Gabe Delaney didn’t leave the Quad. After freshman year, when over three–quarters of his fellow Quad residents chose to leave, Gabe decided to stay; when his friends planned to move off–campus for junior year, Gabe decided to stay. The rarity of his situation is not lost on him. “When people find out I’m not an RA and live in the Quad, they usually say, ‘oh, that’s awkward’ or ‘oh, that’s weird’… or, they ask ‘why?’” Not too long ago, that prying question—why—would’ve been a non–starter. For most of its 120–year history, the Quad was a place where students spent their entire Penn experiences, first days as freshmen through last days as seniors. In the 1990s, Ware—where Gabe lives with 418 freshmen and about 100 upperclassmen—was a pre–med house where residents spent four years. Now, new faces flood in every fall, and old ones move in elsewhere. Those who stay are regarded as “weird” or “awkward” for not moving away from a freshman–dominated environment and for shunning the more independent lifestyle expected of a Penn upperclassman. Why, then, do people like Gabe decide to stay on campus—and why did his hall mates move? Every Penn student could respond to questions like these—and those answers tell the story of our priorities and aspirations.
58% of all Penn undergraduates live on campus. Ninety–nine percent of all freshmen are among them. That figure drops dramatically every year thereafter, with 53% of sophomores, 36% of juniors and 35% of seniors sticking around. At some of Penn’s peer schools, figures like these are unimaginable. At Harvard, which is located in an urban area not unlike West Philadelphia, nearly all undergraduates live in on–campus housing. At Brown—situated in a Providence, Rhode Island neighborhood that’s also often compared to Penn’s—79% stay on campus. Schools like these enjoy what Gabe calls “the excessive privilege of a centralized life,” where every need, from food to class to social life, is met down the hall or a five–minute walk away.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Penn, where thousands of students elect to leave that comfy bubble of convenience and fast–forward to the “real world,” where you pay the bills and you make the 2 a.m. calls to your landlord when the bathroom floods. And they generally do so happily, without worrying that they might be growing up too fast. If where we live speaks volumes about us, then the siren call of off–campus life makes a loud statement about the character of this school and its students.
For those students who do move—especially the 47% that bolt at first chance—the perception that the college houses are immature and that off–campus residences are more adult is entrenched. Once they're set on moving, the notion of living in a college house as an upperclassman is almost impossible to understand. Why would you ever pass on the opportunity to live in your own house with your best friends? Why would you give up the chance to do as you please in your own space, to pour a drink or two without worrying about a surprise visit from your friendly RA or house dean? Urja Mittal, a College senior, has had plenty of time to form her own answers to those questions. She’s currently in her fourth year of on–campus living and is unusual even within that small group: she’s lived in the same house—the Class of 1925 House at Gregory—the whole time. She decided to go to Gregory her freshman year for its residential language program and liked the house enough to stay each year after. Her reviews aren’t glowing, but practical: “the facilities are nice,” she says, citing her private bedroom and bathroom. “It has everything I need.” She adds that as a junior and senior, staying in Gregory was simply a matter of convenience. “It became a little bit of inertia. It was very straightforward and I knew what to expect,” she says, adding that she was turned off by “the hassle of dealing with leases and your own facilities… I didn’t need to deal with that right now.”
Urja is hardly oblivious to Gregory’s less–than–stellar reputation among the college houses. “It’s considered an uncommon place to live,” she says. When she tells people she lives in Gregory, she says “you get a lot of ‘oh, really?’ and ‘that’s interesting’… you get a lot of questioning faces.” The reactions are especially pronounced now—“by senior year, people realize it’s a very conscious decision,” she says. But the stereotypes of the building—social awkwardness, outdated amenities—don’t get to her these days. “When people say Gregory’s different, I struggle with what’s so different about it,” she says. Even so, Urja acknowledges the benefits of living in a private house or apartment. With a wistful look, she tells me, “having a kitchen would be nice.”
Dr. Utsav Schurmans, House Dean of Ware, couldn’t agree more. He’d love it if there were more four–year house residents like Urja. The college house system itself, he says, was initially conceived with the idea of creating four–year residential communities. “Now,” he says, “we’re split between freshmen and upperclassmen… loyalty to your house is fleeting.” More students could be persuaded to be loyal, but it all comes back to the kitchen. The kitchen is shorthand for adulthood. It means going to Fresh Grocer and paying attention to what’s on sale; it means being able to host friends for dinner and serve something besides Top Ramen.
It makes sense, then, that the college houses associated with upperclassmen—like the high–rises—have kitchens, as do the off–campus houses and apartments for which students depart. The places lacking those amenities—like the Quad—are destined to remain freshman–dominated without them. “We’d have to commit to real structural change to make Ware a four–year house,” Dr. Schurmans tells me as we chat in his cozy office on the third floor of the Bodine building of Ware, where the door is always open. Adding kitchens and more bathrooms to entice students to stay would cost millions of dollars, which he says simply aren’t available right now. As it stands, “There’s value in moving off,” Dr. Schurmans says. “It’s cool that students have the choice.” But with that choice comes a challenge: to persuade residents to stay, he admits, “it’s up to us to make the pitch.”
