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Penn’s College Houses let students choose their own adventure.

By Amy Gutmann

During his four years at Penn, management major Corey Hulse W’07 rarely missed the weekly Wednesday night study break at the Stouffer House apartment of Legal Studies Associate Professor Phil Nichols and his wife. Students in tee shirts and shorts would pile into the apartment, greeted by two dogs and a small boy’s challenge to wrestle.

As the conversation turned to global affairs, Professor Nichols would share stories about his consulting work with international governments. By the end of sophomore year Corey had added a second major in legal studies, which gave him a moral and ethical perspective on law that he knows will serve him in both his career and his life.

Great teachers help our students open new intellectual doors. Ten years ago, Penn began transforming our residential system into 11 faculty-centered College House communities permeated by the intellectual and cultural perspectives and personalities of their resident scholars. These learning communities furnish opportunities for teachers and students at Penn to open doors together at almost any hour of the day or night.

A recent New York Times article described a revolutionary “fusion of academic and social life” that is sweeping across the nation’s campuses. As usual, Penn is a leader in creating vibrant living and learning environments for our students. Our College Houses have progressed over the past decade from an innovative experiment into the foundational living experience for a majority of undergraduates. Not surprisingly, student requests to live in the houses far exceed our system’s current capacity.

Today, we are preparing to build a new College House on Hill Square, bordered by 33rd and 34th, Chestnut and Walnut Streets. The new building, which will accommodate more than 350 students, will be the first designed to provide all the amenities of a 24/7 academic community. It will complement Hill College House and create a beautiful and bustling new Quad that will enliven the academic core of our campus.

The new College House will join a vibrant network of academic advising, program development, inter-house competition, and communication and governance that is fostering intellectual growth, community spirit, and leadership across all schools.

Professor Nichols, faculty master at Stouffer College House, is among more than 30 members of Penn’s standing faculty who live in Penn’s College Houses as faculty masters or fellows, along with house deans, associate masters, and graduate assistants who often also hold teaching positions. They mentor individual students, help residents and House staff to plan the year’s activities, and lead programs ranging from formal seminars and trips, to informal dinners and study breaks.

What distinguishes these rich communities within our community?

Incoming freshmen discover the first distinctive advantage of our College Houses as soon as they enroll at Penn. Freshmen at most colleges and universities usually are given housing assignments. At Penn “you choose your own adventure,” in the words of Rodin House Dean Ken Grcich. “You decide what page you will turn.”

For example, students interested in law or communications will find stimulating seminars, guest speakers, and peers eager to engage with them beneath the turrets and towers of Fisher Hassenfeld. At Kings Court English House, programs focus on science and technology in addition to the humanities; Du Bois College House illuminates the African-American experience. International cinema enthusiasts will find eager confreres at Gregory and Harrison. Yet while some students warm to the intimate familial ambiance at Gregory, others prefer Harrison’s high-rise living and its well-stocked DVD library.

The second advantage is the rich intellectual environment generated by replacing what David Brownlee calls “a monoculture of adolescents” with “a mix of smart people living together with diverse interests and high aspirations.” Dr. Brownlee, chair of Penn’s History of Art Department, was the chief architect and the first director of Penn’s College Houses, and served for seven years as Harnwell House’s first faculty master.

David and his planning team harnessed our faculty’s enthusiasm for engaging with students. Today, students who join Rodin House faculty master and award-winning composer Jay Reise for chamber music concerts with members of The Philadelphia Orchestra discover a musically captivating world that they otherwise may never encounter. Legendary Penn medical school microbiology professor Dr. Helen Davies initiates Ware students into the intricacies of infectious disease—and encourages women to play leadership roles in science.

The depth and breadth of College House faculty-student interaction surprises many outside Penn. Riepe House resident Ed Berchick C’08 recently attended a national conference on university residential halls. “When I told some other students that our house faculty cook dinner for students, help them with research projects, attend house programming events, and even play on our intramural sports teams,” he recounted, “they were pleasantly surprised—and, dare I say, even jealous?”

Graduate assistants also lead many residential programs and offer multiple levels of support. Informal conversations with house faculty, graduate students, and upperclassmen help residents make decisions about course selection and even about graduate school. Students also learn from watching faculty question and think critically. After Hill House Faculty Master and Associate Professor of Nursing Julie Sochalski challenged a guest speaker’s point one evening, students were emboldened to ask more challenging questions in class.

The College Houses’ third advantage is the communal warmth they foster. “On my first night as a freshman, our graduate assistant encouraged us to treat each other like brothers and sisters,” says former Hill House resident Courtney Dominic C’09. “The support I received has helped me do all that I am doing at Penn.” Penn seniors particularly savor the senior week event that reunites them with their freshman year hall-mates.

House faculty and staff can serve as an early warning system when problems arise. “We get to know everyone well or at least their friends,” says Ken Grcich. “We can see if they are losing too much weight, and usually are among the first to know when someone is in academic jeopardy.” After the Virginia Tech tragedy, many College House faculty and staff created opportunities for students to join them in their apartments or in a quiet room to work through painful emotions.

Opportunities for leadership development also are plentiful. Riepe House Manager Christine Nieves C’10 is gaining the confidence to move from being “a small fish in a big pond” toward assuming greater campus-wide responsibility. Each house has a computer support team for which upperclassmen recruit and train students, including many freshmen, in technical and customer service skills. Many houses sponsor scholarships and organize community service and fundraising projects like Fisher Hassenfeld’s PAMANNA, which assists Philadelphians with life-threatening illnesses. Each Saturday, Du Bois House residents help staff an academy that offers arts, tutoring, and recreational support to middle-school students.

House governing councils and a student Resident Advisory Board (RAB) work with University departments on improvements to New Student Orientation and on broader residential issues. For example, RAB members proposed and helped launch Pennster, the internet site that offers freshmen their first connections to House faculty and staff. This year they introduced PennSpace, which enables admitted students who are making final college decisions to converse online with current Penn students during those crucial few weeks in the spring.

In typical Penn fashion, College House residents and staff are forging new academic and community connections. The College Houses have progressively transformed the Penn Reading Project during New Student Orientation into year-long programs of integrated learning and participation. This year, for example, the themes of agriculture, economics, and nutrition raised by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma will be explored through presentations by area chefs and a visit to a Lancaster County dairy farm, where students will acquire a farm owner’s perspective, much as Pollan himself did in order to write his book.

A new Alumni Ambassadors program helps to connect current residents with those who once lived in their houses. Matched with a 25th reunion class, for example, students in Stouffer House helped to track down alumni and created CDs of popular songs from their college years to present during Alumni Weekend.

Our College Houses are a point of pride and progress for Penn. Yet they also are very much still a dynamic work-in-progress. Our design for a new College House will draw on a decade of experience. For example, the building will include facilities for dining, academic support, and other activities that foster the kind of connections that transform students’ lives and create friendships that last a lifetime.

At the same time we must do more to enable our existing College House facilities to support our students’ 21st-century needs. We recently finished the second year of major renovations to the Harnwell and Harrison high rises. We are investing more than $106 million over four years to upgrade the heating and cooling systems in all of our high rises, and to install new flooring, lighting, improved kitchens and bathrooms, and floor lounges. Many of our smaller buildings, including some architectural gems, also are in need of upgrades.

We will continue to find ways to further integrate the College Houses into Penn’s broad academic mission through increased coordination with our schools and hubs. Penn’s College Houses have come a long way toward making engaged learning a 24/7 Penn enterprise. By strengthening residential life at Penn across the next decade, we will enable our faculty and students to open many more life-changing doors together.

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