-year Santa Clara University students will probably never meet Phil Kesten during their four-year-stay at the Mission campus. 

But they might be surprised to discover that the veteran science guy knows about each of them, and has played a part in shaping their SCU experience.

For two grinding weeks each spring, the associate professor of physics closes his office door, opens his custom-designed software, and begins a mind-numbing task on their behalf: assigning every first-year student to one of three core curriculum courses alongside their peers who live in their campus housing unit, or Residential Learning Community.

The project continues into the summer as Kesten labors over his calculations, ensuring core courses are not over- or under-enrolled, and balancing the student gender ratios and range of majors—from Arts and Sciences to Business to Engineering—in those courses.

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle that I have to mix and match,” says Kesten of linking the same RLC students to the same Critical Thinking & Writing, Cultures & Ideas, or Religion Theology & Culture course.

Santa Clara established its Residential Learning Communities in the mid-1990s to foster a sense of community, each one based on an idea, issue or cultural theme ranging from spirituality to sustainability, innovation, diversity and the arts. Each offers its own activities and events, further contributing to a student’s sense of belonging. 

Kesten notes the RLC concept has not only stood the test of time, it embodies the values of a Jesuit university education. And for many first-year students, the novel residential/academic model may ease their transition from high school to college.

“Students benefit from having a ready-made community when they get here, a kind of second family home,” says Kesten, who is also SCU’s associate vice provost for undergraduate studies. “In the RLCs, they find a home away from home.”

A Shorthand Way to Identify Yourself

Take the newly-opened Finn Residence Hall, across the street from Safeway. The $63 million, four-story building with updated amenities (every room comes with its own sink, and Jack-and-Jill bathrooms) houses the Cura RLC, after the Jesuit value of Cura Personalis, or care for the whole person.

For the 366 students living there—both first-year students and sophomores—its name and the philosophy behind it will become a kind of short-hand way of identifying themselves around campus, as in, “I live in Cura.”

Eight other communities are available to this year’s 1,397 first-year students, from Xavier, known as the faith, justice, and solidarity RLC, located in Sanfilippo Hall, to CyPhi, the sustainability and arts-themed RLC housed in Swig Residence Hall. (Cy is derived from the Monterey cypress tree, while Phi is short for Delphi, considered by ancient Greeks to be the center of the world.)

The trend toward RLCs on college campuses has continued to grow over time. A study by the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment noted that compared to dorms, learning communities made students “more socially and academically involved in college life.”

Still, Kesten’s task can be an organizational nightmare. But his exacting calculations should deliver every first-year student to the same core course at the same time and day of the week, where they will recognize 12 to 18 others from their individual RLC.

“You put these people together who otherwise might not be in the same classes with each other,” says Kesten of the process.“It could change their lives at the university, and maybe forever.”

Photo of Phil Kesten, SCU Associate Professor of Physics

Photo of Phil Kesten, SCU Associate Professor of Physics

Avoiding a Domino Effect

He takes nothing for granted, repeatedly checking his results that can be foiled by any number of complexities.

Engineering majors are a particular source of frustration for Kesten—through no fault of their own. Students in certain engineering branches, for example, must take critical thinking in the fall and spring quarters, while those enrolled in other fields of engineering can only take the course in the fall and winter.

“If I put a student in the wrong sequence, they can’t take the class, and there’s a Domino effect,” he explains.

Recently, Kesten and his colleagues in SCU’s housing and registrar’s offices have also noticed more students paying hefty deposits to hold their positions open at multiple universities. Santa Clara requests a firm commitment by May 1, but every summer a few dozen students change their minds at the last minute and decide to enroll elsewhere.

By that time, however, they have already been assigned to a particular RLC, and Kesten has already placed them in their core classes linked to their RLC, forcing him and his colleagues to re-jigger the pieces.

“Suddenly,” he sighs, “we have a class that is under-enrolled or housing has to triple-up students in one room.”

Some first-years students, of course, may be disappointed if they aren’t assigned to the RLC they wanted most. And it’s possible that not as many of their RLC residents may share core classes with them.

Kesten says they shouldn't be disappointed.

Life Before Residential Learning Communities

“Students today take the benefits of the RLCs for granted,” he says. “They don’t necessarily see the impact in their lives, but I do. And I know what it was like before the RLCs.”

In 1990, Kesten was a post-doctorate fellow from Brandeis University when he landed at Santa Clara ready to teach physics. He was thrilled to be part of the bright, passionate academic community.

But at the end of the year, two things happened within a week on campus that shook him to the core.

A “Take Back the Night” march by female students protesting sexual violence was interrupted by several male students leaning out of dorm room windows, throwing food at the marchers and calling them names.

Then, a campus Greek fraternity posted fliers—meant as a joke, some members later said—containing racial epithets and offensive comments.

“And I thought, ‘My God,’” Kesten remembers. “These students don’t see themselves as a part of the community the way I do. Because if they did, they would never do those things.”

Kesten told his SCU colleagues that something needed to change, and that something was where students lived on campus. “Where you live,” he says, “is what creates your community.”

He began urging anyone who would listen that the university had to reimagine the way it housed students; he pointed to his own rewarding undergrad experience at MIT where he’d lived in the same dorm for four years, bonding with younger and older students alike.

At Santa Clara, Kesten says, it took a few years before the dial started to move. The pilot for the RLC concept of placing students with similar interests into particular housing started in 1994, independent of Kesten.

By 1999, SCU had introduced a revised core curriculum courses program. In order to tie it more directly to students’ Residential Learning Communities’ experiences, university officials asked Kesten to help create and oversee an electronic system that would designate first-year students into core curriculum courses linked to their RLCs.

Despite the stress it annually imposes—he was briefly hospitalized one summer for exhaustion after finishing the assignment, and his wife has begged him to find a replacement—Kesten wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You know, it would be very easy to give it all up and say, ‘Let’s just let the kids pick their own classes, and they can live wherever they want.’ We could do that,” ventures Kesten.

“But it wouldn’t serve our students. RLCs have made a palpable difference in the feel of the SCU community.”

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Which way to the RLC? Signs to Dunne Hall and Swig Hall, two of Santa Clara University's nine Residential Learning Communities. Photo Courtesy SCU archives.