The Dorm Transformed, continued


Dinner On the House
It’s 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 Penn’s 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, he’s 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 University’s premier cancer researchers, the turnout is sparse–perhaps 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. It’s just a matter of getting some of the world’s 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 couldn’t figure it out last year."

Queasy Listening
Dr. Helen Davies Gr’60 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 been changed:

"Hello herpes, my old friend … That virus softly creeping, Fell upon us while we were sleeping … "

    Similarly tasteless songs waft down from Spruce’s 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 Penn’s 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. Today’s 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 house’s multi-purpose room one afternoon to discuss their projects–and 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 C’88, 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 they’ve 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 we’ve tried to pursue in the past. It’s been a positive change."

Quad 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 C’02 organized Jewish holiday programs for Spruce residents throughout the year.
The main difference, notes faculty master Helen Davies, is that "students know they’re 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 there’s a real stigma attached to being an upperclassman in the Quad, and for others there isn’t," she says. "That’s why total integration is going to take some time."
Resident adviser Emily Pollack C’00 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 Penn’s high-rises-turned-college houses, others report that it’s not an impossible feat. Monica Maccani C’01 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 don’t necessarily hang out there on weekends, but when I am there I feel like I’m 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 she’s busy with track.
Katie Shannon C’02 said she enjoyed the privacy she experienced at Harnwell her freshman year even though she didn’t meet many people at first. "I thought it was awesome I could live in a high-rise." There’s just one problem. "Now that I’m a sophomore trying to look for housing, a lot of my friends can’t get into the high-rises because the freshmen are there, and they don’t want to live in the Quad, because you don’t 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t big enough to accommodate them all.
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 year’s 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 aren’t enough of those spaces to begin with."


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