That pitch was not convincing enough for College senior Megan Ruben. She lived in Kings Court English House her freshman year, then moved into Sansom Place—a high–rise housing complex situated on Sansom Street between 36th and 37th streets—as a sophomore. When she arrived in the fall, she found that the reality of the building didn’t match up to the squeaky–clean image presented in Penn housing brochures. “It was totally gross… there was dust on everything and hair on the ground,” she says, adding that it took her a few days to clean the place before she could move in. Even so, throughout the year, pieces of the crumbling ceiling would fall onto her stuff and the floor. In springtime came the “wildlife”: the countless cockroaches that infested the apartment she shared with two roommates. Instead of enjoying the kitchen she’d looked forward to, she had to deal with cockroaches in the stove and oven. Eventually, she says, “I let them have the kitchen.” She ended up confining her activities to her room, which she’d managed to roach–proof.
By the end of that year, Megan says she was “so over” living on campus. For her junior year, she moved to Domus, a building at 34th and Chestnut streets that calls itself “a luxury apartment community.” Domus enjoys a low profile among off–campus residences—if you’ve heard of it at all, it’s usually along with the words “incredibly expensive.” So, while Megan’s new place is only a few blocks from her old one, the two feel like different worlds. Her apartment’s kitchen is immaculate (and roach–free), with marble countertops; the floors are handsome polished hardwood. Instead of run–down common rooms, Domus has study rooms with flat–screen TVs and sleek furniture. There is a private swimming pool. While she appreciates the increase in living comfort, the amenities aren’t what Megan mentions when talking about the benefits of her new home. It’s close to her pre–med classes and SEPTA and, because very few undergrads live in the building, it’s quiet—instead of loud music, there’s the occasional dog bark and toddler squeal. Domus’ location on the east end of campus complicates her social life—it’s far from most of her friends, who live west of 40th Street. She compares it to the “real world,” where all your friends don’t live in the same building or down the block. Megan jokes that she “gets to have the illusion of being an adult.”
That same illusion became very real for College senior Robert Franco during his junior spring, which he spent in an apartment at 47th and Pine streets. It wasn’t exactly his first choice: after spending the fall abroad, he scrambled to find housing until a friend found a stately old building with an inviting courtyard. It was far—30–minute walk to campus far—but Robert says he and his roommate “figured [they] could do it for one semester.” He ended up loving the experience: he raves about the neighborhood, which he calls “an oasis in West Philly,” with its leafy streets, friendly professor neighbors and charming cafes.
As Robert expected, his move to a neighborhood more West Philadelphia than University City came with inconveniences. Carrying heavy books from Van Pelt at night was a chore; so was the social isolation of living so far away. In Robert’s mind, though, the pros outweighed the cons. He learned to master Penn Transit; instead of meeting friends at Tap House, he’d suggest Local 44. Ultimately, he says, living so far away “prepares you for real life… it put me into a healthy routine. I woke up at 8 a.m. every day. In the real world, your work won’t be down the block,” he says, “You can’t wake up at noon, roll out of bed and go to class.” These days, Robert lives a bit closer to campus—41st and Pine—but he misses his old place. “You sort of forget about Penn. It’s like a home feeling.”
To some degree, that home feeling is something that everyone—freshman or senior, on campus or off—is seeking. It’s an elusive feeling, sought in different places by different people. Some recreate it through the communal feel of college house life; others try to find an apartment or house and claim it as their own. But for Penn students, that feeling of “home” isn’t always as important as the feeling that your home is doing something for you. Regardless of whether they lived on campus or off, the people who told me their stories were overwhelmingly concerned with how their housing orients them for what’s next, whether that means being prepared for next year, or the year after that or life after Penn. The way Penn students approach housing reflects how they approach life: focused on the day–to–day but with a constant eye on how each of those days prepare them for the future.
========== Gabe, for his part, will be leaving Ware this year. It’ll be bittersweet. His main reason for staying on campus was to, as he puts it, “pay it forward” by serving as a mentor to freshmen. “My freshman year, I needed a lot of help… older people living in the Quad helped me get through those experiences,” he says. He admits that for many Penn students, “it’s difficult to understand why you’d sacrifice personal liberty in housing.” For Gabe, sharing a bathroom with over 20 people was worth the opportunity to give back.
Right now, he’s beginning the search for an apartment off–campus with some friends. He tells me he’s “looking at senior year now and thinking about life after graduation,” a life where your meals aren’t downstairs and the electricity bill isn’t sent to someone else. He doesn’t want to end up like people he knows at other schools—high school friends who went to Yale, Princeton—who weren’t interested in the “real world” experiences that Penn students are afforded through housing. We could be like them, content to while away their college years in the gothic halls of the Quad and put off life after graduation until we graduate. We're not.
Sam Brodey is a senior from Los Angeles, CA, studying political science. He is the Managing Editor for 34th Street Magazine.