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September 16, 2008 , Volume 55, No. 4
ben on bench

Keeping the Light On: College Houses Ten Years Out

Christopher Donovan

For a Penn alum contently working for his alma mater, Convocation at the beginning of each year can be a powerfully nostalgic experience. But it is also bittersweet­—particularly at that inevitable moment (an inevitability that we’ve almost come to take for granted) when the new freshman class is announced as the strongest, smartest, most accomplished in Penn history. That announcement is sure to inspire some comparative math. 

From the instant I arrived at the moat of Hill House as a nervous but intellectually-cocky freshman in 1988, there have been two decades of incremental improvement in the quality of the student body; that old cockiness seems almost tragically foolhardy in retrospect. Still, blows to the ego are quickly supplanted by the sense of common purpose and pride that comes with playing one’s part in an institution that is continually improving, expanding and innovating. Much of the campus is unrecognizably altered since I was a freshman; our national standing as a University has never been higher and our graduates never so prominent in the public sphere. Still, it’s particularly telling that my mind always flutters back to my first tremulous entrance into the lobby of Hill, because for me, as for many students, the places of Penn—the homes-away-from-home—forever epitomize the undergraduate experience in a way that neither classes nor ceremonies can.

Unsurprisingly, those communities have not remained static in this era of ascendancy. Some of Penn’s most dramatic if sometimes unheralded change has taken place on the home front, so to speak. This year, as Convocation-bound students processed down Locust Walk, they passed beneath a banner celebrating the 10th anniversary of the College House system. It was a banner that, with appropriate simplicity, lists the names of the eleven distinctive Houses—names that would have been meaningless or insignificant more than a decade ago and signal a decisive shift in life at Penn.

Hill was already a College House before there was nothing but undergraduate College Houses on campus. So too were the more diminutive living environments: Du Bois, Van Pelt and Modern Languages College Houses, the last two of which now make up Gregory, where I’ve served as Dean since 1999 (incidentally, it’s with good reason that the name “Gregory” is so large and prominent on that Locust Walk banner). Such locales were havens for idiosyncrasy in the “old” days. The communities were tighter and more cohesive than in the larger, somewhat anonymous dorms. Official gatherings both social and academic were plentiful (the long-retired Van Pelt sherry tastings no doubt helped), and faculty not only lived among the students but were actively engaged in their development both in and out of the classroom.  Still, despite the inarguable success of these select communities, the late 90s movement to apply their philosophies to each and every undergraduate living space on campus was beset by obstacles, challenges, and controversy.

Some of the buildings seemed too large or too small, too cumbersome or too coldly institutional to facilitate community-building. The enlistment and commitment of large numbers of faculty to the residential experience was in doubt. The feasibility of academic and cultural programming within a dormitory setting remained untested on a wide scale. The decision by President Judith Rodin to implement the system under the guidance of Professor David Brownlee from Art History was based on optimism and the confidence that the Penn community was as open to change and new intellectual experiences as our public relations proclaims.

And it was correct. Today, each House is still a work in progress. Traditions, the key to any community, take longer than a decade to establish.  But there can be little doubt that campus life is thriving in a way never before possible. It means something very different and special to live in Stouffer rather than Harrison, and vice versa. There have been structural and aesthetic improvements to most of the buildings, including major renovations in the Quadrangle and High Rises. Wireless connectivity has been achieved in all Houses as well as a promulgation of computer labs, study spaces, music practice rooms, package and exercise rooms and lounges. The Department of Housing Services, under the aegis of Business Services, continually strives for innovation in providing goods and amenities to residents including professionally-run Information Centers, a seamless move-in process, and new this year, a coinless laundry system.

But as those of us waiting for much needed and sweeping renovations (ahem) can attest, friends, not facilities, make a House hum. 

In the end, avid recruits to the College House system are in great supply. Each House now has a Faculty Master, at least two Faculty or Senior Fellows, a Dean who serves as an academic advisor as well as a sympathetic ear and unofficial CEO, a House Coordinator, and a veritable army of Graduate Associates and Resident Advisors, undergraduate House Managers, House Council Members and Information Technology Advisors—all fervently devoted to their particular community, which they of course feel is superior to the other ten. Their spark is contagious. It spreads from veteran upperclassmen to fledgling freshmen; from Deans to their advisees; from GAs and RAs to their halls.

And, more importantly, all these people are very, very busy—not only maintaining safe and studious atmospheres, but varied and vibrant ones.  Residential Programs—themed communities-within-communities—are plentiful. Students embark on theatre, museum, restaurant and orchestra trips with the staff on a constant basis, … or welcome faculty guests to dinner in their House. Sometimes the bustle in these places can be almost absurd. 

In a standard week in Gregory—a rare week in which nothing out of the ordinary is going on—we have Sunday Brunch, Saturday Soccer, Tuesday night Hot Chocolate and Wednesday night Study Break; help sessions in stat/math and writing; 7-9 p.m. movie screenings (most followed by moderated discussion); dinner and coffee hours in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian and Chinese; TV-watching groups for House, Grey’s Anatomy and The Office, not to mention football. When you pepper in faculty guest speakers, dining club excursions, majors selection dinners, in-House lectures, health education Quizzo, Philly walking tours, College House Cup competitions, whitewater rafting and ski trips, and resident performing arts nights…writing it all on the House events easel each day is enough to produce carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Each House has its own quirky flavor, its own approach to everything from favorite activities to problem-solving, but they are all bursting with life and grounded in their staff’s commitment to the academic well-being of their residents.

From the anxious August evening students meet with their halls for the first time during New Student Orientation, to the somewhat bleary-eyed May afternoon our College House Alumni Ambassadors construct floats for a reunion class during Alumni Weekend, the College Houses remain the lifeblood of the undergraduate experience. For those of us working and living within them—and embarking on another decade of idiosyncratic evolution—the process is both exhausting and exhilarating. Not much different, in a sense, to the feeling freshmen at Hill might have their first night in a new home, worn out from an arduous move-in but primed for the adventure ahead.

The entire campus is invited to the
College Houses 10th Anniversary Celebration,
an information fair with free food, music and fun giveaways.
• • • PennCard required for lunch ticket • • •
See www.collegehouses.upenn.edu/tenth
 for details or contact suesmith@upenn.edu.

Dr. Christopher Donovan, C’92, is the House Dean at Gregory College House.


Almanac - September 16, 2008, Volume 55, No. 4