During finals season, Penn buzzes with a stress so potent it electrifies campus. Hoards of students make a temporary home out of Van Pelt and hustle down Locust Walk with their heads down, tucked into winter coats. Isis Trotman (N ‘20) was one of those students, indecipherable among the blur of Penn students rushing to finish their exams. When finals season released its chokehold on campus, students Ubered to airports and train stations to head home for winter break. But after suitcases were thrown into car trunks, doors were locked, and roommates bid farewell, a blanket of calm settled over campus—along with a blanket of snow. 

For a handful of students Penn transformed into a different place entirely after finals. The temperature sunk to a frigid 10 degrees, snow piled on top of the Compass, and College Green was as silent as Fisher Fine Arts. 

This is the Penn that Isis found herself in when winter break arrived. Isis is a FGLI, or “First-Generation, Low-Income,” student. Some FGLI students remain on campus during break due to the financial burden posed by transportation costs. On top of this, some of these students also juggle unstable home lives that make traveling anywhere from unpleasant to dangerous. While their classmates were making travel plans in the weeks preceding winter break, many FGLI students were filling out applications to live in the high-rises—the only residential buildings that stay open over break. This year, 71 students identified as “high–need” by Student Financial Services remained on campus. But even, this definition of "high–need" is disputed, as the economic threshold that it uses leaves many low–income students out of the picture.

Most Penn students would never choose to spend New Year’s in a dorm room, but for some members of the FGLI community, doing so can mean having enough money to eat throughout the semester, avoiding a toxic family situation, or getting much-needed time to destress. Though this may not sound like an ideal break, some students acknowledged it was their best option. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Looking down from her Rodin window, Isis watched the pedestrians walking outside vanish as the usual Locust Walk traffic slowed to a trickle. She knew that there were other residents living in the dorm, but she didn’t recognize any of the faces she saw on her rare forays outside of her room. Isis couldn’t help but admit that the start of her break was a little depressing.

”The first two days were really lonely, not even gonna lie, just because it was so dark out and it’s cold,” said Isis, laughing at her own bluntness. “It’s Christmas and everyone is home with their families and you’re just here by yourself in this building.”

Experiencing New Year’s alone was a first for Damon Duchenne (C’21). While Damon, an international and FGLI freshman, watched the snow fall from Rodin’s 12th floor, the temperature reached a balmy 80 degrees in his home country of Mauritius, a small island near Madagascar. Back in Mauritius, people were celebrating in the streets, lighting firecrackers, and camping on the beach. On Penn’s empty campus, silence.

“Here the impression was very calm,” he said, “except downtown where I could see, far away, some lights.”

If watching the student body flee campus felt isolating, trudging through a barren Locust Walk was even more bizarre. During winter break, he was hard–pressed to see another face at all.

While Penn’s transformation during break is undeniable, Daniel Gonzalez (C’ 20) remarked how some constants made campus more comforting. Daniel, a FGLI student, came back to campus early on January 3rd due to increasing tensions at home. As he made his way from the Tampons to Harrison, Daniel was surprised to see plowed sidewalks and a high-rise staff working almost as regularly as they did throughout the semester. 

Still, despite these glimpses of normalcy, little details reminded Daniel that he was one of the only people living in his building: “There's always an elevator on my floor because I'm the only one that rode it there.”

While Daniel only stayed on campus for part of the break, he knows that he will not return home to Cleveland, Ohio for the holidays in future years. His family environment is far too difficult and stressful. Daniel will remain in Philly instead of incurring transportation costs—costs which he has paid for himself in previous years. 

“Compare that to someone who spent their time vacationing or their time in a nice house with a really big family,” said Daniel. “That’s not the narrative I get to have. And I’m not jealous per se, I’m just trying to find my own way of being happy and not have it sound sad or weird.”

Remaining on campus during winter break poses an extra challenge for students:  funding—and finding—meals. To help residents eat during winter break, Penn emailed a list of “high-need” students to offer them free meals at the Sheraton Hotel from the start of break until January 2nd, when dining services reopen. This off–campus approach was slightly different than the dining accommodations for students who stayed on campus for Thanksgiving. Students could then sign up for specific meals and select days to pick them up. Although this program was a substitute for Penn’s dining plan, students could only receive a maximum of two meals per day.  According to Director of Business and Hospitality Services at Penn Dining Pamela Lampitt, 48 high-need students signed up to receive meals, and 28 of those students also received on campus housing during the break.

“The food items that were offered from the Sheraton were really a nice selection...We made sure we had vegan and those types of options,” said Pamela. “Anything from chicken parm and spaghetti and green beans to a grilled lemon chicken and harvest rice and broccoli.”

Photo: Rebecca Tan

Even with the promise of warm food at the Sheraton at 36th and Chestnut, the brutal wind tunnel and icy sidewalks certainly didn’t make the trek there any easier. 

”There was a day when it was 9 degrees outside and I walked out and my hair was a little damp and it froze before I even got to the street and so I turned right back around,” Isis said, laughing. “I don’t own a pair of gloves or a hat and I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t buy one so I was like okay, we’re just not gonna eat today, that’s not gonna happen.”

Isis quickly acknowledged that this was probably poor planning on her part. She was overall surprised that Penn was able to offer such high quality meals at no cost to the students. There are many improvements to be made for the FGLI community, but in this case she felt Penn was incredibly generous.

“I think that they did a really good job of making sure we had everything that we need—food, shelter, housing. Like, they covered it all,” Isis emphasized. “So I’m always hesitant to complain because I don’t think there’s anything more that they could have done.”

While these accommodations are certainly helpful, staying on campus still remains difficult, especially for younger students coming off of an overwhelming first semester. Daniel didn’t disguise the admiration in his voice when imagining freshmen who spend their breaks at Penn. 

"For me, I feel like I would be stressed. Freshman–year–me would not be able to survive living on campus, even if I was in a high rise,” admitted Daniel.

As break went on, Isis she grew to appreciate the relief that this unique kind of solitude brought her. After Christmas, her homesickness subsided and she came to enjoy being one of the only people on campus. Isis realized how much she needed a mental break when she recalled the tiring barrage of social events at the end of the year. Joking that her family can be a “bit much,” she pointed out how being surrounded by them for two long weeks wouldn’t have allowed her to recuperate from weeks of finals stress.  

When January 7th comes around, everything changes. The trademark hustle returns to Locust. Penn buildings turn their lights and heat back on and unlock their doors, beckoning the start of classes. Packs of girls huddle for warmth in front of sorority houses, a symbol of the social responsibilities to come. Whether or not they'll do it again, the students who stayed on campus over break saw a version of Penn that their classmates may never glimpse.