A House of One’s Own

Long before “active learning” became buzz words in higher education, a contingent of Penn faculty, students, and local writers led by Al Filreis had the idea to establish a place on campus where students could be co-creators of literary and artistic knowledge. They challenged each other and the larger community of Penn writers to generate ideas for the co-curricular programming that would be offered there. That place was the Kelly Writers House (KWH) and the idea was a trendsetting success.

KWH laid the foundation for a robust community of students seeking to learn about and contribute to contemporary literature through innovative events, symposia, readings, and workshops.

“The whole point of the Writers House was to create a space where students could have and get and make for themselves an intellectual life apart from their classes,” says Filreis, who has served as faculty director of KWH since its founding.

In the 20 years since, KWH’s community has grown in size, scope, and international renown, attracting more—and more highly qualified—arts and humanities students. This ongoing trend has contributed to Penn’s growing reputation as a university that nurtures non-linear thinkers and creators as much as it fosters budding doctors, CEOs, scientists, and engineers.

If there’s one thing the Kelly Writers House provided for me, it was the confidence to call myself a writer.

David Marchino, SAS Class of 2016

In addition to contributing significantly to the University’s intellectual and cultural diversity, this student-centered writing community also advances Penn’s founding philosophy of the practical application of knowledge, as evidenced by its impressive record of career placement for Penn’s arts and humanities students with the guidance and support of KWH faculty, staff, mentors, and alumni.

Students applaud a fellow classmate at a Kelly Writers House reading.

Students applaud a fellow classmate at a Kelly Writers House reading.

Sophomore English major Maya Arthur says, “the Kelly Writers House shows how much you can do with an English major. It gives Penn students an edge because we not only have access to the resources of a major research university, but also have this artistic space to foster both creative and practical skills.”

According to Filreis, KWH’s affiliate Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, which he also directs, sponsors the University’s largest internship program in RealArts@Penn. Each summer, it places and pays 25-28 interns to work at plum organizations in the fields of editing, publishing, TV, film, and the arts. Host organizations range from 20th Century Fox and Rolling Stone magazine to Viacom Catalyst.

“Ninety-five percent of the students who receive RealArts internships report that they felt they could get a job in that field, says Filreis, “and 75 percent of the students later report that they are still working in that field.”

The many opportunities KWH provides are by no means limited to English majors or creative writers.

“You don’t have to be connected to the English department or creative writing program to participate,” says junior history of art and English major Connie Yu. “A lot of the programs are open to the whole community, even beyond Penn. There are programs for everybody, regardless of their level of commitment to writing.”

Students gather in the Kelly Writers House kitchen for cooking and conversation.

Students gather in the Kelly Writers House kitchen for cooking and conversation.

This fluidity is an important part of the KWH community, and one which Filreis credits with enabling students to explore other disciplines while maintaining a connection to creativity: a connection that many students are loathe to lose when choosing to pursue a discipline outside the arts.

“Creative writing is a way to be more conscious and thoughtful as you go about your life, because when you record something, it can’t be vague; it can’t be broad,” says senior English major Alina Grabowski. “It trains you to have a more thoughtful eye and to be engaged more with your world.”

For other students, such as senior English and fine arts major Gina DeCagna, this connection to creativity is the mode by which they mean to make a positive impact on the world around them.

“All of this encourages me, in turn, to give to other people and help feed their creative minds, too—publishing their creations, finding spaces where people can express their thoughts, feelings, urgencies, and more. I believe there needs to be more KWH spaces around the world, and I would love to be a part of that mission when I graduate.”

  • Text by Christina Cook
  • Video by Rebecca Elias Abboud