Siblings Gina, Lydia and Ray Gravagne, whose ages range from 3 to 9, regularly have playdates with their neighbors, eating homemade gingerbread cookies or sharing weekend pancake breakfasts.
But it’s college students at Baylor University who host the siblings. The children live on campus in the new East Village Residential Community with parents Ann and Ian Gravagne.
Ian Gravagne is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and the faculty master-in-residence for the hall’s Teal Residential College.
“It isn’t strange to them because they’re used to it,” said Ann Gravagne, who homeschools the couple’s 6-year-old, Lydia.
Hanging out with neighbors helped 12-year-old Carter Mencken obtain an autograph from Baylor men’s basketball player Isaiah Austin and a few freshman football players.
Carter’s parents, sociology professor Carson Mencken and economics senior lecturer Kimberly Mencken, are the faculty-in-residence for the Baylor-managed University Parks apartment complex.
“I was a bit nervous at first, because I had never lived anywhere else,” Carter said of moving from the family’s longtime home in Hewitt to the complex, where he now hosts peers from Live Oak Classical School for pool parties. “It was hard because I had just started making friends (with new children) in the neighborhood again.”
Of the 11 faculty-in-residence who live in dorms or Baylor-owned residential communities near campus, nine moved in with children in tow.
The Gravagnes’ son, Ray, was just 17 months old when the family squeezed into a suite on the third floor of North Village Residence Hall normally reserved for upperclass students two years ago.
Other faculty families live in custom apartments that were either created from renovating dorm rooms or purposefully built into the design plans for new residence halls, like the two airy faculty apartments of the just-opened East Village community.
“When we tell someone that we’re doing this, I think some people think that we’re shoving our families into a tiny, dark dorm room, and that’s not the case,” said assistant higher education professor Rishi Sriram, who moved into a fully furnished, split-level apartment in Brooks Residential College in July with his wife, Amanda, and their three children, Ellis, Lily and Stella. “This space is very warm and feels like a home.”
And many of the faculty families say the transition from a suburban home life to a community living space alongside college students hasn’t been as strange an experience as one might expect.
“It is just kind of funny to us that we’ve discovered the kind of community we’ve been looking for with 20-year-olds,” said Todd Buras, an associate philosophy professor and faculty master-in-residence for the Honors Residential College.
Buras, his wife, Allison, and their three children moved into Alexander-Memorial Hall in 2011, leaving behind a 4,000-square-foot home near Lake Shore and MacArthur drives for a roughly 2,400-square-foot apartment converted from about eight dorm rooms.
“It takes work to even know the names of your neighbors (in a suburban area), and for the most part life can go on without sharing anything in common at all,” Buras said. “That sense of the kind of neighborhood that once formed kids is really a thing of the past, so a greater sense of community is part of what we were looking for.”
And their young neighbors seem to be embracing the notion of having children hanging around the dorms.
Baylor mechanical engineering senior Travis Scott is used to seeing the Gravagne family around, first when he was a community leader last year at North Village and now at the Teal Residential College.
“It brightens the community, to see them come around during the day,” said Scott, 21. “Especially for engineering students when it gets to where all you’re doing is study, study all the time, seeing these kids around playing is refreshing, and you can’t help but smile.”
Scott does think the presence of small children provides a good balance for the dorm residents and reminds them to mind their P’s and Q’s “because that’s how we’re supposed to behave anyway, but also because there are kids around.”
But college students still will act like college students. Buras said he tends to hear a lot of noise around major campus events or game days as students roam around to different happenings or chat in the hallways. But so far it hasn’t disrupted his children’s sleep at night.
Carson Mencken said last year their apartment building was reserved for male students, who regularly kept up noise throughout the building or on the basketball court just outside the family’s unit.
But this year, the building is filled by female students, who are so quiet Mencken often cannot tell if they’re home.
“Last year, everybody in our building was sharing broadband Internet, and so all the guys were really into extreme video games online, sucking up all the bandwidth,” Carson Mencken said, chuckling. “This year, we’ve had no problem at all . . . but that’s just how boys are.”
