Living and Learning

The idea of using food as a catalyst for learning is finding favor once again on college campuses.

FoodService Director - college foodservice - Vanderbilt - StanfordEducation, like fashion, is an environment where elements may go out of style but never really disappear. Instead, they are recycled in one way or another, finding new life in the hands of a fashion designer or educational administrators.

Such is the case in higher education, as the idea of residential colleges is beginning to gain favor once again on a few college campuses.

One of the more ambitious of these living-learning initiatives can be found on the campus of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. In 2008, Vanderbilt will complete the first phase of the first major rebuilding program in a generation, when the Freshman Commons opens on the university’s Peabody Campus.

Ten “houses,” five new construction and five renovations, will accommodate 1,600 first-year students in an environment where learning would be designed to be continual. The commons will have a dean, and there will be a head of each house, selected from among the faculty. The 10 houses will be supported by a new dining center, which is scheduled to open this fall.

“This building project is the first step in a program called College Halls,” explains Assistant Vice Chancellor for Business Services Frank Gladu. “College Halls will be places where learning is an around-the-clock process. They will be places where 400 upperclass students will have their own micro-culture, if you will.”

The idea of residential colleges certainly is not new. Harvard University is perhaps the oldest example of this living-learning environment, and Harvard University Dining Services has undertaken renovation of several of its dining halls to enhance the dining portion of this program.

Another Ivy League School, Cornell University, is in the midst of a program to build five self-governed living-learning houses for upperclass students on the Ithaca, N.Y., university’s West Campus. Conceived in 2000, the project is 60% completed, with three of the five houses in use, with the final two scheduled for completion by 2009. Like Harvard, each of Cornell’s houses will have its own dining center.

Other institutions, such as Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., have theme houses where groups of students studying a particular discipline may choose to live together to facilitate shared learning. Vanderbilt itself already has an excellent example in its McTyeire International House, where clusters of students studying foreign languages live with native speakers who serve as program coordinators.

But Vanderbilt’s new program will reach far beyond that limited scope, according to Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Gordon Gee.

“Our students have unparalleled opportunities in the classroom and through their social lives,” Gee was quoted as saying in 2005. “Our challenge now is to stitch together this rich tapestry to meet the needs of the students of the future.”

“Residential colleges are not new, but they are not common, either,” notes Gladu. “I think that higher education is beginning to take a different path than it has been. For years, distance learning was big. There was a need for schools to be seen as complete packages, something for everyone. But universities have always been seen as places to live and learn, and we’re trying to get back to that.”

So, where does dining service fit into the concept of a residential college?

“I know it’s an overused word, but foodservice becomes the enabler of all of the aspects of the community coming together,” Gladu explains. “The power is the symbolism of sharing a meal. Foodservice becomes the facilitator of community, because the dining hall is the common denominator that puts classmates and faculty on neutral grounds. The goal of foodservice is to be the focal point of all that transpires in that community. Food will not be the centerpiece but the facilitating piece.”

The dining center that will provide this focal point will open this fall, a year ahead of the completion of the houses that surround it. “About 85% to 90% of the living space will be completed by this fall, but we won’t occupy them until 2008,” Gladu explains. “This will give us an opportunity to plan for that.”

The 500-seat, 63,000-square-foot dining hall will feature five platforms, based on a Euro-kitchen design, on which a variety of foods can be prepared. Camp Howard, associate director and executive chef of dining services, has played a major role in the design of the facility.

“The old way for dining services was to decide what the dining hall would be designed to do, then write the menu for it, identify the equipment and the layout you would need and then build it,” Howard says. “But what we did was to build platforms of equipment to prepare myriad food concepts. This will allow us to be able to change our menus and be much more flexible. I’m excited about the concept.”

Howard adds that roughly 90% of the food will be prepared “within two to four feet” of where it is served. “The production kitchen will serve as the mise en place, to get ready for the final show,” he says. However, Howard is reluctant to call the platforms display cooking. “We will have a just-in-time approach to food prep, but there will not be the fanfare of display,” he notes.

To come up with the design and, subsequently, menu elements for the dining center, Howard organized what he called “Vision Quests.” Explains Gladu: “Camp took us to New York, Chicago and Seattle. We went to look at what different schools were doing, but also to see what commercial operators are doing, so we could glean some ideas from them. After all, they are dealing with many of the same customers; the experiences our students come to school with are unbelievable.”

