UC Berkeley News


Why is a microbiologist studying freshman courtship rituals?
As a faculty member living in a residence hall, George Chang keeps his eyes open - for a chance to tell his favorite stories

| 01 September 2005

George Chang (Peg Skorpinski photo)
George Chang's eyes are twinkling as he lets you in on a little secret he's learned in his 35-plus years teaching at Berkeley: "Being around students is the closest thing there is to a fountain of youth."

And that's a good thing, since the associate professor of nutritional science and toxicology has volunteered to live in the midst of several hundred students as the first professor to participate in a new Faculty Residence pilot program.

He and his wife, Abby Jang, moved into a three-bedroom suite on the ground floor of Towle Hall during the spring semester . . . and so far it's going great. Chang says he's eating most meals at the dining hall, meeting students at the communal tables there, and running into them in the hallways, laundry room, workout room, and study rooms. He keeps an office in the academic center, holds regular office hours, and teaches a tai-chi class on Sundays for his residence-hall neighbors.

Chang will live in the residence hall for two years, with free room and board in exchange for eight hours of service a week, according to Troy Gilbert, acting director of academic programs in the Office of Student Development.

Not on call when crises erupt

The model is different from faculty-in-residence programs at some other schools, Gilbert says. At Berkeley, the faculty member won't be expected to take care of student crises, per se - there are resident assistants and others available to handle the day-to-day issues that crop up in a residence hall.

"It's more of an academic model," Gilbert says. "Ninety-eight percent of first-year students live in residential communities. Outside of seminars, it's hard for them to get to know the faculty. Our hope is that this program will give them the chance."

It's certainly giving Chang a chance to get to know students. Before, he said, he mostly became acquainted with the ones who took his classes.

"I've had a filtered look at the freshman experience," he says. "I appreciate the full diversity of students more now."

Chang, a food microbiologist at Berkeley since 1970, has long been known for his warm manner, approachability, and deep interest in students. He's often asked to speak at Cal Student Orientation programs, and he teaches a popular freshman seminar, The Freshman Experience. In the seminar, students pick discussion topics, interview their peers, and share their "research" findings in the class on topics ranging from dating and homework to gaining the "freshman 15" (pounds, that is) and trying to avoid parking tickets.

Living in the residence halls wasn't a tough decision, Chang says, noting that he has always lived in a college community. The son of a professor, he grew up a few blocks from campus in New Mexico, then lived in the residence halls at Princeton University while getting an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He came to Berkeley in the early 1960s, living at International House as a student. He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1967.

This kind of background is exactly what the Office of Student Development envisioned for the program - someone who may have been a resident tutor or proctor in graduate school, or who simply enjoys interacting with undergraduate students.

Chang moved into a Berkeley apartment in 1964 as a graduate student, and has been in one Northside apartment or another ever since. Now that he's in the residence halls, he particularly likes getting to know the students - just listening to them, mostly - and helping out where he can.

"It's a privilege to be part of this process," Chang says. "And someday these students will be helping others with their process. That's close to immortality."

Along the way, he's getting a good look at how students spend their time (mostly, he says, in "one form or another of courtship. It's quite an eye-opener") and the hours they keep. "It's surprising how nocturnal students are," Chang says. "It's really quiet in the very early morning, but it's amazing how the place comes alive at night. It's almost like a nature show."

But one of the big benefits - and maybe this is what keeps him so youthful - is having a perpetually new audience.

"I love to tell stories," Chang confesses, noting that his wife has heard most of them again and again. "But" he adds with a grin, "these students haven't!

"I'm having so much fun, I could do this forever."