Back in 1992, when movie buff and native Philadelphian Chris Donovan earned his English degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he had little idea of how fortuitous the line “I’ll be back” from The Terminator would become.
Today, he is back at Penn where he teaches cinema studies and even lives on campus.
Donovan, who holds a doctorate in contemporary American literature, instructs undergraduates in literature and cinema in the School of Arts & Sciences and teaches a film culture course at Gregory College House, where he’s served as the house dean for the last 15 years.
As dean, Donovan hires, trains and supervises graduate and undergraduate staff. He is an innovative planner of cultural, academic and social events and a community builder, fostering resident involvement and leadership. And, he takes one particular responsibility to heart.
“That is providing a place for those students who don’t necessarily buy into the whole ‘work hard, play hard’ perspective,” Donovan says. “Those who have less of an interest in clubbing downtown can feel out of place on a Saturday night, and we’ve had considerable success in providing alternative experiences in Gregory.”
Serving students as an academic advisor, Donovan is an experienced listener who operates as a sounding board for students to talk about the future, goals and career planning. And he’s always ready to talk about movies, foreign classics, independent works of cinema or action-packed summer blockbusters.
Donovan founded Gregory’s film culture program. The program is now more than a decade old and caters to movie lovers of all sorts, featuring as many as 10 movie screenings each week, along with cinema-based seminars.
Donovan says the cinema studies program was one of the best decisions that he has made as house dean. Last year, Gregory residents ventured to local movie theaters to see and discuss most of 2013-14’s most significant works, such as 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Nebraska, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Her.
Building on the success of that program, Donovan also launched the annual College Houses’ Penn Student Film Festival at Gregory.
Up until now, Gregory College House, with all of its strong ties to cinema, hasn’t had a state-of-the-art viewing facility. But, this summer, renovations are underway that will upgrade Gregory’s shared spaces and better support its culture of cinema appreciation.
“We’re thrilled to be getting a fancy new screening lounge for next year,” Donovan says, adding that it is the result of years of lobbying, alongside other staff and students at Gregory.
Donovan credits Martin Redman, the executive director of College Houses and Academic Services, and John Eckman, the director of Residential Services, who were both actively involved in being able to bring about the screening room.
Gregory College House is made up of two four-story buildings that house more than 250 undergraduates, graduate students, staff and faculty, including Donovan, who lives in a fourth-floor apartment.
He says he is sometimes able to get more work done at the Tuesday night hot chocolate and snack night, called “BYOM: Bring Your Own Mug,” than he does during office hours.
Long-standing traditions at Gregory College House include a house welcome the day freshmen arrive on campus, barbeques, karaoke nights, expeditions to Ikea, white water rafting excursions to the Lehigh Valley Gorge, paintball outings, pumpkin carving, Thanksgiving dinner, Oscar parties and Shakespeare on the Beach. They also host annual awards presentations to honor those for their service to the house community, and a senior brunch to bid adieu to those Gregorians who are graduating.
Donovan, who enjoys traveling, sometimes arranges his trips to fit in a visit to see former residents. He says that the students are the best part of living and working at Gregory.
“It’s been my great privilege to get to know so many, and, as Gregory is a four-year house, I often get to know them from day one through their senior year,” he says. “I often stay in close touch with Gregorians once they graduate. Most of the people closest to me are the people I’ve met in the House.”