Faculty fellows open their doors to students searching for advice, friendship, brownies

Veteran fellow Brian Carpenter says the program builds relationships and trust between students and faculty

Faculty fellow Brian Carpenter recently invited Eliot residents into his home for dessert. (Credit: Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photos)

Brian Carpenter admits it: students can be scary.

“They are like a foreign tribe,” said Carpenter, PhD, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “They’ve got a different language, different style, different traditions and technology. They listen to different music and read different books and watch different TV. They are ‘the other.’”

To better understand students, Carpenter has immersed himself in their natural habitat — the South 40. He recently started his fourth and final year as a faculty fellow at Thomas Eliot Residential College.

“When you live together, you learn about each other,” Carpenter said. “I’ve learned that students have a very rich life beyond the work they are supposed to be doing for my class. They are so involved in so many other things — their social life, their service, their work-study job, their involvement in the arts on campus.

“And they’ve realized that faculty are people who have interests as varied as their own and that we are people you can talk to, not just about the reading we assigned this week, but about life.”

The faculty fellow program started in 1998 with one fellow — Michael Wysession, PhD, associate professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences. Some doubted university professors would volunteer to live day in and day out with undergraduates.

After all, faculty here are committed to their research. Who has time to take students sledding on Art Hill? But today, eight fellows live in seven residential colleges. Appointed by the offices of the provost and vice chancellor for students, the fellows serve dinner, host book clubs, offer study tips and act, when needed, as a de facto mentor, academic adviser and friend.

“Brian is one of 26 faculty members who have embraced this concept of a living-learning community,” said Jill Stratton PhD, associate dean of students. “They have fundamentally reshaped the South 40 and how students live and learn. There have been 26 faculty members who have done it, 18 children who have lived on our campus, six that have been born here. It presents a more holistic lens of what college is like.”

Carpenter applied to be a faculty fellow after serving as a faculty associate for six years. As an associate, he took his floor on hikes and organized kickball games. But Carpenter felt he both had more to offer and more to learn. So he and his partner, John, decided to move into a faculty suite — a three-bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a parking space, washer and dryer, and a working fireplace.

“It’s practically palatial,” boasted Carpenter, who also shares the suite with miniature Labradoodle, Ollie. “And let me tell you, Washington University is a really good landlord.”

Faculty fellow Brian Carpenter acts as both mentor and friend to Eliot residents. (Credit: Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photos)

For the past three years, Carpenter has treated Eliot’s 300 residents to from-scratch pies, trips to the St. Louis Symphony, chocolate tastings at Kakao and game nights.

“It’s really nice that they put up with us,” said Eliot resident Lauren Maly, a sophomore studying history in Arts & Sciences. “Having Brian and John there creates this sense of family. They invite you into their home and are a friendly face on campus. That was really important to me when I came here because I didn’t know anyone.”

Maly said her experience with Carpenter has made her more comfortable talking to faculty. Just as Carpenter considered students “the other,” Maly had trouble seeing faculty as “real people.”

“I know that sounds weird, but you see these people three hours a week and it doesn’t occur to you that they have lives outside of your class,” Maly said. “It changes your perspective.”

Carpenter has changed, too. He said his experience has shifted both the style and structure of his psychology classes.

“Being a fellow has made me sensitive to the rhythms of the academic year and what is important to the them,” Carpenter said. “I did not know why people were so exhausted at the end of the semester, and then I found out about this carnival thing called Thurtene, and I was like, ‘Oh so people are on the lot all night long sawing and nailing and painting. That’s why they are exhausted. Maybe I shouldn’t be assigning this huge thing at the same time Thurtene is going on.’ They are here for academics first, but I think it’s worthwhile to be sensitive to what is going on in students’ lives.”

Still, Carpenter concedes the free rent comes with a cost. Hungry students have been known to knock after his bedtime in search of brownie pans.

“During the first couple of weeks, we get people who want to borrow our bakeware,” Carpenter said. “So we’ve learned to stock the kitchens with utensils.”

Faculty fellows agree the program has changed their relationship with students, teaching style and sleep habits. Below, fellows share their perspectives about the programs.

Liggett/Koenig fellow Anca Parvulescu, PhD, associate professor of English in Arts & Sciences, on what she will miss most about the South 40 when she completes her fellowship this academic year: “I will miss the feeling of living in the most vibrant neighborhood in the city — where something is going on every day, where hundreds of our neighbors smile and say hello, where the pile of bikes is reminiscent of Amsterdam, where the density of talent and ambition is unmatched, where people discuss chemistry or art history during a fire drill.”

William Greenleaf Eliot fellow Jeffrey Matthews, professor of the practice in drama in Arts & Sciences, on the No. 1 question he gets from his faculty friends: “When I tell colleagues that I’m living on the South 40, they often look shocked and surprised –‘You’re not really living in a DORM … are you?’ By the time I finish talking about my brief experience, they often want to know how they can get involved in the faculty fellows program as well. It is a joy to be in William Greenleaf Eliot, and an honor to be in the company of so many fine young people with such positive energy.”

Rubelmann/Umrath/South Forty House fellow Kit Wellman PhD, chair of the Department of Philosophy in Arts & Sciences, on moving his family to the South 40: “I was confident that I would enjoy living on campus, but I worried about Donna and the boys. These concerns turned out to be totally misplaced, though, as they have LOVED interacting with the students (who have been especially sweet to my sons).”

Park/Mudd fellow Carl Carver, PhD, professor of philosophy, on his favorite field trips: “One of my goals at Park-Mudd is to show people the restorative properties of being outdoors: canoeing, cycling, camping, climbing and hiking. You cannot see what Missouri has to offer if you stay on the roads. You need to visit its caves, its rivers and its mountain trails.”

Wayman Crow fellow Rebecca Wanzo, PhD, associate professor of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program in Arts & Sciences, on getting to know students better: “I’ve had a number of students enroll in my classes because they met me first as a faculty fellow and I think we just connect with students in more complex ways when we engage with each other both in and outside of the classroom setting. I think they also get a better sense of what we do as faculty outside of teaching, as I have a lot of informal conversations with them about my work and intellectual interests.”

Brookings fellows Guillermo Rosas, PhD, associate professor of political science, and Tabea Linhard, PhD, associate professor of Spanish and of comparative literature, all in Arts & Sciences, on how the fellows program has benefitted their young children: “Living in the South 40 has provided our kids, Emilio and Aitana, with a great environment. Our extended families are abroad and our kids do not get to meet cousins and uncles as often as we would like. Wash U students have been fantastic role models for them: Emilio and Aitana look up to them, they recognize that they work hard and are driven to succeed academically, but they also see that they are approachable and know when to take a break to relax and have fun.”