The Story of Broken Glass
For nearly fifteen years I have served as Harrison College House Dean, the chief student affairs officer of an academic residence of approximately eight hundred students, faculty, and staff on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Harrison is one of three high-rise buildings designed to emulate apartment-style living. Rooms have amenities such as kitchens, private bathrooms, living rooms, and other comforts that might prevent a first-year student from venturing out to a floor lounge, a dining hall, or library carrel. The lure of Harrison’s private, cozy living could be antithetical to first-year exploration, especially if one’s neighbors were upperclassmen, who specifically chose to live in a space precisely to cocoon themselves with the friends they had already made in more traditional first-year living quarters. But one Saturday evening, the sound of breaking glass shattered an otherwise quiet night, and would christen the arrival of the Harrison Freshman Experience, a living/learning community designed specifically to convert thinking on campus of what first-year students needed for success. And that has made all the difference for many happy Penn alumni.
When I arrived, Harrison enjoyed a reputation as a big house with a big heart, one where upperclassmen celebrated an imagined independence from close parental or administrative scrutiny. It lacked, however, a favorable reputation as a desirable housing option for first-year students. But as the freshman class exceeded the number of beds in Penn’s more traditional first-year housing, demand necessitated the placement of freshmen outside of traditional first-year spaces. Most notably, Penn’s celebrated Quad, boasted behind its iron gates, the lure of ivy-covered, Gothic, brick dwellings, communal kitchens, bathrooms, dining halls, and other amenities designed to foster social interaction and academic exchanges. For some anxious first-year students and their parents, living behind the walls of Harrison College House meant abandoning all hope of a social life and academic success: Penn’s freshman experience would forever elude them. But one evening, the inimitable sound of the crash of a breaking bottle would give rise to the Freshman Experience in Harrison College House, a tremendously living/learning community for first-year students in a rather untraditional setting.
Back in the Fall of 2004, with the faint hope of settling in for a quiet Saturday evening, the idea of the Freshman Experience Residential Program came to me with the same gravity of the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head or like a bolt of lightning from the sky, or more precisely by the unmistakable sound of a frustrated freshman breaking a bottle across the door of a less than hospitable upperclassman neighbor’s door.
Living among eight hundred students, I knew enough to expect that there might be noise on occasion from the world beyond the tranquility of our door, no matter what we might do to muffle, stifle, or ignore it. On this particular Saturday evening, my husband Todd and I stoically disregarded the distinct rumble of a sub-woofer, choosing, instead, to raise the volume on our television. Even as the couch rumbled beneath us, I tried to not intervene, as students deafened themselves, for what I hoped might be in the name of building community. It seemed like our patience had been productive: the music soon halted. What followed, however, was neither the sound of collegial bonding nor respectful discourse, but rather the inimitable sound of broken glass, rudely shattering the promise of a quiet night. As I ventured down the hall I found one of the first-year students who I had gotten to know fairly well. He had attended several of our dinner and conversation events in Harrison, and he and I had also chatted frequently in the elevators, in the hallways, and even in my office. As he sheepishly stood with the end of a broken bottle in his hand, I was moved to inquire about the situation, even if it was fairly clear what had just transpired.
He had used the bottle to bang on his neighbor’s door to compete with the noise from the neighboring room. It proved to be an effective if not a practical or an appropriate means of getting attention.
As I helped him determine a list of objects that might make better door knockers than something made of glass, a group of seniors charged at me to tell me how the freshmen needed to learn the rules of the hall: they knew nothing of life in a high rise, and this group of music-blasting citizens was ready to offer lessons. These funny, unreasonable freshmen wanted to leave their doors open all of the time. They said hello to people they didn’t know. They attended floor meetings and went in groups to 1920 Commons. Didn’t they know that freshmen who lived in the high rises were doomed to antisocial behavior? Why did they have to say “hello” all of the time? And didn’t they know that the seniors on the floor set the rules? Didn’t they know who was in charge?
Imagine my surprise. I had thought that the Faculty Master, the Faculty Fellows, the coterie of student staff, or even I might have had something to do with education in the residence. This declaration by this student proved to be an edifying night for all involved. It became clear that having upperclassmen on floors intended to house first-year students could either be a powerful asset or, as in this case, a woeful obstacle to integrating students into the life of the house and the academic community. At the very least, it was important to find upperclassmen who could acknowledge the enthusiasm in the eyes of our first-year students with something more than glassy-eyed looks of uncaring and all-too-sophisticated sophomores.
