Staff Q&A / Patricia C. Williams

Patricia Williams, house dean, Du Bois College House  Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Contrary to popular belief, Du Bois College House is not where all of the black students at Penn live.

One of the things that drives me crazy is that people make that ridiculous assumption,” says House Dean Patricia C. Williams.

Du Bois does have a large black population, but students of all races, ethnicities and religions can and do reside there. Williams, who lives in the house alongside the students, describes it as the “U.N. at U Penn.”

The Du Bois House was founded in 1972 as a haven and center of activities for people of the African Diaspora, and Williams says that mission is never going to change. “That’s our focus,” she says. “But at the same time that we invite others to learn about black culture, we must also give our students the chance to learn about other cultures. There has to be a balance.”

The Current recently visited Du Bois to chat with Williams about her role as house dean and the changes she has seen in the House over the years.

Q. You are a native New Yorker who once vowed that you would never leave the city. What made you change your mind and come to Penn?
A.
I love New York, but I find that Philadelphia is a microcosm of New York because it’s smaller and more manageable. In New York, it took me an hour to get downtown. Here, I’m in Center City in 20 minutes. Philadelphia’s got plays, it’s got theater, it’s got museums, it’s got baseball, it’s got football. As a matter of fact, the restaurants here are better, I think. I love the Philly eating. What drew me here was that I had been working for a newspaper and I wanted to return to academia. I saw the position [of house dean] in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I came and walked around Philly a couple of weeks before my start date, and I really liked the feel of the city.

Q. What are your responsibilities as house dean?
A.
It is a 24-7 job. It’s a labor of love. I feel as if I almost never stop working. I make myself very available to students anytime of day or night. I love it because it’s the type of job where you utilize all of your skills. If you’re good at budgeting, you get an opportunity to budget the House money. If you like entertaining, you get the opportunity to help plan events. If you like public speaking, you get to talk. It really gives me the opportunity to just do things that I love doing in so many different areas. I do a lot of cooking here and the kids love it. When we had the snow days, I just went downstairs and started flipping pancakes. I must have flipped about 150 pancakes.

Q. How has Du Bois changed during your time here?
A.
In my nine years, I’ve seen the house change ethnically and culturally and, for me, it’s a change that I have welcomed and I’ve actually worked hard to make happen. We really are very diverse culturally, religiously, geographically, gender, whatever. The changes are wonderful because I think that any campus housing should be a reflection of the greater American society, and that’s what I feel Du Bois now is.

Q. Do a lot of black students choose to live in Du Bois? Is that how the House has accumulated such a large black population?
A.
All of the students choose to live here. Most people who live here applied to live here. There’s a very small percentage of incoming freshmen who don’t get their first housing choice ... and they might end up in Du Bois. They might end up in Hill, King’s Court, the high-rises, any of the College Houses. But once they get here, many of them will, when it’s time to apply for housing again, want to stay in Du Bois. I had a young Caucasian man come to me about four years ago. His name was Cliff. This was certainly not his first choice. At the end of the year, when we did our in-house retention, he wanted to retain his room. He said, ‘Miss Trish, in my high school, there were three African-American students in a class of about 1,500, so I never experienced what it was like to live with and be around African Americans, but I love it here. It’s been a great experience.’

Q. What are some of the reasons that black students give for wanting to live in Du Bois?
A.
Many of the black students that come to Penn are coming from schools where there was a very small number of blacks, so they’re coming to Du Bois because they want to find themselves, because they want to be around their people, people who have the interests that they think they have or that they’re hoping to have. They want to find out something about the culture that they may have missed.

Q. For the black students who come from predominately black high schools, do you think it would be more beneficial if they lived in another house besides Du Bois so they can learn about other races and cultures?
A.
If you had asked me that nine years ago, I would have said yes. But now I say no. I say no because Du Bois is so diverse now. I think coming here is really good for those students especially because they get here and they still feel comfortable because there are so many members of the community who look like them. But at the same time, they can experience others, and they do. I think being here now is beneficial for any student of color and any white student, any Asian student. It’s just such a richly diverse environment.

Q. You previously taught the course ‘Black Protest Poetry from Griots to Spoken Word Artists’ in the Critical Writing Program. What did you discuss in class?
A.
It almost was like a history class. When I first started teaching it, I was allowed to have only 16 people in the class. I had 15 black women and one Filipino guy. The second year that I taught it, I walked into my class and I thought the students were in the wrong class because it was more than half white. And there were males. One of the things that I love about students at Penn is that they really are eager to learn, and they really want to learn about stuff that they don’t know about. Everybody knows about slavery but they didn’t know the extent of the lynchings. There were actually tears in the eyes of some students when they would learn of these things. They didn’t know about the Tuskegee experiments. I opened them up to things that they just didn’t have a clue about.

Q. Why did you stop teaching the class?
A.
I’m actually working on my doctorate now. Up until last year, I was raising a special needs grandchild, managing the House, teaching and working on my doctorate. I had to step back. It was killing me. I gave up the teaching for a while but I’m so looking forward to getting back into teaching. Actually, I’d like to teach in the Center for Africana Studies. I’d like to really teach African-American women’s literature.

Originally published on March 4, 2010