FoodService Director - college foodservice - Vanderbilt - StanfordAlthough Vanderbilt’s living-learning complex is a decade in the making and eventually will encompass the entire campus, there are universities without such grand schemes that nonetheless see the value of combining learning with a food component. Some 800 miles north of Nashville, a different kind of learning environment on a much smaller scale has opened at Kutztown University, in Pennsylvania. Recently built on the North Campus of this 10,000-student university, the two-story building houses seven state-of-the-art lecture halls surrounding a 55-foot-high atrium with a 150-seat food court in the center.

Called the Academic Forum, the building is an excellent example of how a university enhances learning while saving money, according to James Sutherland, Kutztown’s vice president of finance and administration. He explained that the university’s student population had grown 33% over the last decade with a comparable growth in either classroom or dining space.

“We initially planned two separate buildings on our north campus,” says Sutherland, “[Architectural firm] STV came up with a design that uniquely combined our academic, food service and community needs in one building. It saved green space on campus, reduced utility costs, incorporated economies of scale and, as an innovative building type, is a home run with students.”

The $18-million building covers 62,000 square feet and is designed to accommodate 3,000 students a day. The 57 faculty members who teach there are drawn from all five schools at the University, with classroom assignments under the direction of the provost.

Sutherland says that for the dining area, he wanted a space students would respect and, more importantly, “eagerly assemble in before and after classes.” To accomplish this, STV created an atrium that allows natural light to enter through 55-foot-high clerestories and a curving wall of glass at the entrance way. The four-station food court, which is managed by AVI Foodsystems of Warren, OH, is further brightened by a colorful mosaic sculpture and water fountain, designed by sculptor Eduardo Vega.

The food court itself has bright, checkered floors. The servery features Flatz, a pizza and pasta station; a soup and salad bar called Sporkz, and a cafeteria-style area for full, hot-plated meals, known as The Bistro. In the entryway, a coffee bar called Academic Grounds is located across from a lounge area. The food court can be transformed into a space for catered events from receptions to sit-down dinners.

FoodService Director - college foodservice - Vanderbilt - StanfordAcross the country, at the University of California at Berkeley, the idea of breaking bread with faculty is being actively encouraged by the Residence Life department. Harry Le Grande, interim vice chancellor for student affairs at Berkeley, says the department is piloting a program that he hopes will bring faculty in contact with resident students on a regular basis outside the classroom.

“We’ve got two faculty members who actually live on campus and eat in the dining halls with the students,” explains Le Grande. “One of them, a nutrition professor, started a pilot he calls ‘papers to talk about.’ He has subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He encourages students to read the papers and then has conversations with students over meals about the issues of the day.”

Le Grande adds that residence life has always encouraged students to invite faculty members to lunch or dinner, adding that the ultimate goal of residence life is to make CalDining’s dining centers “destination points,” rather than places where students rush in, eat and leave.

“I’ve found that more faculty and staff are buying our meal plans,” Le Grande notes. “Also, more students living off campus are also taking packages with us. So it’s creating a real different kind of living-learning environment.”


The idea of residential colleges is hardly new; as a matter of fact, they aren't even a creation of Western civilization, but are Islamic in origin. Originally created as a way to provide a place for advanced students to live while they studied, they first appeared in Western Europe in the 12th century, at the University of Paris and Oxford University. They were designed to be academic communities made up of students and faculty, living together and sharing meals. Many small, private liberal arts colleges are based on that very idea.

The traditional model of the residential college has long been a fixture on the Ivy League campuses of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, along with other private institutions such as Rice University in Houston. But living-learning environments can take several other forms, according to the Residential College Task Force, created by the Association of College and University Housing Officers. They include:

Living-learning centers: These are areas connected directly with specific academic programs, such as foreign languages, pre-med studies or science. Faculty advisors guide the academic programming for each center, and the benefit is that students with similar majors can tutor each other and gain knowledge from the group as a whole.

Theme houses: In contrast to the academic goal of the living-learning center, a theme house brings together students who share a particular interest that is not necessarily academic in nature. At Stanford University, two examples are Casa Zapata, which has a Mexican American theme, and Ujamaa, with an African American theme.

Academic residential programs: These provide academic support to students living in a particular residence hall. For example, the Academic Resource Center at Washington State University offers computer labs, tutoring, career planning and time management classes for students living in the freshman residential complex.

Residential learning communities: These invite students attending the same classes to live in the same residence hall. One example is the Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, where groups of students take up to 17 credits of classes together during the first two  years of college.

Freshman Year Experience housing: Found at schools such as the University of Missouri, where groups of up to 20 students whom take at least three classes together live on the same floor with an academic advisor who helps with adjustment issues typical of first-year students.

What separates these, in most cases, from the pure residential college is the lack of a dedicated dining component.
-Source: Education Encyclopedia.


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