The college students also have been helpful to the families.
The neighbors usually help Kimberly Mencken unload groceries from her car, and Carter often will be invited to play basketball or volleyball with the students.
When the Sriram family moved into Brooks Residential College in July, one student brought them a welcome gift, while another group baked the family cookies.
The couple’s three children already have bonded with several of their college neighbors, including a community leader 4-year-old Stella affectionately calls “Joshy” who has quickly become a mentor for older brother Ellis, 9.
The family routinely has dinner in the dining hall, and the children have played ping-pong matches with the older students.
“It’s been really great to see how the students have been so warm in welcoming our family and including our children in this community,” said Amanda Sriram, a teacher in the toddler program at Waco Montessori School. “It’s like they have 360 older brothers and sisters.”
Lydia Gravagne, 6, is the most shy and reserved of her siblings, but her parents said she will often chat with her college pals as she rides her bike just outside the apartment.
Three-year-old Ray is known to sometimes wander around and interact with students or offer to hold doors open for people entering the dining hall.
Ann Gravagne recalled last winter just before finals, a group of freshmen randomly kicked off a round of duck-duck-goose, rounding up her children to participate in the North Village lobby.
“My kids did not start that off at all, it was completely instigated by these freshmen,” Ann Gravagne said, laughing. “And the game went on for a good hour and a half, and the group kept getting bigger as people walked by and saw what was going on. The only thing that broke it up was my kids’ bedtime.”
Ian Gravagne wanted to become a faculty-in-residence because of his own experiences with a similar program at Rice University.
One of his faculty-in-residence leaders, electrical engineering professor Bill Wilson, often offered academic assistance, helped Gravagne obtain his first summer engineering job after college, gave him advice on graduate school and even attended the Gravagnes’ wedding.
“He really did just reach out and say, ‘How are you doing in your classes?’ early on . . . and he would actually take time sometimes to sit down and say, ‘Well, let’s work through it,’ ” Gravagne said. “For a faculty member of his standing and his seniority to sit down and tutor a sophomore student, one-on-one in the dining hall after dinner, that’s a very, very meaningful gesture.”
Last year, the Menckens sold their home of 10 years in Hewitt three days before their final interview for the faculty-in-residence slot. It was a risk they think paid off well in the stronger bonds they have developed with the students who live around them.
“For some of the ones who are away from home for the first time and feeling homesick, we’ve become like Mama and Daddy Mencken around here,” Kimberly Mencken said, adding that the family hosts weekly Sunday dinners at the apartment clubhouse. “And sometimes they come to us with an academic question, but they talk more about their lives and what they’re doing and where they want to go and what they want to be.”
The family first warmed up to the idea of living alongside students after spending the fall of 2011 leading a group of about 40 students during a semester abroad at Maastricht in the Netherlands.
Carson Mencken said he was intrigued by the idea of living at the University Parks complex because the university designated about a third of the units for transfer students, and he transferred from a community college to the College of Charleston in South Carolina, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.
“Having been a transfer student, my experiences weren’t that great, and I wanted to be able to help improve the experiences for the students coming in, because they’re not freshmen,” Carson Mencken said. “Oftentimes, to come in as an upperclass person and try to integrate into campus life is difficult.”
Rishi Sriram began his career at Baylor as an administrator in the student life department and was on the team that created and implemented the faculty-in-residence program.
But while he hosted his graduate students at the couple’s Waco home and previously mentored female students through Brooks College’s faculty partner program, he initially balked at wife Amanda’s suggestion to actually move onto campus.
“After I told her ‘No,’ I began to have a sense of unrest, and the more I thought about it and reflected on it, I realized that this was the type of transformative education experience I wanted to be a part of when I joined the faculty,” Sriram said.
“For many students, the college experience goes beyond courses and credits, and Baylor in having this program recognizes that it’s a life-changing experience that can’t be confined to classroom walls.”