What happens when a professor packs up her home and takes it to work?
As students arrive for a lasagna-making party one Sunday afternoon, Associate Professor Erin Willis throws open her door and announces, “I got a new blender, so prepare to be amazed!”
The group sautés garlic and considers the merits of connecting with a love interest over social media vs. text. One of the students wonders aloud, “So, Erin, are you a millennial?”
Willis just laughs.
As an expert in strategic communications, “know your audience” is a principle she embraces. So much so that last year she and her husband, Jason, moved into an apartment on campus in Buckingham Hall, where she lives among the students she teaches. A third roommate, their puppy, Rudy, has since joined them.
Willis is faculty in residence for CMCI’s Communication and Society Residential Academic Program, known as CommRAP, which is based in Buckingham. The unique position allows her to connect with students outside of the classroom or office hours.
“I enjoyed my collegiate experience so much, especially the freshman experience because you do meet so many people,” says Willis, who teaches in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design in CMCI.
At its core, CommRAP is a way for incoming freshmen to build a sense of community during their first months on campus. Predominantly CMCI majors, residents get to know one another in classes and during open-mic nights, field trips and other events. From small meet-ups to large outings, students have something to look forward to as a group almost every week.
“There’s a great benefit to living here,” Willis says. “I think it gives them the opportunity to create different relationships than just as classmates because they see the true side of one another. A lot of them get to be really good friends—they do homework together, they study together. It’s motivating.”
Many CommRAP classes, which are taught in Buckingham, focus on the ways communication shapes society, with topics including visual literacy, media aesthetics and creative concepts. In addition to classes from CMCI, students can take core classes on math, sociology, anthropology, history and more. In some cases, taking a class within the residence hall allows them to trade in a 150-person lecture for a seminar of 19 students or fewer.
APRD sophomore Andrew Patra says living in Buckingham helped him develop a friendly rapport with faculty. He’d often bump into CommRAP Director and APRD Senior Instructor Melinda Cheval, whose class he took last year.
“I’d see her walk by while I was at the front desk and say, ‘Oh hey, I have a question for you,’” he says.
To support community interaction, Buckingham has a creative space with computers for research and multimedia projects, a dedicated study lounge and a library of books on topics taught within CMCI. Students can play a game of pool in the living area, watch a movie in the new media room or cook community meals in the full kitchen.
“The first Sunday of every month we’d have a pancake dinner and hand them out to people walking by,” says Patra, who was a member of hall council—the governing boards that serve each residence hall community—during his first year.
As faculty in residence, Willis joins students in these community experiences, from performances on campus to trips to the theater in Denver and the occasional meal in her home.
At the lasagna party in Willis’ kitchen, APRD student Katie Lavey mentions a project with the Boulder-based kombucha company Rowdy Mermaid for her CommRAP course, Intro to Branding Strategy. She pauses to ask, “Actually, what’s the difference between PR and advertising?”
Willis explains both fields in the casual tone of an older student and with the expertise of an industry professional. All three students stop chopping and listen intently.
The conversation switches to housing plans for the fall, when Willis will welcome a new group of students into the residence hall she calls home.
“I thought it would be an interesting experience—just from a sociological standpoint—watching what takes place,” she says. “After one year here, it’s so much fun!”