Broken Glass and the Launch of the Freshman Experience Residential Program
Fortunately, nobody was hurt that Saturday evening, but that broken bottle across the unsuspecting door helped us in Harrison to launch the Freshman Experience Residential Program. The program seemed to some to be nominal: with a simple change of name we could now promise subsequent classes that the “Freshman Experience” could be had at Penn outside of the Quad. But something profoundly significant developed over time as we provided the resources and attention to our first-year students.
Mentorship: By the virtue of creating a residential program, I was able to enlist the help of students who had lived as first-year students in Harrison and similar buildings. They understood the importance of having people to share their enthusiasm. Once I had the opportunity to choose carefully which upper class students could live with first-year students, I was able to evolve a mentorship program.
The mentorship component to FreshEx (as the program was lovingly called by its participants) created opportunities for upper class students to work directly with two or three first-year students each. Mentors have played crucial roles connecting our first years to campus resources, integrating them into the house, the university, and the city of Philadelphia. Over time, the house noticed a remarkable reduction in students rushed to the emergency room for alcohol consumption and other high-risk behaviors, particularly during the early weeks of New Student Orientation, a time that had once been particularly troublesome for students who imagined themselves to be isolated and in desperate need to prove their popularity. The bond of FreshEx has extended beyond students first years. Participants have gained internships and job opportunities from their experiences in the program, and each year the vast numbers of alumni who return for Homecoming Events are those who participated in the program. We even now have at least one child of alumni sporting the name “Harrison.”
The Importance of Marketing, Programming, and Community: We knew that we could not replicate the experience of living in the Quad. We decided to stop apologizing for the fact that we were different. We learned to celebrate that which set us apart from the vast majority of opportunities for first-year students. Many of our first-year rooms come equipped with kitchens: The Harrison Freshman Cooking Contest evolved, as a way not only to allow students to develop cooking skills and learn of other cultures, but to memorialize that students in the Quad lacked similar advantages. Freshmen in our house were not isolated; they were a strong community unto themselves. We developed a smaller community and integrated it with the larger community of the house, the then larger community of campus, and the even greater community of the city of Philadelphia. We made a large, decentralized campus seem manageable, and we could surround our first-years with others who had been in the same place they had been only a short time before them. Front Row Theater Company, our residential dramatic troupe came back to campus early to produce a full-length theatrical production during New Student Orientation. I personally designed and taught freshman seminars in our house and encouraged other faculty to do so as well. Freshmen quickly became involved in the workings of Front Row. And most importantly, we developed leadership opportunities for our first-year students to integrate them in the operations of the house. Upperclassmen worked to comprise FAB, the Harrison Freshman Advice Booklet, compiling tidbits of information for Harrison’s incoming first-year students. We sent this booklet to students over the summer, to acquaint them with the community and to let them know that we eagerly anticipated their arrival. They knew that we were waiting for them, and that the enthusiasm they would bring would be vital to our community. Our booklet offered basic information, but more importantly, it signaled that we were already anticipating the arrival of first-year students. We understood them and their needs, and our success as a community depended upon their arrivals. The presence of freshmen in Harrison would no longer be perceived as accidental, a stopgap measure to offset the overflow of students from more desirable spaces. We had now become a meaningful commodity.
Outcomes: Over time the number of first year students grew in Harrison, and the approximately eighty percent of students who started as first-years in Harrison remained for all four years. At the height of the program, demand for the program from incoming students outran the actual number of allotted beds by three hundred percent. Room selection time had become enjoyable, even if there would be more disappointment from students for whom we did not have room, we could say that all who would be living in Harrison, chose to do so.
Future Transitions: In the fall of 2017, the University of Pennsylvania will have an additional college house to provide additional beds. As a result, Harrison College House, the last of Penn’s high rises to house first-year students, will lose its first-years and its Freshman Experience program. Many of the approximately one thousand students who directly benefited from participating in the living/program have already begun the mourning process. Those who did not participate will never truly understand the profound impact that the Freshman Experience had in developing the participants’ sense of themselves, others, and of their community.
We were never able to repair that one broken bottle from that fateful Saturday evening, but we were able to create a stronger community as a result of it.
Submitted by Frank Pellicone, PhD, Harrision College House Dean, University of Pennsylvania