It’s early in the morning as the Sutter Hall custodial crew sweeps and vacuums near the front door of the North building. As Joseph Liu—slight and still fresh-faced at 30 years old—walks through the entryway, he gets a big smile from the custodians, and then an abrupt laugh and apology as they realize, once again, that they’ve mistaken him for a student.
Liu is used to it by now. As Chico State’s first Faculty-In-Residence, in fact, he’s supposed to blend in.
Joe, as he introduces himself to Sutter residents on a poster outside of his apartment in 246N, is an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Management within the College of Business. He and his wife, Danielle (and their pet albino rabbit Augustus, or simply “Bunny”), are the pioneer volunteers for a campus initiative set forth by Student Affairs and University Housing.
The Faculty-in-Residence (FIR) program puts Liu and family on campus not only to provide academic support and first-year student orientation assistance, but also to be an integral part of the resident community. Liu was hired after a mid-June Skype meeting with Housing, as he and Danielle were in Spain. They moved in August 8. The FIR position is non-salaried but does provide free board—an airy two-bedroom apartment with ample natural light in the living room and a balcony overlooking the Shasta and Lassen Hall lawn area.
Joe and Danielle, a chiropractor working in marketing at Chico Sports Club, regularly eat with students at Sutter Dining. They participated in move-in day and other activities during Welcome Week. Joe holds office hours with Sutter residents and resident advisors, he’s expected to actively engage with Community Council (a group composed of residents, coordinators and resident advisors), and he is responsible for creating two social programs and two dinners per semester. His role is to be involved as part of the Sutter community for an average of 10 hours weekly. Two weeks in, though, Joe said he found that there really is no separating life outside of the confines of his apartment from campus life.
“It’s a big adjustment to open yourself up and be available to everyone, but I do enjoy it,” says Joe, who chose Chico for its tight-knit feel (and, he adds with a laugh, next-to-zero-percent chance of getting snow). “It’s really nice being part of this community here, where everything is so small and intimate. The students here bring so much optimism and hope and eagerness, and being around that excitement is energizing for me.”
The human touch, obviously, is a critical aspect of the FIR program, and Joe’s youthfulness and outgoing nature make him a natural fit. But he also knows that being warm and friendly is just half of the job—he’s also there to help cultivate an intellectual environment and bridge academia and community for the University’s residents. First-year students, the program’s goals dictate, should pick up a certain amount of autonomy and self-reliance with Joe’s help. He thinks he’s got a head start in that regard.
“The most striking thing for me is the students—they’re very emotionally mature,” Joe says. “Yes, they’re freshmen, so you do feel that hope and nervousness all in one. But across the board, the students here conduct themselves like adults. You can see they take this experience seriously.”
The primary goal of the FIR program, according to University Housing Executive Director Abeer Mustafa, is to support academic growth and development through more informal means. A faculty member living the dorm life provides the opportunity for students to learn outside of the classroom and develop independence and emotional maturity, and Joe can provide insight and tutelage far beyond his ample business management acumen.
“We’re really excited to have Joe,” Mustafa says. “He’s got a lot of energy, and students already tell me how much they love him and Danielle. What’s probably most encouraging is to see how eager Joe is to start building relationships.”
Connecting with him may be as simple and entertaining as checking out Joe’s Snapchat (@FIRjoe, which is admittedly morphing mostly into snaps from the “Bunny-in-Residence”) or chatting about The Fast and the Furious movies, of which Joe’s a major fan. But it also includes a fair amount of de facto mentorship, whether it’s helping first-year students pick up life hacks like finding discounted school supplies or providing counsel on coping with homesickness.
Residents Elizabeth Steele and Shela Bui can identify with both, and have felt the impact of Joe’s presence already.
“It was a really pleasant surprise to see that a professor would want to make that connection with us,” says Steele, a Manteca native majoring in English. “I was feeling really homesick and down, but Joe reassured me and encouraged me. He’s really an exceptional person. He makes you feel the community vibe here.”
Bui’s first couple of days were similarly stressful, she says. Naturally shy, she felt overwhelmed on her second day of class, simultaneously surrounded by strangers and worried about the costs of textbooks.
“I was by myself, kind of panicking, and Joe and Danielle came up and introduced themselves and just talked to me,” says Bui, a pre-nursing major from Anaheim. “Joe was showing me where I could find books for cheap or even showed me which ones I could just borrow.
“I didn’t even know he was a professor. I felt like I was just making a new friend.”