Make Yourself at Home

Produced March 21, 2019

Ingrid Ruffin’s creativity as a student-success librarian helps freshmen connect to campus.

Assistant Professor Ingrid Ruffin’s best aha! moment for introducing first-year students to the library came from her affinity for escape room games.

Her UT Libraries Breakout Game includes a video about a zombie or vampire apocalypse. Students divide into teams to find clues and solve problems across the libraries.

“The first year, 50 first-year studies instructors brought their classes,” Ruffin says. “The next year it was 100. Then the program exploded. I am now getting emails from librarians around the country asking, ‘How do you do this?’”

“She has an amazing imagination,” says Associate Dean of Libraries Teresa Walker, “but what sets her apart is her ability to recreate the dream for others.”

Ruffin’s goal in creating innovative learning experiences is to make students feel at home in the library. “We want to contribute to their feeling like they belong here,” she says.

Assistant Professor Ingrid Ruffin plays Jenga with students.
Assistant Professor Ingrid Ruffin includes games in her learning experiences with students.

Across the university, faculty and staff are working to support first-year students and help them connect to university resources and to the community. These efforts are critical to ensuring more students return to campus after their first year in college.

Since retention and graduation rates are lower for first-generation college students, UT celebrates initiatives like Ruffin’s. “My goal is to instill passion, show the value of learning, and make college a valuable experience for them,” she explains.

When Ruffin started as UT’s diversity librarian resident in 2012, she created the Library Take-Out initiative to deliver information literacy programs to students in residence halls.

“Working with resident assistants, I’d go into the dorms, get groups of students together, and create fun but informative programming. I’d try to focus on a central question like, ‘How do you have a difficult conversation?’ or ‘How do you talk to your professors?’” Sometimes they played a trivia game showing how alcohol affects academic performance. Other times, Ruffin created murder mysteries.

“Then I always brought it back to the library,” she explains. “I told them, we’re here to help and answer questions. The expectation is that even if we don’t have the answer, we can figure out who does. When they come into the library and see my face, they feel like they’ve made a connection with somebody.”

Ingrid Ruffin paints murals outside the Starbucks in Hodges Library.
Ruffin paints murals outside the Starbucks in Hodges Library.

In another of Ruffin’s programs, students participated in a four-hour film festival at the library. “They had access to all the equipment they needed to plan, write, and edit a three-to-five-minute movie,” she says. “The films were in all different genres. It always had to be fun and always brought it back to the library. UT is, number one, a research university. Taking what you learn and sharing it with the world is essentially what research is.”

“Professor Ruffin always brings fresh ideas to the table,” says political science major Sydney Selman. “She has taught me that there is no limit to what we can do in the library. Whether it’s studying late at night, playing giant Jenga in the stacks, or relaxing in a ball pit, she makes sure we know the library is a place we can utilize any way we want.”

Ruffin helped create BIG Orange STEM Saturday (B.O.S.S.), a free event presented annually by UT Libraries for high schoolers and new undergraduates interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors.

At exam time, Ruffin leads the UT Libraries’ De-Stress for Success initiatives, which include massages and visits with dogs from UT’s human-animal bond program.

And, often inspired by the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, she paints the wall outside the library Starbucks with messages like, “Did you ask a librarian for help?” and “All is not lost. We’re here to help.”

“When I’m in front of a classroom or putting on a program,” says Ruffin, “I’m teaching to one student—the one student for whom it will matter most, in whom you can instill passion and show the value of learning, who passes it on to hundreds of others.”

This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.