All in the Family
USC Rossier professors Shafiqa Ahmadi and Darnell Cole make a home in student housing
By Dan Gordon
The three-story Annenberg House north of Jefferson Boulevard on the edge of the USC campus features 48 apartment units, each with a kitchenette and a sitting/dining area. It’s occupied entirely by USC students — a mix of graduates and undergraduates, among them many students of color and first-generation college students. But what sets this residence hall apart from others is the family living among the students: two USC Rossier professors and their three children, ages 12, 11 and 3.
Shafiqa Ahmadi and Darnell Cole host viewing parties for big television events like the Oscars, Grammys and the Super Bowl. They take the students on outings that are a combination of education, social experience and engagement with Los Angeles’ culture and history — horseback riding through the Hollywood Hills, visits to museums, trips to sporting events, dining at a tapas restaurant at L.A. Live. They support students with advice and referrals on applying to graduate school, exploring careers, preparing résumés and thinking about life after college.
Whether retrieving mail, riding the elevator or visiting their complex’s fitness center, Ahmadi and Cole inevitably find themselves rubbing elbows with students. Some professionals might chafe at the thought of such an inextricable link between work and home life, but the couple, who have lived in Annenberg for the last four years, wouldn’t have it any other way.
For Cole, it’s a chance to live what he studies and teaches. An associate professor of education with an emphasis in higher education and education psychology, Cole focuses on the impact of college experiences on students’ academic performance, educational satisfaction and civic engagement. “People typically define college success as how well the student performs in the classroom,” he says. “But classes take up a relatively small portion of students’ time. What are they doing with the rest of it? We know that their peer groups and interactions with other students make a big difference, and that getting to know faculty members outside the classroom is significantly correlated with college success.”
Ahmadi and Cole offer their student neighbors the type of perspective that can be obtained only through life experience. After holding a session on preparing for graduate school and careers, Cole found himself counseling two students who admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the thought of life after college. Other times, he provides gentle guidance to students feeling isolated — like the student who transferred to USC last spring as a second-semester freshman and was having trouble finding a peer group. Cole encouraged the student to attend one of his programs, where the Rossier professor helped to connect him with other student residents, who in turn connected him with their circle of friends.
“Getting to know faculty members outside the classroom is significantly correlated with college success.”
—Darnell Cole, associate professor of education
When the opportunity to become residential faculty was first presented, Ahmadi was more hesitant than her husband, in part because of her own college memories. A first-generation college student who was born in Afghanistan and arrived with her family in the United States in 1987, Ahmadi initially struggled to fit in as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. “I commuted to campus every day by bus, then went back home to west Seattle, which was an hour away,” she recalls. “I did well academically, but had no out-of-classroom experiences with faculty or my peers.”
Like Cole, Ahmadi spends much of her professional time learning about and promoting the interests of students. The associate professor of clinical education is an expert on diversity and legal protection of underrepresented students. She holds a law degree and, prior to joining the Rossier faculty in 2006, worked for the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission investigating alleged civil rights violations and discrimination cases. Ahmadi has been particularly interested in learning about the experiences of Muslim students post-9/11, as well as how campus policies can support potentially marginalized student populations.
Ahmadi says that as a woman of color, she has served as a role model for several students in a way that wouldn’t be possible if she knew them only through her faculty position — including the immigrant student and occasional babysitter who confided that she was unhappy with her decision to follow her parents’ wishes that she go into medicine (and is now pondering law school). “The students can see that I’m an attorney and faculty member as well as a mother devoted to raising her kids, and they realize that it’s doable,” Ahmadi says. “I share a lot about myself and what I’ve been through.”
Twenty-one USC faculty live in Residential Colleges and Communities, including another Rossier associate professor of clinical education, John Pascarella. Although the university has had residential faculty for several decades, the number has increased in recent years, according to Emily Sandoval MEd ’04, a Rossier alumna from the Postsecondary Administration and Student Affairs program and current EdD student who also oversees the program as director of USC’s Office for Residential Education. The increase is part of a stepped-up effort to promote a sense of community and support while also cultivating a seamless learning environment extending from the classroom to the living spaces.
“We believe education should be promoted in all facets of university life, and this helps to break down the walls between students and faculty,” Sandoval says. “The students get to see the human side of the residential faculty members at barbecues or playing games out on the lawn with their family, and it contributes to a feeling of home and familiarity.”
In his role as the residential faculty master, Cole offers more than just programming. “The concern he has for the residents is obvious,” Sandoval says. “He knows what students are going through, he knows the campus resources and he truly cares. This is his field, so he gets it.”
Cole describes his own college experience as pivotal. While earning undergraduate degrees in finance and philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he became active in developing programs, fundraising, working within budgets and organizing events through the university and his fraternity; meanwhile, he was forging relationships with faculty and staff, one of whom helped to launch him on his current path.
“I never realized that what I was doing in college could become my career until a mentor who worked in student affairs told me,” Cole says.
That mentor encouraged Cole to attend the annual conference of the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators so that he could network and explore graduate opportunities. A month after doing so, Cole was recruited to enroll in the master’s program at Indiana University, and by the time he met Ahmadi, he was on his way to earning his PhD in Higher Education Administration and Education Psychology.
Cole continues to be driven, both on campus and at home, by his personal experience with the value of a well-rounded college life — and the importance of guidance in that pursuit, particularly for first-generation students and students of color. He is currently working with Rossier colleagues on a five-year, $6.2 million grant from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation examining the keys to the success of living/learning student communities at the University of Nebraska, which have led to increased retention and graduation rates among the participants, nearly all of whom are first-generation college students.
At their residence hall, Cole and Ahmadi let students know they are available for support, whether it’s dispensed while walking in the halls or when a student comes to their unit seeking counsel. The couple go out of their way to be especially visible during stressful periods, such as around the holidays and toward the end of each semester. They make sure students are aware of campus resources that can bolster their résumés and psyches, and structure activities designed to relieve any stress.
“The ability to be with them in more casual environments makes it so much easier to have the personal conversations that you can’t always have with professors when you just see them in the classroom and maybe briefly during office hours,” says Donté Miller, a second-year Rossier master’s student who has collaborated with Cole in planning programs for the Annenberg building’s students in Miller’s role as graduate residential community coordinator.
In the process of working with Cole, Miller has found a mentor. Like the Rossier professor, Miller is African-American and is currently eyeing PhD programs and a possible academic career. “I’ll see him at a program or just in passing and I’ll tell him all the things I’m doing or am interested in pursuing,” Miller says. “He’ll either say, ‘Slow down, take your time,’ or ‘You know what? You need to get on top of that.’ Having that kind of sounding board has been so important, and on a more personal level, to be able to get to know a successful black man with an amazing family who is doing the kind of work that I’m interested in is inspiring.”
This article appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of USC Rossier Magazine.
*Thank you to all of our donors who generously supported USC Rossier during fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016).