Children living in College Houses bring family life to dorms
College House families live normal lives with a Penn twist
October 8, 2012, 7:20 pm·
Christina Prudencio | DP
Down the hall from the students and their dorm rooms lies a door behind which five-year-old Oni and two-year-old Kai impatiently wait for their father, Ware College House dean Utsav Schurmans, to come home.
At 5 p.m., he walks in and greets them with a combination of loving phrases in Dutch and English.
The Schurmans are one of several “college house families” who call Penn’s college dormitories their permanent home.
Living in a college house — and, for the children, growing up in one — is as normal and as “uniquely Penn” as one might expect it to be.
These families go to work and school, celebrate birthdays and relax on weekends, but always with an element of Penn incorporated.
Isabel Grey, the daughter of English House faculty fellows Cam and Ann Grey, was born at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and celebrated her fourth birthday this May surrounded by Kings Court English House faculty and students.
Her birthday party also doubled as the House’s final study break of the year — an annual tradition for Isabel and Kings Court residents.
The Greys arrived at Penn nearly seven years ago. Grey was teaching in the classical studies department when his wife, Ann, suggested the idea of moving into a college dorm. She believed it would serve as a ready-made community for them. The couple moved into the first floor of English House in the late summer of 2006.
The Greys eat at the dining hall but live in an apartment. “We have bedrooms and a kitchen, a dining room and a bathroom,” Grey said, “but we also have a life that is fully integrated in the dorm community.”
Isabel is often seen running around and playing with Penn students at the Kings Court dining hall or learning from her parents about the different creatures growing inside Penn’s BioPond, located behind the Quadrangle.
When she’s not crawling in and out of the Button with her fellow college house children, she might be at Penn Park cheering on the women’s tennis team, some of whom used to live in Kings Court their freshman year.
An average day in the Grey family begins at 7 a.m., when Cam Grey takes Isabel to daycare at the Caring Center, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Grey then heads off to teach class and his wife starts her work day at the Biomedical Research Building. They might have lunch together at Hill. “Sometimes we really need to remind ourselves to get off campus,” Cam chuckled.
For Andi Schurmans, one of the best perks of living in a college house is that she never has to do the dishes. “The dining halls provide more variety of nutrients than I could ever make in one evening,” she said. “It’s great.”
Living on campus involves embracing a different lifestyle with minimal work-home separation, Cam said. “The boundaries are blurred. It’s an all-encompassing experience, but we don’t feel like we’re sacrificing anything by living here. It’s a very safe environment to raise a child, almost like a big playground.”
For kindergartner Anya Rymes, the daughter of Graduate School of Education professor Betsy Rymes, Penn is her playground.
She attends swimming lessons at Pottruck Gym and plays foosball in Ware’s Morris-Bodine lounge. When she’s not playing with her two cats, Anya makes friends with older children and might offer them her tiara to try on or invite them to listen to her music box with her.
The college environment also provides college house children with resources other students their age might not have.
Anya’s older brother, 13-year-old Charlie, comes home from school and often studies in Riepe Coordinator Kristen Muscat’s office until his mother comes home, after which he might study with other Riepe residents and interact with members of the Mentors residential program.
The college house parents have also learned from their residents. Schurmans says living on campus has changed the way he structures his syllabi and deadlines.
“Before we lived on campus, I was kind of clueless about the lives of students outside of the classroom,” he said. “I’m not sure I even knew what Fling was. Living on campus has given me a much better understanding of the rhythm of life for Penn students who live on campus, especially freshmen.”
Assistant Professor of Clinical Family Medicine and Community Health Kent Bream and his wife Adele Fava, a management consultant and Organizational Dynamics graduate student, live with their five-year-old daughter Emma and threeyear-old son Thomas in Hill College House.
Bream, too, has seen a difference in how he approaches his students. “I felt renewed as a teacher,” after living around students in Hill House and before that, Harnwell. “I changed my lectures and started having more fun teaching.”
In fact, Bream finds the funniest part of being a faculty master at Hill is that more students know him as “Emma’s dad” than know his name. “Last year in one of my classes, a student introduced me to a classmate [saying,] ‘You know him — it’s Emma’s dad.’”
Living in college houses isn’t without more of these quirks.
The first question these families receive from friends about living in a college house is usually about the noise level.
“In all our houses, noise has not been a problem,” Bream said, echoing the four other families’ experiences. “Students are very respectful.”
But there are definitely the occasional exceptions.
Music and urban studies professor Molly McGlone, who lives in the Quad’s Fisher Hassenfeld House with her husband and Associate Fellow Adam Weaver and three year-old son Silas, said she was woken up on Valentine’s Day last year when three boys serenaded a girl at 11 p.m. “But … that was amusing,” she said.
Grey recalled when some students came home on a Saturday night, climbed up the Kings Court fire escape and asked Grey to help let them into the building.
And Schurmans humorously added that, despite his absolute devotion to Ware College House, living above the Upper Quad Gate means he uses earplugs to sleep most weekend nights.
Andi Schurmans added, “It’s so funny how our baby son has already spent so much time at a sorority house,” explaining that when the family first moved to Ware two years ago, Nursing junior Elee O’Neill — then a freshman — asked to play with Kai and Oni. “[She] has since become a babysitter-extraordinaire,” Schurmans said.
Each family grew nostalgic as they recalled some of their fondest memories of living on Penn’s campus.
Bream loves Hill’s final exam midnight pancake breakfast. “It wraps up each semester and serves as a wonderful punctuation mark to the year.”
The house picture all Hill residents take at the beginning of the year marks the other bookend of Bream’s favorite Hill House traditions. “[It is]an amazing and unifying event,” he said. “I love watching students, parents and visitors looking at our house picture each year in the lobby.”
In Riepe, Rymes worked around college house regulations to keep her family’s holiday experience as authentic as possible. “Since real Christmas trees aren’t allowed, we got one of those fake trees, starting a brand new tradition of getting the trees out of the closet each year and decorating them,” she said.
Grey’s noticed living in a college house has shaped his daughter’s personality.
“Living here is all my daughter has known,” Grey said. “There may be no way to directly confirm it, but Isabel is extraverted, and I believe a lot of it has to do with growing up in a college dorm.”
McGlone, too, has noticed the college environment’s impact on her son. While most children his age may be intimidated by crowds of people, “Silas is used to seeing people all the time,” she said. “He even … got to meet Amy Gutmann on move-in day.”
Grey thinks students benefit from having families around, too. “Our lives are enriched by living here but there is also value in students seeing a model for family life,” he said. “It’s good for them to see that professors are people, too.”
Schurmans finds it especially practical that they do not have to give up safety in order to live in a city. “We have the best possible scenario for urban living with beautiful, safe green spaces and the trolley station right out the gate that puts all of Philly at our fingertips.”
It may not be a conventional home structure, Grey said, “but it is our version of an American suburb.”