It’s a Sunday morning, and the weather is perfect. The air is crisp, but the sun is still blazing on. Locust Walk looks more tempting than ever. It’s a beautiful day—so beautiful that the thought of ever leaving this place is unfathomable. 

As an undergraduate student, your time is limited to the four or so years you spend here—and the thought of graduating seems almost unbearable. But life isn’t like that for some people here. What if you were here for more than four years? What if you lived at Penn permanently? 

As part of Penn’s College Houses and Academic Services (CHAS), faculty members are able to live within the College House system, serving as mentors and advisors to students living there. The 13 dorm buildings consistently follow this structure, boosting the sense of community to each of them—from one end of Locust to the other.

As you walk down Locust from 40th Street, Gregory College House enters your line of vision on the right. Inside, two kids—ages seven and ten—tear through the hallways. The younger one, named Ezra, challenges you to a game, mistaking you for one of his usual Gregorian playmates. His older sister, Amaris, asks you about your day. “What’s it like being a college student? Are you free to hang out later?” she says. Their mom comes out of nowhere and tells them to leave you alone. 

Jamiella Brooks, Amaris and Ezra’s mother, is also (albeit less famously) known as Gregory’s College House Fellow, as well as the associate director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and a professor of linguistics. In her role, she lives within the walls of Gregory along with Penn students, having moved in with her husband, Lindsay, and their two kids during the COVID–19 pandemic. 

“My kids really thought Gregory was their entire home at first,” she recalls. “[During the pandemic,] they played hide–and–seek in the dorms. So when the students came back, they were like, ‘Where did they come from?’” But since the mass return to campus in the spring of 2021, the family has truly made Gregory their home—college students included.

Brooks’ favorite part of living with college students is being able to make them feel the same way that she and her family feel: Gregory is their home. With this, Brooks serves as a maternal figure to many Gregory students. According to her, it’s the simple, everyday conversations that ultimately shape young adults’ experiences living on campus. When students feel like they don’t fit in at Penn, Brooks can be that figure who at least convinces them that they fit within Gregory’s smaller, more tight–knit community. “The concept of community is just so important,” she says.

Nonetheless, living a domestic life in a traditionally non–domestic environment is challenging. At the end of a long day, when all you want to do is crawl into bed and never speak again, it’s instead time to take a deep breath and muster up your last bits of energy to run house programming and extend warmth toward residents. “I always have to make sure I’m in a space to be greeting people and seeing how they’re doing … and it’s actually really hard for me to always be doing that,” Brooks says. 

Being around people all day and then continuing to engage with that busyness in her home leads to Brooks having to adopt a practice of “performing extroversion,” a term coined by her husband. “I have to quickly put myself in the right state of mind, because I’m going to be around people to [whom] I have a responsibility to uplift,” Brooks explains. 

And she’s doing a damn good job at it. For Brooks, the experience is equally as challenging as it is rewarding. One of her goals is to foster a creative environment within Gregory. Her programming, better known as “Creative Visions,” focuses on giving students the chance to get together and exercise their imaginations. Brooks, along with the resident advisors and graduate associates, coordinates house games of Dixit—a board game beloved for its “beautiful art cards and sense of collaboration”—along with journaling sessions, painting classes, and tea times. 

Photo courtesy of Jamiella Brooks

“People enjoy our community. We’re on the smaller side and are sometimes called the ‘nerdy dorm,’” Brooks laughs. “But one of the reasons why I like Gregory is that it’s a four–year house, so we get a lot of returners.” Gregory’s popularity with its residents also helps Brooks stay on top of what students care about. “I need to make sure that my programs are generated [around] students’ concerns,” she says. 

But that doesn’t mean she can’t plan things that she genuinely enjoys. Right now, Brooks is planning a Philly slang session, tying together her background in linguistics and her love for the city she calls home. Hopefully, students can utilize this in–house programming to relax after classes and get to know the people they’re living with and the city they’re living in.   

As we exit Gregory, Amaris and Ezra scamper out of the building with their usual entourage of students. As they take their next round of chalk tic–tac–toe to Locust’s pavement, you begin to realize that there’s much more to college housing than the undergraduate students dorming there—there are families and permanent homes on campus as well. 

Photo courtesy of Deven Patel

Down the diagonal path next to Gregory looms the skyscraper more affectionately known as Harrison College House, where Deven Patel and his wife, Priya, occupy an apartment on the 23rd floor. A CHAS faculty director and a South Asia Studies professor, Patel always wanted to live in on–campus housing and mentor students with a more personal approach. But only about seven years ago—he’s been a professor at Penn for almost 16—was Patel finally contacted to move into Harrison. 

Since then, he’s continued to dedicate himself to his students both inside and outside of the high rise.

“With the pressure of just keeping their heads above water, students are really up against it,” Patel says of Penn’s academic and social rigor. To combat that, he’s recently taken over as the faculty mentor for Penn Reflect, a peer–led wellness initiative. A roundtable housed in Harrison, Penn Reflect allows participants to discuss whatever is going on in their lives, be it positive or negative. Patel is also personally interested in mindfulness and meditation, using his expertise to contribute to the culture of the college house. “In the past, students had to go somewhere else to deal with anxieties and mental health issues. … We want to provide more tools for students to deal with specific problems that they can’t really deal with in the classroom,” he says. 

Patel is more than happy to be involved with student life outside the classroom in other ways, too. “College is among the best experiences of people’s lives, right? I’m happy to get a taste of that regularly, just being around people who are enjoying their college lives,” he says. Of course, this doesn’t ring true to all students at Penn, but that’s exactly why Patel took on this job: to improve the student experience in any way possible. “I think that was the aim of this program in the first place. It wasn’t to have a professor watch over you, but to have somebody to relate to and talk with,” he says. “That’s the best part for me.”

Photo courtesy of Deven Patel

Another plus side is the physical layout of the apartments. Faculty members’ apartments are completely different from student apartments, with hardwood floors and complete furnishing. “We aren’t living in cinder blocks, and they’ll spruce up the apartments if we need it,” Patel says. But while the nicer homes of in–house faculty members might seem like a mystery, most of them are open to hosting students for coffee, cookies, and chats.

Photo courtesy of Nicola Gentili

Case in point is Nicola Gentili, who lives right next door to Patel and serves as our resident expert on all things cinema studies and Italian culture. On top of being a Harrison House Fellow, Gentili has also been a key player in establishing the film studies minor, which later transformed into the cinema and media studies major. 

He truly considers the high rise his home at Penn, full of students who double as his and his family’s friends.

Gentili has lived in Harrison since 2007, but only recently got married to his wife, Vanessa Bolivar, four years ago. She then joined him there with her daughter, Valeria Birbe Bolivar, and soon after, the now–3–year–old Francesca was born. “The college house was my family, and now my students have become family with my family,” Gentili says. 

“We are so privileged to be here. Locust Walk is Francesca’s playground, and the students are her playmates,” he says. “The 23rd floor considers her their mascot,” he laughs. But Gentili isn’t the only one for whom it feels like a privilege to live in such a welcoming and secure environment.

Photo courtesy of Nicola Gentili

Bolivar and her daughter moved to the United States from Caracas, Venezuela. The country was in bankruptcy, and Valeria moved in with family in Philly to finish high school and go on to study English. Eventually, Bolivar followed suit. The couple met through mutual friends, fell in love, and got married. “For both of them, living in the college house was a plus, because they came from a place that was in complete chaos to a place of safety and security,” Gentili says. The family felt welcomed—if anything, they found people that reminded them of Venezuela within Penn, even in the Harrison elevator.

“Don’t forget that to be in an academic space, not just at Penn, there’s an incredible variety of people from all over the world,” Gentili says. “Spanish is spoken almost [as much as] English.” On multiple occasions, when Vanessa and Valeria would talk to each other while waiting for the reluctant Harrison elevator, students would recognize their accents or language and join the conversation. Since Francesca came along, interactions with students are understandably even more lively. “Of course, she’s so incredibly loved here,” the proud father beams. 

Gentili’s favorite part of living in Harrison is having the opportunity to learn from and with a diverse group of students—different countries, languages, sexual orientations, religions, and approaches to life. He adds that this constant exchange of teaching and learning from each other is an immense honor. “I also consider the fact that I teach in the humanities a privilege,” he says. “I always tell my students, ‘We have this great privilege to learn about beauty,’ because literature and film can teach a student to appreciate great art.” His eyes light up, his words become faster, and his Italian accent thickens. “It’s a constant enrichment of the soul. The privilege that I have to interact with young minds is a unique privilege for me—just so amazing, so beautiful.”

As we cross over the 38th Street Bridge to head to our next destination, picture the scene that Gentili softly describes: “As a man of cinema, I am always fascinated by images. My favorite visual is when I am at the top of the bridge at the change of the hours when each class has just finished and students are moving along Locust Walk. As I look straight down, I can see seas of heads, seas of people. It’s an amazing feeling that you are contributing to the special four years these students spent in college. They’ll eventually represent the future, because we’ll be gone. As a parent and teacher, the possibility of having talked to some of them is beautiful.”

Photo courtesy of Ralph Rosen

Continuing down Locust, with perhaps a new perspective on what used to be a treacherous hike up the bridge, Ralph Rosen’s office awaits just outside the Quad—his old home. In the spring of 2022, Rosen said goodbye to his 12–year stint as the official Riepe faculty director and unofficial face of the Quad. The classical studies professor now claims only a cozy hideaway in Claudia Cohen Hall, but he hasn’t forgotten about his students in the Quad.

“It was no big deal!” Rosen laughs, baffled by the thought of living with first–year college students being a negative experience. “I had friends who would always tell me that I’d love this position, that I’d be great at it,” he says. So it came as no surprise when Rosen, his wife, Ellen, and their cat, Miles, moved into the Quad in 2010; their son and daughter had moved out of their Wynnewood home, embarking on their college journeys, and the Rosens had figured there was no better time to do what they’d been discussing for years. They immediately fit in with the community, creating arts–related programming and hosting coffee hours, with the ultimate goal of making nervous first–year students feel at home.

Photo courtesy of Ralph Rosen

“When everyone’s crammed into your apartment, you’ve got conversations going that lots of people can [join] informally, kind of impromptu,” Rosen says. The discussions heated up, with anarchists to conservatives to Bernie Sanders fanatics aggressively arguing with each other—politely, of course, as Rosen served as moderator and barista. “It was all happening naturally, and it was really wonderful to see so many ideas flowing around,” he says.

And while it was nice to host students in a casual manner, Rosen and his wife decided to take it a step further. “[Ellen] had the idea to start the #DoLess movement. … It was pre–pandemic, and we just wanted everyone to relax,” he explains. When promoting a house event, Rosen added a small “#DoLess” to the flyer to encourage students to take a break from their studies to relax with their housemates. “People get a lot of pressure from their parents, which I think is very unfortunate,” he explains. With students consistently overscheduling themselves, it’s important to take a break from the “constant fretting since the day they set foot here,” says Rosen. 

Rosen’s goal was to create a more stress–free environment in students’ homes, aligning with CHAS’ mission from the beginning: to help ground students outside of academic and social competition. 

“The insanity of the world gets to the students, and they carry that burden with them and think about it,” he says.

Mitchell Holston, house director of Lauder College House, echoes Rosen’s sentiments. Since joining the Penn community in April of 2021 after working with Colorado State University, he’s noticed a change in the conversation about mental health. “I think that there has been a shift in the amount of people who are willing to just talk about what [their] struggles look like and what they’re going through,” he says. “In my position, I have the opportunity to support students in their greatest achievements, their most celebratory moments, and their most awful, lowest points.” 

Photo courtesy of Mitchell Holston

Holston appreciates his ability to run the gamut of how he can help students. He went to graduate school for higher education, always wanting to work with undergraduates. “The housing field in general was one that attracted me, because I think you’re able to impact students’ lives in a very interesting and different way,” he says. Being house director was exactly what he wanted to do with his career. 

Obviously, there are challenges that come along with the role. As Holston explains, lacking control is tough. “I don’t need to pay for bills in my apartment, and there are definitely tons of perks that come with the job, but it can still be difficult sometimes,” he says. When the internet goes out for Lauder students, it’s out for Holston as well. And what address is he supposed to put on his driver’s license? 

The short answer: Lauder's physical address. He says it’s worth it, though. “Home is where the heart is, and so for me, home is where I can make connections with individuals right [in front] of me,” Holston says of Lauder. Along with the RAs and GAs, he’s able to fulfill his mission of creating a community of globally engaged citizens within Lauder. “We really try to build individuals that are ready and capable to go out into the world, regardless of whatever they study, to make an impact on the world,” he says.

To all the students struggling at Penn, Holston wants you to know that the support systems are stronger than you might think. “There are a lot of people on campus who want to support you, so just remember that you’ll be able to succeed here,” he says. Attending an academically rigorous university is difficult, but the college housing staff is here to help—and they aren’t going anywhere.

So, what does it mean to live in college housing as a faculty member?

Evidently, it means a lot to the people here living with us. From Brooks in Gregory, to Patel and Gentili in Harrison, to Rosen (previously) in the Quad, to Holston in Lauder, it’s clear that living in the College House system is worth it for one reason and one reason only: the students. As Rosen says, “There’s an electricity to living with students who are always learning from each other and teaching us [faculty] more about life.”

While Locust Walk may sometimes feel like an interminable pathway whose only purpose is to connect one end of campus to the other, remember Gentili’s vision from the top of the bridge. As all 10,000 undergraduate students file in and out of classrooms, remember that your home on campus is a home because people care to make it that way.