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Vanderbilt tries to make palling around with teachers the norm, believing that even casual exchanges with faculty can broaden kids' academic and social perspectives. As dean of the Commons, Frank Wcislo has films and forums in his living room, a.k.a. Wcislo's Salon. The 10 profs who live in the Commons' dorms host similar extracurriculars, and 55 others have agreed to come hang out with frosh. But amid all this bonding with authority figures, there's a risk that some students won't learn independence. "A very small percentage of students see me as a father figure, but I try to discourage that," says sociologist Tony Brown, who opens his dorm apartment on Friday evenings for rap sessions, using bait like cookies, Wii Tennis and his pet rabbit. "At move-in, I can't tell you how many parents said to me, 'Oh, good, you're an adult. Please take care of my kid!' But this was sold to us as an academic endeavor."
The school knows, though, that today's parents are more involved with their college-age children than those of a decade ago, and it tries to accommodate, within reason. During orientation, staff members put photos online almost in real time so families can keep an eye on their kids. "You don't want to just push helicopter parents away entirely," says Angela Cottrell, associate director of residential education. Even undergrad residential advisers like sophomore Deno Saclarides do some parental hand-holding. After a call from the mother of one of his freshman advisees, Saclarides says, "I wrote on his door, 'Sweetie, I haven't heard from you in a while. Call. Mom.'"
Recent chats with students in the Commons suggest that the Hogwarts-like haven is off to a good start. Many welcomed the adult attention and said they were less homesick than their friends at other schools. A few were grateful to be able to take baby steps into college. "We're all here in one place so we can be cheesy and lame together," says first-year Meryem Dede. Some freshmen, though, complain they're being deprived of role models closer to their age. "I feel disconnected from upperclassmen," says Cole Garrett.
Corralling frosh makes it easier to prevent their dropping out or becoming misfits. But if you make freshman year one big group hug, will kids be unprepared for the wilds of second year? Maybe. And yet some colleges have concluded that the way to deal with the problems potentially caused by coddling is to do even more of it. That's one reason the University of Maine is developing a program to help combat the sophomore slump by building on what first-years learned in Froshville. Vanderbilt has a $1.75 billion capital campaign to turn all the rest of its dorms into neighborhoods where some 5,000 upperclassmen and their professors can live and eat together. "Twenty years ago, there was no talk of retention. It was just about getting kids in the door," says Michael McLendon, who teaches public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt. "Now we want to make sure their education is social." Let the study breaks begin.