I survived the high rises.
Way back in 2006, when I was a freshman at Penn, I lived in a 14th floor apartment of a high-rise college house. Somehow, despite the crushing insularity of my lonely surroundings, I managed to make a few friends and develop basic interpersonal skills. My doctors told me that with remedial training, I could even become functional enough to participate in normal social activities.
Bad sarcasm aside, I’m always amused at how some view first-year life in the high rises (particularly those who’ve never lived in them). A recent Daily Pennsylvanian article about potential changes to Penn’s College House system reminded me of these sloppy stereotypes.
As Penn’s leaders consider ways to improve first-year housing, implementing a one-size-fits-all approach and banning freshmen from Harrison or Harnwell College House (or low-rise buildings like Stouffer College House) seems like an easy solution.
But it’s the wrong one. These houses provide excellent and supportive communities to first-year students. Moreover, the variety of living environments that Penn’s College House system offers freshmen has always been its greatest strength. Take away those choices, and Penn does a great disservice to its future freshmen, and long-term damage to the College House system.
In that same article about the issue, Undergraduate Assembly President and Wharton and College senior Abe Sutton noted that it would be better for freshmen to have a “real college experience by living in places like Hill or the Quad.” Another student opined that the high rises weren’t the best place to form first-year friendships. The truth, however, lies far from these misconceptions.
It’s true that the first-year population in the high rises is relatively small (about 90 students each, concentrated on a few floors). But because of this, the sense of community that forms among high-rise freshmen becomes very strong, very quickly.
I witnessed this firsthand as a freshman in Harnwell. Today, many of my closest friends were also fellow freshmen in Harnwell, and my experience is hardly atypical. I’m struck by how many of those freshmen Harnwell residents are still friends with each other. Heck, some of them even married each other. When I was an RA during my senior year, I saw this process repeat itself with that year’s Harnwell freshmen class.
Living alongside (gasp!) upperclassmen also has benefits — as a freshman, I received plenty of helpful advice. And the high rises give freshmen access to interesting residential programs. I know many students who had a blast in Harrison’s Freshmen Experience, or enjoyed cultural activities in Harnwell’s East Asia Program.
I personally lived on the Ancient Studies Program floor, and got to visit many cool city museums. This may sound incredibly boring to Sutton (as well as many others, I’m sure), and that’s okay. What’s not okay is taking away another student’s opportunity to live in an environment that he or she prefers, just because that choice doesn’t fit with Sutton’s personal conception of what constitutes a “real college experience.”
Now, do the high rises offer a different type of community than the Quad or Hill? Absolutely. And might this type of community sometimes appeal more to quieter, introverted people? Definitely.
Some incoming students may worry about getting lost in a 10,000 strong student body, and want a smaller, tight-knit community along with more private living options. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to want a little more personal space, or to watch a movie with a small group of friends rather than party with your entire hall. Diverse living options help attract diverse personalities.
Simply put, 2,400 freshmen may not want the same “real college experience.” Some desire a hyper-social atmosphere that gives them continuous exposure to hundreds of other freshmen. Some want a cozier environment to build a few closer friendships. And some want to grab their share of the skyline and live a more independent lifestyle. All of these are equally valid choices, and it’s crucial that Penn offer each incoming student the opportunity to craft his own freshman experience.
If nothing else, student leaders and administrators must remember that Penn is an urban institution, part of an eclectic and vibrant city. Penn’s housing options should reflect that diversity. Giving first-year students many possibilities might prevent Penn from offering the same stuffy, Hogwarts-like uniformity as some peer schools, but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make any day.
Ashwin Shandilya is a 2010 Wharton graduate and former opinion editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. His email address is email@example.com.Comments powered by Disqus
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