Living-Learning Programs (LLPs) support belonging, immersive learning, and the intimate experiences of a small college within Virginia Tech’s university experience. Because these programs have been shown to improve academic outcomes, the university has prioritized growing the number of students in LLPs. 
Ashley Reed, recipient of a Provost’s Residential Faculty Fellowship, shared her experience as one of the university’s newest residential college faculty principals. She guides the co-curricular LLP experience in Residential College at West Ambler Johnston, one of four residential colleges which are hallmarks of LLPs at Virginia Tech.

Reed is an associate professor of English and teaches courses in American literature and digital humanities. She is the author of "Heaven’s Interpreters: Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-Century America," published in 2020 by Cornell University Press. Her articles have appeared in J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, Religion Compass, Essays in Romanticism, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. She’s also a lifelong film fan and a former producer for Turner Classic Movies.

Why did you want to be a part of the residential learning programs at Virginia Tech? 

I first found out about the residential colleges in 2016, shortly after my arrival at Virginia Tech, when I was asked to give a presentation on my scholarship at one of the weekly FaculTea events. From that very first encounter, I was hooked. 

The students were smart and attentive and asked great questions about my rather obscure area of scholarship — 19-century people who talked to ghosts and then wrote books about it. And they laughed at my jokes. I knew this was a really special place to be, and when Dr. Danna Agmon asked me if I would join the community as a senior fellow, I jumped at the chance.

As you near the end of your first semester in West Ambler-Johnston, what does "residential college" mean to you? 

I knew AJ [Ambler Johnston] was a bustling place, but I had no idea how much was going on until I moved in. Students are constantly up to something: movie screenings, s’mores nights, Moss performances, study hours, a chess club. There’s really something for everyone here. I love that folks with different interests can pick and choose what appeals to them.

Why is it important for students to feel a sense of affiliation, belonging, and acceptance?

College is hard, even at the best of times, and knowing there are lots of people in the same boat with you makes such a difference. There’s plenty of research that shows that residential colleges and other living-learning communities increase student retention and well-being, and I see those findings borne out every day in my interactions with students here. Between the student leaders, the house council members, the apartment fellows, and the professional support staff, there’s always someone a student can turn to if they need help.

How does the faculty-student relationship grow beyond the classroom? 

Well, one of my favorite parts of the job is that there’s no grading. I say that flippantly, but really, removing the pressure of grades from the faculty-student relationship is very freeing. Students don’t have to fret about making a perfect impression all the time, and I have the opportunity to engage them in their interests without worrying that I’m blowing my lesson plan.

And while I’ve only been here since July, I’m already adapting my teaching a bit. Working with student leaders and house council members is helping me to see the kinds of expertise that students have and has helped me trust my students a bit more in the classroom. That’s tough to do, but I really think it’s helping me become a better educator.

Has your cat, Ava, made many new friends?

Ava is the best possible ambassador. I often leave my door open so that students can stop by and see her, and she’s so friendly that she runs to the door whenever she hears the elevator ding or the stairway door open. I’ve eavesdropped as students have gotten to know each other while they take turns cuddling her, and they love showing me pictures of their pets at home. Ava really brings people together, and she’s been rewarded not only with attention but with treats — one of the students dropped off a bag of her own cat’s favorite and Ava loves them.

Written by Shannon Atkins