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Living in the dorms as a Hofstra professor

History professor Katrina Sims lives full time in the dorms with the first-year students at Hofstra University to help them adjust to college life. (Credit: Newsday / Kimberly Yuen)

The smell of freshly baked cornbread wafts through the halls of a dorm at Hofstra University as one by one, students trickle into the common area.

Also on the menu that evening: stewed chicken, mac and cheese, iced tea and more.

“Try the collard greens with hot sauce,” Katrina Sims, an assistant professor of history, tells one student who seems wary of the leafy dish.

Sims cooked the Southern feast from scratch, using her grandmother’s recipes, for about 30 students. It was her way to formally introduce herself to her new neighbors.

Sims, 35, is the faculty-in-residence for Hofstra this year. She lives full time in the dorms with the first-year students to help them adjust to college life, by mentoring them, setting up group activities and helping them find opportunities on campus.

“It’s no longer awkward,” she said about her new teenage neighbors. She said she makes an effort to let students see her doing laundry, taking out the trash and walking around in sweatpants.

“I just really want our students to see that faculty members are just like them. We’re regular people. We’re not the boogeyman. No reason to be afraid of us. We’re approachable. We’re relatable. And more importantly, we’re accessible,” Sims said.

She’s been the faculty-in-residence since the school year started in August and is enjoying interacting with the students on a more personal level. 

“Some students are a little unsure of why I’m here in their space. I always wear a name tag to identify myself,” said Sims, who is originally from Florida. She attended Florida A&M University for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the University of Mississippi for her PhD. 

Sims says she has an open-door policy where students can drop by her unit with any questions. She has her own spacious, two-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom and living room nestled in the corner of the first floor in the Amsterdam House. The second bedroom serves as her informal office and workout area. 

She’ll often walk around the lounge area with freshly baked treats and hosts Taco Tuesday nights and tea time for students who would like to meet with her one-on-one.

“I haven’t really had to deal with a lot of loud noises, although I wouldn't really be surprised. What else are you supposed to do in a dorm but be a little rowdy and rambunctious?” said Sims with a laugh.

Hofstra is one of a growing number of universities nationwide that have established faculty-in-residence positions in an effort to provide more mentorship resources for students. Hofstra is the only university on Long Island with such a program, which is in its fourth year at the school.

The Netherlands is a residence hall complex on campus made up of about 600 mostly first-year student residents. In the Netherlands, the Amsterdam House is dedicated to first-generation college students.

The position is different from that of a residential assistant, whose main job is to respond to issues within the halls and enforce university rules. Her job is to act more as a live-in mentor for students.

Freshman residents Malley Andemeskel and Ellie Villaraldo, both first in their families to go to college, said they didn’t know they would be living among a faculty member in the dorms before arriving at Hofstra, but said that they were pleasantly surprised when they found out.

“I was excited about it. Knowing that someone else has gone through the same thing as you, going through the same struggles as you, I found it kind of comforting,” said Andemeskel, whose major is undecided at the moment.

Villaraldo, originally from Oregon, said most of her interactions with Sims have been casually bumping into her in the dorm.

“Sometimes I’ll be studying in the lounge and she’ll pop in with treats and check in,” she said.

Villaraldo said Sims helped her and her roommate develop a study schedule and passed along a list of helpful study habits.

“She’s been a really great resource so far. When I was considering a premed route, she put me in touch with a professor who would give me more insight. She’s been really comforting and understanding,” said Villaraldo, who is planning to major in political science.

A first-generation college student herself, Sims can relate.

“Having no point of reference from my family, just being a closed space, sharing my room with someone that I didn’t know, that was the hardest part of being in college,” she said. “My goal is to get our residents to focus on the opportunities to meet new people and make new connections,” Sims said.

The faculty-in-residence position is “not only to provide academic support for students, but to give them a sense of connection and a sense of how much faculty cares about them because Hofstra is all about relationships,” said vice president for student affairs W. Houston Dougharty.

“They have a level of insight to the student experience that is so beneficial for them and to their colleagues,” Dougharty said.

The hope is that the faculty in residence would commit to the job for at least two years as the first year is mostly about adjusting. Sims’ predecessor was in the role for three years, he said.

Sims doesn’t get additional pay for the faculty-in-residence position other than free housing “which on Long Island is no small feat,” Dougharty said.

Sims teaches three classes a semester and with her new role, she says she is on campus “way more” than she’s ever been in her past three years at the university.

“I do make it a point to step away (from campus) for a moment, de-stressing, relaxing and doing something restorative,” Sims said. She takes kickboxing classes at a studio nearby four times a week and goes for walks at nearby Eisenhower Park.

“And then I’m back,” she said, “because this is home.”

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