Public health freshman Taylor Eng had her door halfway open when a knock and a stranger introduced himself as Nishanta “Nishi” Rajakaruna. He is not only a resident in yakʔitʸutʸu living community, but an associate professor in the Biological Sciences Department.
“The first week of school, [Rajakaruna] went knocking on everyone’s door to say hello to get to know us,” Eng said. “He asked us our major and our interests, which I thought was really nice.”
This year, three faculty members call on-campus housing home. Through the Faculty in Residence (FiR) position, faculty live on-campus, form strong connections with residents and become an integral academic and community partner.
Faculty participants also include Nathan Heston, full-time lecturer in the Physics Department who lives in Cerro Vista and Oscar Navarro, assistant professor in the School of Education who lives in Poly Canyon Village.
For Rajakaruna, living in a residence hall was an easy decision to make.
“Going back to my childhood, my father was a professor [at Sri Lanka University until he retired], so I was born and raised on a campus,” Rajakaruna said. “If you really look back at the 49 years of my life, I have always lived on or near on-campus housing.”
“If you really look back at the 49 years of my life, I have always lived on or near on-campus housing”
The faculty are among the first to participate in the FiR pilot program at Cal Poly. The resident faculty role incorporates three main components of serving as a role model and mentor to residents, initiating and participating in residential community events and facilitating the involvement of other campus faculty colleagues in residential communities.
Part of Rajakaruna’s motivation to be in this position goes back to when he was completing his undergraduate degree.
“I was a foreign student [from Sri Lanka], coming into a new country, and faculty played a huge role on me settling in my new life,” Rajakaruna said. “I realized faculty helped me out beyond what they do in the classroom. They value outside interactions and it had helped me feel at home.”
In the FiR position, residential faculty do not share the bathroom with residents because they receive an apartment in their assigned residence hall including utilities and access to free laundry machines. Benefits also include a meal package to be used in Campus Dining facilities and they receive an event programming fund.
Chances are that when students meet Rajakaruna, they will be invited to drink loose leaf tea with him. Recently, Rajakaruna had a successful tea program where more than 70 students attended.
According to the Cal Poly FiR position description, the benefits for the position are provided with the understanding that the resources are necessary for enabling interaction with residents and fostering community.
“A lot of the meal plan they are sharing [with residents],” Associate Director of Residence Education Tina Muller, who oversees the FiR pilot program, said. “[The faculty residents will tell me], ‘Oh yes, there was another student wanting to discuss grad school,’ and that comes up a lot. They are utilizing a lot of the meal plan money and taking that mentoring piece.”
Cal Poly is not the first university to implement a FiR program. Such faculty programs have been a part of numerous institutions for decades, including University of California, Los Angeles and University of Southern California. Considerable research has shown that student-faculty interaction influences students’ career goals, satisfaction with academic and nonacademic aspects of college and impacting academic and personal development.
“If we can break down that barrier and really connect faculty as a human and as a resource and support in the residence hall, then that can help with the big picture piece of the needs of the students, graduation, retention and sense of belonging,” Muller said.
Rajakaruna has interacted with students and discussed their interests in applying for study abroad programs, getting full-ride fellowships, and with questions about scientific research.
The purpose of FiR is that by developing a personal connection with professors outside the classroom, students become more comfortable to approach professors as someone they can talk to, according to Muller. The model of the FiR is not for faculty to be expected to manage residence hall violations, such as drinking alcohol on-campus.
“I don’t deal with people getting drunk and throwing up,” Rajakaruna said. “[Resident advisors] deal with that. I feel that I have gotten to know many of the parents and grandparents of the residents who live on my floor. I get invited to birthday parties every month. For not having a family, this feels like a really great way to live my life.”
“I don’t deal with people getting drunk and throwing up. [Resident advisors] deal with that.”
After completing the first quarter of the FiR pilot program, Muller said much of the feedback received from students is that they see the faculty as actual people where the faculty have become members of the on-campus residential community at Cal Poly. Rajakaruna said he has not had any issues with having freshmen as neighbors.
“People have been incredibly respectful and it has shocked me to some degree,” Rajakaruna said. “People have come and apologized a couple of times for being loud below my apartment. They have left cookies and notes on my door saying, ‘Sorry, we didn’t realize you were sleeping.’”
As part of the position, Rajakaruna instructs botany and biological sciences courses and enjoys sharing his love for plants with others. Combined with his passion for plants and students, Rajakaruna plans hikes every Sunday where he has gotten around 20 to 40 students to join him on his botanical adventures. Living in an apartment in the new living community means having the convenience to walk to and from work, but for Rajakaruna, teaching is more than work.
“I call it my mid-life crisis,” Rajakaruna said. “My friends thought I was crazy to be living with incoming freshmen, but they all thought I was the perfect person for the job.”