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Faces of USF: Bingham family

Shawn Bingham is the director of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (ISS) and one of two who are part of the Faculty In Residence (FIR) experience, where he lives in a residence hall to implement academic initiatives for residents.

But Bingham did not enter the program alone. He chose to bring his family to live with him on campus. USF has now been their home for nearly two years.

Meet the Bingham family

Bingham lives with his wife, Angela Bingham, and their two children in a two-bedroom, first-floor apartment beneath a few floors filled with students.

The Bingham parents can sometimes be seen on their weekly walks on campus with their daughters.

Their oldest, Eva, 5, has been described as full of energy by students and administrators. She takes gymnastics and is currently in pre-kindergarten.

Isla celebrated her first birthday at their USF home March 4 and is starting to learn how to stand on her own two feet, which, as of this week, she can do for a few seconds.

A typical weekday for the Binghams begins with Shawn taking Eva to preschool, a 10-minute commute. Before leaving and upon returning home, Eva practices her Spanish with maintenance staff in the residence hall. Angela looks after Isla in the morning and walks with her on campus.

Sometimes, Angela visits old neighborhood friends for tea at the Marshall Student Center.

When Shawn returns from dropping Eva off, he walks to one of several social science classes he teaches. At about noon, it is time to pick up Eva and take her to either her gymnastics or dance class.

Shawn said he and Angela agree there is no difficulty in raising a family on campus. In fact, it feels close to normal.

“I’ve been able to learn more about the obstacles students face outside of the classroom: learning or not learning to use digital technology responsibly, navigating the University, dealing with the multiple pressures of work, social and student lives,” Shawn said. “This all gives me a better understanding of how to engage students and help them find meaning in classroom and course material.”

Angela said even the space was not an issue, since they lived in a small home before to moving.

“We were concerned of it being louder for a family,” she said. “But it’s no louder than any apartment building that we’ve lived in, and the space wasn’t an issue.”

Going back to college

When Shawn came home in Seminole Heights after a meeting two years ago, he asked Angela about being a part of the FIR program.

“He came home and said, ‘How would you like to go back to college?'” Angela said. “People asked me, ‘Is there a downside?’ and to me and so far, we’ve only seen positive things with exposing (Eva) to different forms of art and language and events on campus. It’s just a rich culture, and I think we wanted to give her a different culture.”

The family of three moved on campus in 2009. During that first week of moving, the Binghams received special news – Angela was pregnant.

However, they said it didn’t pose an issue, only that Isla would have the same opportunities that Eva would get.

One of the 5-year-old’s most recent experiences with on-campus activities was during Martin Luther King Jr. Week in January, when the activist’s son, Martin Luther King III, spoke Jan. 20.

“Eva was studying for Martin Luther King Day at her school,” Angela said. “She has a book at home called ‘Martin’s Kind Words,’ and then we found out that Martin Luther King III was coming to speak here at USF, so we took her and she wanted to take her book. She was by far the youngest audience member, but she was able to go to school the next day with her picture from the event and her book and talk about her experience.”

Eva said she enjoyed the event and wants to attend USF when she gets older.

“I’m going to stay here until I’m 15 years old,” she said.

Angela said residents joke with Eva, saying the freshmen are getting younger and younger every year.

“She doesn’t want to move back,” she said. “We joke that when she’s a freshman and living here we’ll still be (here), keeping an eye on her.”

The academics of life

Shawn said this wasn’t the first time he and Angela have lived on campus together. They lived in graduate marriage housing at the University of Maryland while Angela attended school there and Shawn attended American University. The experience helped in their decision to participate in the FIR program.

“It was the type of place where professors had you over for dinner and you really got to know your professors from outside of class,” Shawn said. “That’s the type of place where one of the professors is now (Eva’s) godfather, and we’re godparent of his kids.”

Shawn said when he made his decision to live on campus, his colleagues called him crazy.

“It’s kind of funny because some of the people in the building that I’ve worked with have studied and gone off, on to talk to drug dealers and study exotic tribes but are afraid to come live in a student dorm? It’s kind of ironic,” he said. “The transition has mostly been positive. We have one car. I walk to work. Short commute to work. No traffic. If (Angela) needs me to come home for whatever reason, I can do that.”

Shawn and the residential assistants (RA) have worked together to put on events such as the Environmental Film Series, which shows movies on sustainability or environmental issues followed by a discussion.

