Ask psychology professor David Uttal about his favorite moments at Northwestern, and he’ll tell you about riding around the Lakefill in a shopping cart pushed by students.
“If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is going to sound really weird, but there’s a race where the students push the masters, called the Masters’ Mile, in a shopping cart,” says Uttal, a faculty fellow at Shepard Residential College.
The Masters’ Mile is part of the annual Residential College Field Day, where the various colleges compete against each other in events like Human-sized Foosball. In addition to fun and games, the colleges, established in 1972, also bring in faculty and outside speakers to expand learning beyond the classroom.
In the early 1970s a group of Northwestern faculty envisioned an undergraduate living experience that would provide small support communities for students, extend learning beyond the classroom and encourage deeper connections between students and faculty. Emeritus professor Irwin Weil, the first faculty master at Willard Residential College in the early 1970s, remembers the novelty of the program. He planned a visit from then–presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and hosted harpsichord player Igor Kipnis, events that “expanded the students’ universes,” he says.
When he came to Northwestern, Weil recalls, the school had a strong focus on social affairs and high society rather than academics. Along with other initiatives at the time, the residential college system changed that.
“It gave students a more intense way to make contact with professors, to engage in activities that they themselves worked out,” Weil says.
Over the past 40 years the system has grown from five to 11 colleges and continues to connect students with broadening intellectual and social experiences. For example, the program supports faculty-guided research through the Fellow Assistant Research Award, which connects emergent student researchers with faculty fellows. The Office of Residential Colleges also supports cross-college programming, such as a tour of Chicago led by history professor Henry Binford to complement the 2012–13 One Book One Northwestern selection of Never a City So Real, Alex Kotlowitz’s collection of Chicago vignettes.
“Students who participate in the residential college program learn how they can make a positive impact on their living community,” says residential colleges director Nancy Anderson. “And the connections they develop with other students and faculty last long after graduation.”
“CCS was really life changing for me,” recalls Sheldon Zenner (WCAS74, L78), who returned last October to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the College of Cultural and Community Studies. “It really was like being part of a 40-person college with a committed faculty who challenged you all the time to see the world in different ways.”
He says the guest speakers at CCS showed him how to examine the institutions of urban life, such as health care and transportation, under a microscope to better understand their influences and limitations. He later applied those skills as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office, particularly in Operation Greylord, a 2004 case against corruption in the Circuit Court of Cook County.
“I was able to apply some of those skills to see how the wheels of justice were greased by different people to their own ends,” Zenner says. “That same somewhat cynical, disciplined, analytic approach, some of which I learned at CCS, I was able to apply in investigating and ultimately prosecuting corrupt lawyers, judges, court officials and police officers in the Greylord investigation.”
It’s not just about the students, either. The colleges also bring together faculty from different fields, a feature that Uttal enjoys. At Shepard, he met Brad Sageman, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences, and they later collaborated on research about science learning and education. Uttal saw his first opera with Shepard residents and benefited from the expertise of the accompanying opera professor.
Ultimately, these bonds are what make the residential college experience, and Northwestern, unique, says Uttal.
“Students get more out of the college, and we know this empirically, if they get involved with faculty outside of the classroom, because if all you’re going to do is go to the large classes and take tests, really there’s not that much of an advantage in going to Northwestern over other places.” Uttal says. “But you can get involved with research and the lives of faculty through residential colleges, and that’s a big advantage.”