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Sep 9 / Monica Brockmeyer

Learning Communities in Action: Meet Christy Nolan




Meet Christy Nolan

Recently our Student Success office interviewed Christy Nolan about his involvement in Learning Communities and what they mean to students.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I am the Director of Campus Recreation. I have a passion for student development and enjoy those teachable vignettes when students have an “aha” moment and then really take off in their initiative, accountability, and possibilities. My doctorate is in Education, specifically Higher Ed Administration. My area of expertise is in experiential learning and student engagement with peers and faculty.

Describe your learning community.


The Freshmen Quests Learning Community is a two-phased LC. Phase I (August) consists of a three-day, two-night canoeing and camping trip led by upperclassmen. We travel on the AuSauble River from Roscommon to Mio, MI. The freshmen see upperclassmen, just a little older than them, taking on real responsibility and leading all aspects of a 44-mile back-country adventure. Faculty and staff are alongside the freshmen every step of the trip and serve in the role of expert in a specific content area, but more importantly, the faculty serve as mentors and friends to the freshmen. The goals of Phase I are for the freshmen to have fun, to make friends, realize that faculty and staff are genuinely vested in their success, and learn all the information that cannot possibly be fit into orientation.

Phase II (September-December) consists of a two-credit course in the fall term. The course focuses on critical thinking, writing at the college level, leadership ability, communication style, and the assessment of one’s personality style. Academic and social aspects of college are presented as intertwining and not separate entities. This enables the freshmen to better account for their academic obligations in college and studying shifts to a social activity with friends instead of something that is avoided or viewed as a burden. The goals of Phase II is for freshmen to understand their abilities, know and make use of resources on campus, and for the freshmen to learn to be accountable for their college journey. There are many resources and mentors available to the freshmen, however, the freshmen must be an active participant in their success.

FQ pic 1

FQ life jacketsFQ pic 2

Why did you initiate this learning community?

The LC was initiated specifically to address retention at the institution. It was discovered that the LC can fulfill a variety of roles for the department and the institution. For my department, it functions as a three-day interview for students. We learn who works well under pressure and adapts to change and uncertain surroundings. The LC also functions as a window for other departments to look through and understand the student development opportunities that take place within recreation programs and facilities.

What are your learning outcomes and how do you measure them?

Assessment of the LC is accomplished with both quantitative and qualitative methods. First, every participant completes an online survey that is created in partnership with Campus Labs. Secondary and more in depth assessment is conducted through 1 on 1 interviews with participants. The qualitative results may be viewed in my dissertation. I am currently collaborating on publishing the collective result of those methods.

What I’ve found in sifting through the data (both quantitative and qualitative) is that when students believe there is an event that is significant in their lives (not just a single moment), then they are open and more receptive to the advice and information we provide during the trip. When faculty, upperclassmen and new students all participate in this trip, and it is perceived by the student as a significant life event, the student is receptive to the information and is likely to act on the resources we provide. This leads to academic persistence and retention (see Figure 1).

Nolan’s model of learning community impact

What advice would you give to faculty members who are interested in starting an LC?

The advice I have for those who have never considered an LC start up? Retention and quality of the students’ experience is everyone’s responsibility on this campus. An LC is an avenue to be more connected to your students, and perhaps, understand some barriers to their success. Faculty are the key to LC success. The more actual faculty are engaged with students, the more robust the student experience and performance becomes.

FQ group talking

Can you share any student and/or faculty “aha” moments or breakthroughs you’ve seen in your learning community?

The moment/s that stand out for me come when students report just how powerful of an experience their participation in the LC can be. Students report that participation in this LC is a life changing event. They report that they make connections that last a lifetime. Additional learning outcomes show that students report significant self-discovery and learn that regardless of the diversity present on campus, most students have the same concerns about attending college for the first time.

If you’d like to engage with Christy Nolan regarding his research and learning community program, please leave a comment below or contact him directly at

One Comment

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  1. Denise Thomas / Oct 9 2014

    I can vouch for the Freshman Quest LC as a memorable and significent experience for freshman. As an academic advisor and first year chaperone for Freshman Quest, I joined a group of 25 freshman students, 5 upperclassman (student leaders), and 6 WSU faculty/staff in the early hours of a Wednesday morning. Our Freshman Quest group spent 3 days and 2 nights together. Through the activities provided by Dr. Nolan and the student leaders, the group slowly got to meet each other and slowly began to share their similarities and differences. The activities were head on for the freshman, as they began to understand they were no different from their peers; many having the same fears and apprehensions about beginning college, succeeding in their coursework, choosing the right major, making memorable friendships and paying for their tuition. As the students were stretched physical, they were left no choice but to rely on their WSU peers for guidance and support, and the bonding began.

    Two thumbs up for Dr. Nolan as he put together an exceptional group of enthusiastic student leaders who continuously modeled WSU Warrior pride. These student leaders were skilled in outdoor wilderness, were genuine regarding potential obstacles freshman overcome, and helped the freshman in any way needed. Besides this, what terrific personalities; many laughs were had.

    My experience as a chaperone was just as powerful as what the freshman experienced. Through my involvement, I took professional and personal risks. Most of my work is with transfer, continuing and returning students, so spending significant time with traditional freshman was rejuvenating and updating. I had meaningful conversations with students regarding degree requirements and how college differs from high school. As students asked, I told my personal WSU story and a few of my life stories. I was challenged physically and mentally and believe I am a better person and employee because of this experience. Last but not least, I too made lasting student connections, as I check up frequently on one Freshman Quest student. We e-mail each other and recently met for an on campus lunch. She is transitioning into WSU life just fine !

    Thanks for the memorable and significant experience, Dr. Nolan, student leaders and the Freshman Quest students.

    Denise Thomas, University Advising Center

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