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Credit: Courtesy of Jordan Huynh

The narrow and normally stuffy hallway of Riepe College House is now completely claustrophobic. Almost 20 students are crammed into the winding space, dressed in their bright red T-shirts and styrofoam hats.

They haven’t all stood together in this hall for two years. The students, now juniors, all met when they lived in this hall their freshman year. Now, as they celebrate Hey Day after three years at Penn, they’re back to pay their old stomping grounds a visit.

I’m pressed up against the wall firmly as they crowd around me. Rising College senior Spencer Jaffe, who has appointed himself my guide for the day, gives me a breakdown of his friends’ freshman personas. “So all of us lived here, in this hall, our freshman year. We are all still really close friends, and all of us still live with other people from this hall,” he says excitedly. He’s ready to elaborate, but one of his former hallmates cuts him off affectionately.

“Spencer, she’s not taking notes. Do you really think she cares? Nobody cares,” she says sarcastically. Jaffe responds by tackling her into a side-armed hug and planting a kiss on her cheek.

Three years after meeting for the first time, the hall acts as though it’s still the middle of their freshman year. Their arms drape lazily around each other’s shoulders, and they joke with each other with ease.

This hall, which hosted the Riepe College House Mentors Program, has a special bond. The program required the students, as freshmen at Penn, to become mentors to local elementary school children. “That brought us all together, and a lot of us still mentor today,” Jaffe explained.

The mentor program, generally considered one of the more rigorous residential programs within the College House system, is what many of the residents attribute their close-knit community to. “Everyone will say their freshman halls were memorable. But we built up great friendships that extend beyond our time at Penn. We also helped give back to the West Philadelphia community each week, something not every hall had the chance to do,” rising Wharton senior Chad Payne said.

Rising College senior Jordan Huynh, who also lived on the hall, agreed. “I can’t imagine living in a closer, more loving, more exciting hall,” he said. “Everything seems perfect in hindsight. If anything, I wish I could find a way to make it last forever,” he added.

The students reminisce together as they stand in their former hall. They remember who took who to their formals and date nights, and they remember their hall dinners at Hill Dining Hall. They remember jokingly placing a sign reading “I just had sex” on each other’s doors, and how Huynh often made himself at home in the dorm room of rising Wharton senior and Daily Pennsylvanian Social Media Director Steven Tydings and watched TV, even if Tydings wasn’t there.

When a girl who currently lives on the hall walks out of her room in a towel and walks into the bathroom, she is greeted with cheers of excitement followed quickly by confusion when she enters what they remembered to be the men’s bathroom.

As the bathroom door closes behind her, another resident appears. Almost instinctively, the juniors join together in cheers of “Once a mentor, always a mentor.”

In many ways, that attitude describes the bond their hall shares. As freshmen, the mentors moved in a day early to undergo training for their program and quickly bonded through their shared experiences and passions.

“That one night we all hung out, before everyone else was there, as one big, cohesive group. We all got to know each other so well so early on,” Jaffe said.

That sentiment has echoed beyond the juniors. Rising Engineering sophomore Shritama Ray, who lived in the Mentors Program this year, also attributed some of the hall’s tight-knit feeling to the fact that they moved in early. “Spending that whole first day and first night together was really important. We got to know each other and each other’s families, and we did a lot of really cool activities that revealed a lot about each other very quickly,” she said.

Fels Institute of Government master’s student and GA for the Mentors Program last year Chase Staub agreed. “Within a few hours, these kids were sitting there talking about their pasts, their families, their fears, their hopes and dreams. It was a really inspiring first impression,” he said.

Ray said that the bond created in those first few nights, much like it did for the juniors, created a lasting bond in the hall. “It was really great because it was kind of immediately well-established that we were going to become close,” she said. “The people on this hall really did care about the kids [in the elementary school], and we shared that passion,” she added.

For the juniors, that bond has lasted well beyond their freshman year. Even now, most of the juniors live in some capacity with people they met on their hall. “We’ll plan like hall BYOs or something, and like 18 of the 25 people on the hall will show up, because it’s still so important to all of us to see each other and spend time with each other,” Jaffe said.

2012 College graduate and 2013 master’s graduate Hannah Adler was the GA for the Mentors Hall for 2012-2013, and she saw something special in her residents.

“I was really nervous coming into this job. I had just barely graduated college myself, and now it’s like, ‘What the hell am I thinking supervising a bunch of kids?’ But these kids were different. I really adored them,” she said. “They really took it upon themselves to create that community for themselves. Even now, they’re always planning reunions or hanging out. It’s a really cool thing to watch,” she said.

Adler’s affection for her residents was not one-sided. Jaffe and Huynh take time, now outside their hall in the Quadrangle, to remember her fondly. “She was basically our Jewish mom,” Jaffe said.

Adler agreed warmly. “I was always telling them to drink water and take care of themselves. I feel bad for those kids; their asses got lectured,” she laughed.

Staub took on a similar role with his current hall. “I wasn’t just there as a mentor or a supervisor. I kind of became a mentor to the mentors,” he said. “I didn’t have to supervise them or worry about them getting into trouble. They were just such a wonderful group of kids that I got to kind of take a step back and enjoy this program with them as more of a friend or colleague,” he said.

“They were great kids,” Alder said. “Seeing how they behaved in the hall really solidified my trust in them. They were always just so nice and friendly and warm.”

Friendship and warmth seems to be the resounding feature of this hall, even today. After they’ve knocked on all their old doors and stood in their hallway shouting at as many current residents as they can find, they trickle out into the Quad where they hug each other again and take pictures on the steps of McClelland.

“I feel like there are two kinds of freshman halls,” Jaffe said. “Either everyone gets really really close freshman year and you have great memories, but then you kind of drift apart after freshman year, or everyone just hates each other and there’s a bunch of drama.”

“We didn’t have either of those,” he declared. “We just had such a close-knit community, and we hung out all the time. It was really just such a wonderful experience.”

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