Sometimes they travel off campus, such as last Sunday, when Shawn took 14 students to the Salvador Dali Museum.

“The whole idea of kind of encouraging people to get out of their room and off of Facebook and become curious about things and engage their mind; it’s kind of my personal goal in this whole thing,” Shawn said. “It’s OK to play Xbox every once in a while, but for four hours in one day, there’s much more interesting things one can be doing.”

Laundry room therapy

Though the FIR program focuses on academic programs, Angela said the family also hosts informal events for the students in their building.

“We do reverse trick-or-treating in the lobby here every year. So the girls will give out candy instead of us getting candy, and that’s been a sort of fun hit,” she said. “I think some students see me as a mom figure sometimes. They’ll start talking to me about all those typical freshmen issues. Some of the advice is academic, and some of it is just life. We joking say that it’s laundry room therapy.”

Shawn said students can indirectly learn from seeing how a family interacts.

“It’s a totally different community. We’re surrounded by young people,” he said. “I think on the flip side there’s something positive, I would assume, about young 18-year-olds seeing healthy relationship between husband and wife, healthy relationships between a mom and daughter (and) healthy relationships between a male and daughters. All the time there happens to be people outside our bedroom (who) break up with each other on the telephone or having fights. There’s some positive aspects of seeing a family interact.”

Genna Martella, an RA in the residence hall where the Binghams live, said she has babysat Eva and Isla since she moved in summer 2009.

“I met Eva when we moved in. She … introduced me to her toys and stuff. Her mom kind of recognized that we got along well and asked if I ever babysat and I told her I did all through high school and it sort of just worked out,” said Martella, a junior majoring in psychology. “A lot of the activities would involve going outside and playing ball at the basketball courts for a little bit (or) running around on the scooter. Isla is very young, so she likes the noise-maker toys and things she can bounce around.”

She said having the family in the dorm is helpful for the students.

“Shawn Bingham is always willing to talk to people,” Martella said. “Sometimes he will be sitting with us on duty, talking to students. He’s really interactive and really willing with helping students out from the simplest (question) of how to sign up for classes to programs.”

Michael James, a freshman who recently declared his major as ISS, is one of the students who received that support.

A couple of days before school started, his roommate was bouncing a tennis ball against a wall while they discussed choosing a major. To his advantage, James lives right above the Binghams, who could hear the noise of the bouncing ball. Eventually, Shawn went to his room and asked them to stop.

“They were really nice about it,” Shawn said. “So we started chatting and … the more we talked he was inquiring about the (ISS) major that I run. He said, ‘Well, I’m looking for an upper-level social science class, can I still get into your class?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and he signed up for my class and (two weeks ago) he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to come by and sign up for your major.’ And that started with me going up there and asking them to stop bouncing the ball.”

James said the Introduction to Social Sciences class that Shawn teaches is interesting.

“Instead of looking at one thing like sociology and psychology … you use all social sciences to look at one topic, which is pretty cool,” he said. “You can major in a few social sciences with it, so it gives me a chance to, like if I decide I want to do criminology, I can switch it to that. If he didn’t come up here, I wouldn’t have taken the class and it wouldn’t be my major.”

A fresh perspective

Dean of Housing and Residential Life Education Ana Hernandez said there were no concerns over having Shawn bring his family to live with him for the FIR program.

“We think it’s a great added component and dimension that they bring to the community to have a family,” she said. “I think one of the things in having a family on campus does is that it allows for students to see Dr. Bingham as somebody more than just a professor in a classroom, almost like a real human being. Some students may have younger siblings, younger cousins, whatever that may be, and it gives them a sense of home, and it gives them a sense of family.”

Hernandez said she would encourage future FIR members to bring their families with them.

“We think it’s a great component, but we wouldn’t deny somebody the opportunity because they weren’t bringing their family,” she said. “We would love to have families as part of our communities.”

Angela said she and Shawn would be interested in staying for another school year.

“I’ve just been really thankful for the opportunity,” she said. “Not every family gets to do this.”

Shawn said it has been a learning experience for his family and the students.

“As a family, it has been refreshing to be around the energy that you find (in) the residence hall,” he said. “It has been especially helpful for our 5-year-old daughter, who has a community of over 200 neighbors living above her. It has been an interesting place to raise a family.”