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Aug. 16, 2023

Residential colleges are ‘the deciding factor’ for many Spartans

Ranked among the best in the country, MSU’s residential colleges have perfected how to make a large university feel personal

When third-year Michigan State University student Kailyn Butler was narrowing down her college selection, the deciding factor ended up being two things no other school had: MSU’s residential, science-focused Lyman Briggs College and, perhaps not surprising, Big Ten athletics.

Lyman Briggs College student Kailyn Butler poses with Zeke the Wonderdog at an MSU home football game. Photo courtesy of Kailyn Butler

When Butler, an Indiana native double majoring in neuroscience and human biology with a minor in bioethics, toured campus during a Green and White Day, the beauty of MSU’s campus — and its abundance of squirrels — clinched her decision.

Once she arrived on campus for her first semester, however, it was the people in her small college, located in Holmes Hall in the northeast corner of campus near the Red Cedar River, who made her feel at home.

“The people here make it special,” says Butler. “I came here knowing no one and met my best friend. There isn’t a big Black population, but the people here make me feel included.”

Butler’s classes and area of study are rigorous, but the college is known for its support systems that help all students thrive and find the resources they need to excel from the start.

‘Collaborative, not competitive’ 

MSU’s residential college model is distinctive from other universities that offer these programs. The three colleges — Lyman Briggs College, James Madison College and the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities — are all degree-granting colleges, each is empowered to make decisions about curriculum and faculty tenure, and each has a unique structure and culture. Nearly all of their first-year students live in the residence hall where their college is located. Class sizes are small, and students benefit from personalized academic and career advising as well as access to the wealth of opportunities, research facilities and student organizations MSU offers. And the model is working: MSU’s living-learning communities overall rank No. 1 among all public universities in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Map of MSU campus with three buildings highlighted with directional marker and photograph: James Madison College, Case Hall; Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Snyder Phillips Hall, and Lyman Briggs College, Holmes Hall
MSU's residential colleges provide close-knit living-learning communities to students as well as all the opportunities and benefits of a Big Ten research university.

Whether part of a residential college or not, all students living in residence halls benefit from the university’s Neighborhoods model, which is MSU’s signature approach to student success, grouping campus residence halls into “neighborhoods.” Each is home to a Neighborhood Engagement Center where students can find all the resources they need to succeed under one roof  from physical and mental health resources to academic and advising support to communities connected by shared affinities and identities.

Butler lived in Holmes Hall her first year and says that experience set the tone for what she could expect from her courses and her peers.

“Everyone in your hall takes the same classes, which helps academically,” Butler says. “We’d have chemistry exams every Friday, so everyone would be downstairs studying together. It felt collaborative, not competitive.”

Exploring science and society in Lyman Briggs College

Students with waders and nets standing in Red Cedar River

Students in Lyman Briggs College, affectionately known as “Briggsies,” are passionate about the sciences and their impact on society.

The college was established in 1967 and today about half of its faculty come from STEM fields while the other half represent the arts, humanities and social sciences.

“What’s different about Briggs, and what’s really cool, is that students come here, and we are teaching them about the sciences, but we’re doing it in a really interdisciplinary way so that they understand the interplay between science and society,” says Kendra Spence Cheruvelil, dean of the college. “We have people teaching classes about data ethics, for example, or gender in science, so students not only are learning the fundamentals of the sciences, but they’re also understanding how culture and society affect science and vice versa.”

In addition to their courses, students have a number of opportunities to round out their degree programs, from education abroad and research experiences to serving as undergraduate learning assistants who work alongside faculty to help other students grasp course material.

“When I teach bio labs, I have 24 students working in teams on research projects,” says Cheruvelil. “It’s me teaching, and then I have two learning assistants helping me teach so that at any one time there are six teams working and three of us circulating around, helping students with their research.”

One of the goals of the college in the coming year is to increase the number of fellowships for students interested in research opportunities.

Kailyn Butler presents her research at MSU's University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum. Photo courtesy of Kailyn Butler

Butler, the student pursuing neuroscience and human biology, knew right away that she wanted to conduct research alongside one of her neuroscience professors, Alexander Johnson, after taking one of his courses. She liked his research and emailed him about her interest, which led to her working on a project studying how the brain regulates insulin in rats.

Butler spends plenty of time contributing to the wider campus and local communities too, from volunteering with Lansing-based nonprofit Ele’s Place, which provides support to children who recently lost loved ones, to helping patients with traumatic brain injuries at Origami Rehabilitation. She’s also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.’s Delta Zeta chapter and, in her spare time, is a Briggs Ambassador who leads tours of Lyman Briggs for prospective students. She’s also a regular at every home football game, cheering on her Spartans.

“When I look back at freshman me versus the me now, I see a lot of growth,” says Butler, who plans to attend medical school and become a pediatric emergency medicine physician. “With support from faculty and my close friendships, I’ve developed the ability to push myself to do more.”

Faculty members notice that growth, too.

Kevin Elliott is a professor jointly appointed in Lyman Briggs and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He’s been teaching in the residential college for nearly a decade, and one of the most enjoyable aspects for him is watching students grow throughout their academic journeys.

“It’s so fun to compare the students I teach in their first year with the students I teach in their final year and to see how much they’ve learned and how thoughtful they’ve become about ethical and social issues related to scientific research.”

The close-knit nature of Lyman Briggs, paired with rigorous courses, personalized advising and accessible faculty, sets Briggsies up for success. The college has a placement rate of 94%, with about half of graduates pursuing graduate or professional education. Many other students go on to careers in data science, health-related fields and environmental sciences.

