Revamped Learning Commons ‘The Soul of Lees-McRae’

October 10, 2016


By Nina Mastandrea

The campus of Lees-McRae is both a mixture of the new and old.

Boulders stacked atop of one another like mosaic tiles in a church window are juxtaposed by sleek white floors and trendy furniture.

State-of-the-art facilities such as the May School of Nursing and Health Sciences sit among centuries-old historic building such as the Tennessee and Virginia Residence Halls.

It’s a satisfying balance that feeds the craving for both old-school mountain charm and cutting-edge amenities.

Many college buildings have undergone renovations throughout the years in the effort to retain that balance.

Though it’s not the oldest, and certainly not the youngest, the now Dotti M. Shelton Learning Commons built in the late-1960s has been the most recent recipient of major renovations.

The $2.5 million renovations began in May 2016 and came to a conclusion in mid-September.

On Friday, October 7, the College held a dedication ceremony for the new space—an event that gathered about 70 of Lees-McRae’s students, staff, faculty and friends.

During the opening remarks, Lees-McRae President Barry Buxton called the Learning Commons the heart and soul of the College.

“The new Learning Commons will forever change the way people learn,” Buxton said.

He added that if it were not for the kindness and friendship of the Shelton family, many things, including the Learning Commons would not be possible. 

Meet the Sheltons

Dotti Shelton, for whom the Learning Commons is named after, and her husband Ed Shelton, are familiar faces on the campus of Lees-McRae.

Ed Shelton received an honorary degree in Political Science in 1995, after attending Lees-McRae in the late-1950s, and for many years served on the Lees-McRae Board of Trustees.

Both Dotti and Ed worked together throughout the years to give back to the College.

In 2009, the Sheltons were honored with the Rev. Edgar Tufts Founder’s Medal.

The medal is the most prestigious non-academic award given by the College, and is passed along to those “that reflect the ideals of our founder and have made extraordinary contributions of time, talent and treasure to the College," the medal reads.

Three years later in 2011, the Shelton family donated four Ford E-350 Super Duty 14-passenger mini buses and one SUV to Lees-McRae’s motor pool. The vehicles are primarily used to transport the College’s athletic teams and students during off-campus trips.

In 2012, the school established the Shelton Scholars Program in their honor. The program is awarded to one incoming freshman every four years during Scholars Day, and provides a $130,000 scholarship to pay for tuition, room and board.

During the dedication ceremony Dotti, a petite woman, walked around the main hall within the Learning Commons.

When she, her husband and several architects and contractors gathered to take a picture on the staircase, Dotti was towered by the group. Regardless, Dotti stood front and center, and filled the room with her smiles and laughter. 

Take a Tour

Following the ceremony, guests were invited to walk around the building.

A gathering of modern orange and green couches occupy the majority of the lounge space on the first floor.

To the left of the room is the custom-built information desk embellished with hand-placed stones.

On the far right of the room, beyond the couches and tables, is the redesigned “Provisions on Demand,” or “POD” for short.

The back half of the first floor is taken up by several rows of bookshelves filled from end-to-end with books ranging in age, subject and genre.

The lounge space and the rows of books are divided by the updated staircase; a metal and wood centerpiece that invites students and visitors alike to venture upstairs.

Several more rows of bookshelves punctuated by clusters of reading chairs and tables lead the eye to new classrooms almost entirely encased in glass.

The design gives the rooms an open, airy feel and provides students and professors alike a way to admire the streaming light shining through high windows near the ceiling of the open-concept building.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive changes in the Learning Commons are the new lights.

Many feet above ground are long, cylindrical pendant lights that glow a warm yellow. About 20 of the lights are strung to the ceiling in a cluster that looks like floating lanterns or stars in the sky. 

Positive Changes

Ever since the Learning Commons reopened, students have made their way into the building to see the changes for themselves.

For a few, the renovations served as a reason to take the Learning Commons for a spin.

“[The changes] makes it more homey,” said senior psychology and biology double-major Kerri Belcher.

With the space being as welcoming as it is, she will probably start coming more often, she said.

Fellow seniors and both wildlife biology majors and criminal justice minors Jacob Hill and Ryan Waldrop said they spend an hour or two a day on average within the walls of the Learning Commons.

They help each other study, which means the two men most often take advantage of the secluded seating areas on the second floor. But as finals near closer at the end of each semester, both Hill and Waldrop said they will start using the quiet study rooms. 

What’s in a Name

Beyond the physical changes within and without the building, the facility’s name, once a library, is now a learning commons.

A library, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a collection of sources of information and similar resources, made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing.”

And though that is true in the case of the Dotti M. Shelton Learning Commons, it isn’t quite all-encompassing.

A learning commons is slightly, but importantly different.

Also sometimes known as information commons, scholar commons or digital commons, these spaces are different as compared to libraries because of their emphasis on study spaces.

This includes silent study rooms, group study rooms, classrooms and tables, chairs and couches that can be moved and rearranged based on students’ needs.

Beyond books and magazines, learning commons also give visitors the chance to borrow technology including cameras, computers and other tools.

The Dotti M. Shelton Learning Commons does just that.

Students can borrow computers and work on brand-new desktop computers. With those tools, they can navigate ever-expanding online databases like the North Carolina Libraries in Virtual Education—a state-wide database for books, magazines, videos and scholarly journals that smaller learning commons and libraries may not physically have on hand.

The Dotti M. Shelton Learning Commons is open to both students and the community Monday through Thursdays 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., Fridays 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., and Sundays 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. The Learning Commons is closed on Saturdays. 

Photos courtesy of Sammy Croft ’18 and Nina Mastandrea.

Media Contact:

Nina Mastandrea  |  Content Manager
Tel: 828.898.8729  |  Email: