You may know it as the best place to SABS on a sunny day or ground zero for every student group and their requisite free* Insomnia Cookies, but the Arts, Research, and Culture House is more than just a pretty face. The building has long been a pillar of Penn’s rich multicultural community, housing minority affinity groups such as La Casa Latina, the Pan–Asian American Cultural House, and MAKUU, Penn’s Black cultural center. Since it opened in 2014, ARCH has become a hub not only for each respective community, offering programming and events relating to particular cultural identities, but also for groups of students to foster a sense of belonging within and without the physical space.
It’s only recently that the building became fully dedicated to fostering this kind of community; for the last few years, it has also been the home of the Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowships. Now, a new season of ARCH is upon us. CURF relocated in stage one of the building’s much–anticipated renovation, which wrapped up mid–September, making the building a zone now solely for cultural centers. The revision plan, called Reimagining ARCH, seeks to capitalize on this newfound vacancy to create an inclusive, adaptable space for generations of minority students to come. As President Liz Magill described in her remarks at ARCH’s Sep. 7 unveiling ceremony, “The reimagining of the ARCH building, so fully in step with this idea and so strongly guided by student input and student leadership … embodies our efforts to make Penn a supportive place for our entire diverse community.”
Assistant Vice Provost for Strategic Planning and Operations Laurie Hall is overseeing the physical transformation of the building, a critical part of the renovation. "It’s all about visibility,” she explains. “If you belong to one of the student organizations formally, you'll know where the ARCH is, but if you're a student who just wants to explore different cultures, or you don't know if you'd necessarily want to formally join a group, that's your opportunity to be to see this very visible space on Locust.” It’s easy to take for granted the physical places that we occupy, but Hall’s pre–Penn experience developing residential, community–based programs for nonprofits taught her to do the opposite. For her, the ARCH renovation is about prioritizing “how comfortable students feel owning the space, and being in it in the course of a day for their own drop–in activities.”
The project’s initial phase entailed assembling the cultural centers to discuss their hopes for the renovation while also critically examining ARCH’s current use of resources. With these plans in mind, Hall says, the group will be using the next year “to look at what we've decided on paper over the summer, but seeing how it actually works for those usages.” The uses in question run the gamut from class buildings to performing arts rooms; by assessing the scheduling data to see who is coming to the multipurpose areas and how they are using them, Hall and her team can focus their vision to serve the demonstrated needs of the community. “We'll really need to look at the student demographics and assess the gaps in all the different spaces,” she explains. “I'm just keeping mindful of how quickly the student demographics change and building out programming and space that can keep pace with that.”
To stay in tune with students’ needs and inform the project’s direction, the Office of University Life brought on a student Steering Committee, whose perspective Hall has deemed “invaluable.” The Steering Committee is split up into three subcommittees, each working to offer the Office of University Life team full–fledged recommendations for future aesthetics, area designations, and building operations. These undergraduates conducted research surrounding their areas of focus for the better part of a year in order to shape ARCH’s future as best as possible. “They approached the work really professionally and systematically when we divided into working groups around aesthetics, scheduling priorities, and space allocation,” she remarks. “They’ve been very mindful when it comes to their communities, not just their own individual opinions about the space. The way they're using it now really shows that they are being creative about different ways they can use the space we now have.”
One notable example of the ARCH renovation addressing the changing student population is the inclusion of Natives at Penn, a recent addition to the minority group coalition 7B, in the building’s future plans. Founded in 1994, the group successfully increased their on–campus influences over the last few years, starting with joining 7B; as of summer 2022, the group was successful in lobbying for the administration to include Indigenous People’s Day on the academic calendar. When NAP joined 7B, co–president Lauren McDonald (W ‘23) remarked that “it would be really encouraging to show prospective Native students that if you come here, there is going to be a space on campus for you.” Now, with the inclusion of Natives at Penn in ARCH, the group is one step closer to fulfilling that mission. As NAP has made a clear goal of creating infrastructure within the admissions department to include more incoming Native students, ARCH will surely be a cornerstone of those efforts.
In the future, ARCH wants to expand to more buildings spanning Locust Walk, leaning into its identity as a haven for minorities on campus by continuing to develop programming for each community it houses. Ultimately, the renovation’s goals can be boiled down to one word: inclusion. The building provides an invaluable foundation for students to find their niches and access resources within a larger, developed network of students with similar backgrounds.
The importance of this contribution can not be overstated at a place like Penn. The legacy and politics of historically elite institutions are not always pretty or easy to navigate as a member of a minority community, so creating a sense of belonging is critical to ensuring that students thrive on campus. Ultimately, the comfort Hall and her team, guided by the invaluable recommendations of the Student Steering Committee, seek to provide hopes to do exactly that.