Living — and learning — as a community at UT

April 9, 2009 | Arts
By Kim Goodin

The room on the fifth floor of Ottawa House East is littered with tools of creativity — easels, paint, brushes and paper.

Sometimes the atmosphere is hushed as artists focus on brushstrokes. Other times excited ideas fill the air.

Some of The University of Toledo freshmen come to paint, some to sketch, some to share ideas and get feedback.

Freshman Ashley Raiders added some color to a puzzle piece in the Arts Living and Learning Community living quarters.

Freshman Ashley Raiders added some color to a puzzle piece in the Arts Living and Learning Community living quarters.

Others relax on cozy furniture, content to lounge and listen.

All do something that is a vital but much-overlooked part of a freshman college student’s success. They connect.

“First-year students can get a little lost in the college atmosphere,” said Kate Abu-Absi, director of the Arts Living and Learning Community (ALLC), a program open to incoming freshmen. “It’s a leap from high school, where identities have been solidified over a number of years.”

The ALLC was formed four years ago to help incoming freshmen with majors in the arts — visual arts, music, creative writing, film and performing arts — by providing a supportive community of like-minded peers.

This year, 64 ALLC freshmen live in suite-style dormitories in Ottawa House East, UT’s newest residence housing facility. They live together, brainstorm together and form connections that inspire creativity, confidence and camaraderie.

“Having a safe place where these students can feel comfortable in their own skins and flourish academically allows them to find their identities at UT,” Abu-Absi, a UT graduate herself, said. “The kids see their Arts Living and Learning Community as an important part of who they are on campus.”

In addition to the fully stocked art studio, ALLC students have access to a creative library, computer laboratory and musical practice room complete with a piano. They enroll in special courses designed to expand their academic experiences with debate and education about everything from the latest best-selling novel to classical theater productions. These discussions are enhanced with field trips to the Toledo Symphony, Toledo Museum of Art, independent movie theaters in Ann Arbor and the world-renowned Chicago Institute of Art, among other venues.

“We introduce these students to many facets of the arts, from local concerts to guest lecturers to career exploration events,” Abu-Absi said. “Ottawa House also is close to the University’s Center for Performing Arts, where many of these students will join UT’s creative community.”

During its first year, ALLC nurtured 10 students. With funding through UT’s First-Year Experience Program, the number has grown along with the scope of available opportunities. Student retention also is affected; of last year’s 64 ALLC participants, 87 percent chose to return to UT. Several were so enamored of the ALLC community that a similar program for second-year students was created.

“Last year’s group just bonded in a way that was unprecedented,” Abu-Absi, who calls herself the students’ “Toledo mom,” said. “Our students had leads in theatrical productions and produced art displayed in local galleries.

“They all had the tools for success, but they found a home in the Arts Living and Learning Community. They support each other through all of their endeavors.”

Abu-Absi’s presence brings stability to the ALLC students, some of whom are away from home for the first time.

“I know them well, so I’m aware if there are any problems,” she said. “They know I care about them, so it gives them a sense of comfort.

“On a larger scale, our goal is to help these students grow socially, emotionally and academically as artists. From a more personal perspective, we hope the ALLC sets the tone for our students to succeed from their first few weeks on campus.”

The fifth floor buzzes with activity one Monday as students design puzzle pieces that will be connected in a mural adorning ALLC quarters. Each piece, Abu-Absi commented, is captive to its artist’s creative design, masterpieces waiting to happen.

“It fits what we’re trying to do here,” she said with a smile. “They’re all different pieces of a puzzle, coming together.”

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