Finding balance in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

Students talking to a professor near Funambulist statue outside Snyder-Phillips Hall

Located in Snyder-Phillips Hall in MSU’s historic north campus, the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, or RCAH, is the youngest of the three degree-granting residential options, established in 2007.

Passersby will notice an eye-catching 25-foot sculpture of a beam balanced on a red sail outside the building. “The Funambulist” represents the balancing act required of students while remaining daring, bold and creative, according to an artist’s statement.

Residential College in the Arts and Humanities student Ryan Newcomb. Photo courtesy of Ryan Newcomb

Fourth-year student Ryan Newcomb, a Lansing native who will graduate in fall 2023, balances numerous interests as he pursues his arts and humanities major and a minor in media photography. He is co-president of the music club RCAHarmony and a member of the MSU archery team. Newcomb also has participated in the college’s Spanish and Farsi language clubs and volunteered with a local neighborhood community garden.

As he gets closer to graduation, Newcomb credits many of his professors with challenging him to consider other viewpoints.

“I have had several professors that have made big impacts on my life as a student and my decisions going into a professional setting,” says Newcomb. “My favorite professors have been the ones who challenge my thinking and offer new perspectives that I never would have considered otherwise. Whether on a class project or a general life issue, my professors have been able to offer very genuine advice.”

RCAH student Maren Case performs with MSU's Capital Green A Cappella group. Photo courtesy of Maren Case

Professors are just one spoke in the network of support students receive. The college, with its roughly 200 students, is small enough to operate a multi-tiered mentoring program that pairs each first-year student with a current student and an alum who provide guidance. The goal is to equip newer students with an understanding of the post-collegiate world and how they might use an interdisciplinary arts and humanities degree.

The abundant opportunities that come with an RCAH degree are what attract many to the college, which boasts a nearly 99% placement rate for its graduates.

Residential College in the Arts and Humanities student Maren Case. Photo courtesy of Maren Case

Maren Case, a fourth-year student majoring in arts and humanities with minors in writing and religious studies, first learned about RCAH through a brochure that came to her mailbox.

“I had not heard of the program before, but it offered areas of study in every academic field that I was interested in,” says Case. “In high school, I had several intellectual passions, but I couldn’t succinctly pinpoint what career I wanted to pursue out of those areas of study. When I was exposed to RCAH, I learned that I didn’t have to sacrifice any of them, but rather that I could bolster my interests by combining them into my academic path.”

Diving into policy and public affairs in James Madison College

JMC students at desks in a classroom

Students in James Madison College, housed in Case Hall on the southwest side of campus, learn to think critically and analytically and develop decision-making skills as they prepare for careers in public and international affairs.

“The college’s first and central mission is providing an education in public and international affairs for undergraduate students,” says Cameron Thies, dean of James Madison College. “We also are proud of our track record of international and national scholarship and fellowship winners. I think a large part of that has to do with the fact that James Madison is a residential living-learning experience and students get a lot of one-on-one attention from faculty and staff. Our staff really go the extra mile to support all of our students.”

Virtually all courses in James Madison are taught by tenure-system faculty, and the college boasts a 97% placement rate. Graduates go on to law school and other graduate programs while others serve as elected officials or work in state and federal government and nongovernmental organizations, as well as the private sector.

James Madison prepared 2010 alum Emily Forrest for a policy career across a variety of settings. She currently holds the position of senior policy adviser for Medicare at the White House Domestic Policy Council. Before joining the Domestic Policy Council in April, she served as congressional liaison and later technical adviser with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as assistant director of federal government affairs for the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, among other policy positions for state, federal and private sector health care organizations.

“James Madison’s focus on asking questions and thinking about how policies impact people from different walks of life and perspectives has served me well with developing policy solutions in my role in the White House,” says Forrest. “JMC professors instilled in us the importance of consistently pushing and questioning a policy with the aim of making it better for all people.”

Since the college’s beginning in 1967, all students have been required to complete a field experience — either an internship, education abroad program or senior thesis. Students can choose from more than 500 internship opportunities in state and federal agencies, local government, legislative offices, public interest groups, legal aid societies and courts, businesses, media outlets, labor unions and more.

James Madison College student Emilio Silerio Gonzalez. Photo courtesy of Emilio Silerio Gonzalez

Emilio Silerio Gonzalez is a second-year student and the founding communications director for the registered student organization Latino Leaders in Policy. The group brings in speakers from the field of public affairs to network with student members as well as provides a scholarship and internship database to maximize opportunities for members and creates space to socialize and make new connections.

His courses are rigorous, but his professors and classmates keep him engaged.

“From writing academically to producing professional research, the more I progress through my JMC journey, the more prepared I feel for my future in public affairs,” says Silerio Gonzalez. “Not only that, but the ambience is very positive and fosters civil discourse. People are encouraged to have conversations, whether there is disagreement or not. The discussion aspect of classes is, to me, the most enjoyable.”

That focused environment is paying off for Silerio Gonzalez as he looks ahead to his second year.

“I’m speaking from the heart when I say all of my JMC professors have had a profound impact on me,” he says. “I have not only become a better writer, researcher and speaker, but through the course structure and such supportive and invested professors, I have also become a better student and independent thinker.”

No matter which residential college students choose, each can expect a high level of support, classmates who want to see them succeed and programs of study that prepare them for fulfilling careers.

“What each college has in common is this really profound dedication and commitment to undergraduate education and creating these communities where students live and learn together, supported by their faculty and staff,” says Thies.

Learn more about MSU's living-learning offerings


By: Meredith Mescher and Kelsie Lane

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