The Dorm Transformed,
On the House
Its a Monday evening at the
Class of 1920 Commons. Inside a private dining room 10 people gather around
a table, their trays laden with an undistinguished repast of chicken and
salad. Intellectual nourishment is clearly the focus as Dr. Peter Nowell,
the Gaylord P. and Mary Harnwell Professor of Pathology and Laboratory
Medicine who also serves as deputy director of Penns Cancer Center,
has just returned from a research conference in Center City Philadelphia
to be the dinner guest of Harnwell College House.
Though Nowell already has
spent the day with colleagues probing strides and setbacks in the search
for a cancer cure, hes happy to continue the discourse with a lay
audience. The approachable scientist, who was lauded early in his career
for establishing one of the first links between chromosomes and cancer,
jokes that he opposes term limits for lawmakers because he figures, "The
older they get, the more interested they are in the diseases of old age."
Despite the opportunity to dine with one of the Universitys premier
cancer researchers, the turnout is sparseperhaps because the event
followed a holiday weekend, on short notice. Of those assembled, only
three are undergraduate residents.
Brownlee remains a strong
fan of the faculty dinners, however, marveling at the unexpected dynamics
generated when people from different backgrounds sit down together for
a meal; 500 were hosted by the houses last year. He recalls dinner with
Dr. Ralph Rosen, associate professor and chair of classical studies, which
drew folks from such varied disciplines as psychology of education, Chinese
literature, Greek comedy and architectural history. "We talked about
everything under the sun. It was enormously powerful. Its just a
matter of getting some of the worlds smartest people of different
ages and interests together in a congenial setting."
This school year, according
to Brownlee, the college houses will continue to look for new and meaningful
ways to bring non-resident faculty "from every corner of the university"
in contact with students where they live. They will urge faculty who teach
freshman seminars to conduct them in the college houses and encourage
faculty advisers to hold office hours inside the residences. By working
with the new dining services management, his office also planned to modify
the layouts of campus dining facilities to create more visible gathering
points for each house and its faculty guests. "Someone who wanted
to know how space was divided up couldnt figure it out last year."
Dr. Helen Davies Gr60 perches
on a couch in a lounge of Spruce College House and proceeds to sing,
ever so quietly, so as not to disturb a group of students studying
nearby. The tune is Sounds of Silence, but the lyrics have
"Hello herpes, my old friend
virus softly creeping, Fell upon us while we were sleeping
tasteless songs waft down from Spruces Provosts Tower when
Davies is teaching her popular introductory seminar on infectious diseases.
She uses them as mnemonic devices to help students remember the details
about assorted viruses and bacterium. "We can ruin any song that
you dearly love," boasts the professor of microbiology at Penns
School of Medicine and faculty master of Spruce.
Under Davies leadership
Spruce became home last fall to new residential programs on infectious
diseases and women in science. Todays students, she explains, "grew
up after we understood that AIDS was a world epidemic, and this has made
them very curious about emerging infectious diseases." As the president
and a founding member of the Association of Women in Science, Davies also
serves as a role model for residents. A student who accompanied her to
the meeting of another professional organization last year "was just
overwhelmed," she recalls, "and she wrote me a beautiful letter.
She signed it, Yours in science."
Issues of African-American
identity and social action shape a research seminar held at DuBois. Led
by Howard Stevenson, students gather in the houses multi-purpose
room one afternoon to discuss their projectsand the faces behind
the data. One class member reports hugging a young boy with whom she
had been working, only to have him beg for another hug. "He was showing
you himself," Stevenson points out. "Unfortunately, we have
educational settings that squeeze the life out of kids."
House dean Sonia Elliott
C88, a DuBois alumna herself, says the class covers such issues
as how to become a "participant observer" and how to set aside
preconceived notions that could taint research. After theyve spent
time out in the field, she says, "We bring them back here so they
can share some of their frustrations" and successes. "The class
gives them a safe space to be themselves," and this in turn allows
them to "show their brilliance." Because of its longtime emphasis
on community building, many of the practices made formal within the new
college-house system are familiar to DuBois, notes Elliott. "But
now we get more money to fund different initiatives weve tried to
pursue in the past. Its been a positive change."
or Die? Deconstructing the Freshman Experience
It has been described as The Penn
Freshman Experience. As tradition goes, as soon as they receive their
acceptance letters to Penn, many students know they want to live in the
Quad for their first year; they also know they want to leave by their
sophomore year for the comforts and privacy of an air-conditioned
high-rise or off-campus apartment. This poses a challenge for the goal
of fully integrating all 12 college houses.
Judging by the proliferation
of dorm-bonding activities in Spruce College House, the presence of upperclass
students in traditionally first-year residences has not watered down
the so-called freshman experience. On Thursdays the residents of
one floor gathered around the television to watch Friends.
Milk and cookies became a Sunday night study-break staple for another
group. Freshman Rachel Rosenblatt C02 organized Jewish holiday programs
for Spruce residents throughout the year.
The main difference, notes
faculty master Helen Davies, is that "students know theyre
allowed to stay [after freshman year], so they bond in a different way,
and they want to stay." Mike Pezzicola, who likes the atmosphere
and convenient location of Spruce, will stick around for his sophomore
year to serve as financial manager and assist in planning renovations
for the Quad.
Rosenblatt has chosen to
live in a sorority house instead. "I think for many people theres
a real stigma attached to being an upperclassman in the Quad, and for
others there isnt," she says. "Thats why total integration
is going to take some time."
Resident adviser Emily Pollack
C00 acknowledges the appeal of tradition. "My freshman year,
it was like, Quad or die. Part of my experience that made it so amazing
was being with 29 other freshmen in a very close-knit community. But at
the same time, I think the opportunities for interacting with other classes,
and the resources that upperclassmen can provide, have a lot of potential."
Though some have questioned
the feasibility of forming close bonds in one of Penns high-rises-turned-college
houses, others report that its not an impossible feat. Monica Maccani
C01 paused long enough from cramming for finals on College Green
one April afternoon to consider the past year as a sophomore in Harrison.
"I feel there is a kind of a community within the house. I dont
necessarily hang out there on weekends, but when I am there I feel like
Im part of something more than an apartment complex." From
attending movie nights and Sunday brunches in its rooftop lounge to reading
daily e-mail updates from the active house dean, Maccani managed to stay
partly involved even though shes busy with track.
Katie Shannon C02 said
she enjoyed the privacy she experienced at Harnwell her freshman year
even though she didnt meet many people at first. "I thought
it was awesome I could live in a high-rise." Theres just
one problem. "Now that Im a sophomore trying to look for housing,
a lot of my friends cant get into the high-rises because
the freshmen are there, and they dont want to live in the Quad,
because you dont have your own bathroom or your own kitchen."
Others echoed this complaint.
Brownlee is bemused by the
lingering myths of "some glorious, happy time" when all freshmen,
and only freshmen, lived in the Quad. "Well, that wasnt the
case," he says. The structure initially served as the residence for
male students of all classes. As enrollment increased, and more dorms
were constructed, some freshmen were housed elsewhere, including in the
high-rises, because the Quad wasnt big enough to accommodate them
Today on-campus housing continues
to be a limited resource, Brownlee explains, and the college houses are
unable to satisfy all the requests that come from upperclassmen. "That
problem stems from the overall extreme scarcity of on-campus housing,
not from the fact that we reserved a slightly increased number of freshmen
beds in the skyscrapers this year, having learned from last years
demand patterns. The freshman assignment policy did not deplete the stock
of prized one-bedroom-per-person suites that are favored by upperclassman;
there just arent enough of those spaces to begin with."