A Q&A with Trina Sokoloski, house director of New College House West
With New College House West nearing completion, students making their housing selections for fall have the opportunity to be a part of history as the inaugural residents.
As Penn students begin to make selections for campus housing for the fall, they have a new option to consider. With rich red terracotta tiles on the outside and warm golden maple cabinetry on the inside, Penn’s New College House West is in the final months of construction, scheduled for completion in August.
Construction on Penn’s newest College House started in January 2019 at Walnut and 40th streets, and is chronicled on time lapse. It has 430 beds and will house sophomores, juniors, and seniors in 98 suites with two, four, five, or six single rooms. A 13-floor center tower is flanked by two five-floor wings connected by glass-enclosed passageways, encompassing an open green space facing Locust Walk, with rain gardens and many of the more than 200 trees recently planted on the property.
Features include an expansive first-floor common living room with a wall of windows that looks out over Walnut Street on one side and a landscaped interior courtyard on the other. Adjacent is a project space for collaborative studying, as well as two seminar rooms. Other special areas include a fitness room, a meditation room, three music practice rooms, and eight club rooms with community kitchens.
A dining area with a view of the green lawn features the Quaker Kitchen, an open kitchen with an open counter designed as an educational and demonstration cooking space. A coffee bar and multipurpose room is accessible from 40th Street just past the Philadelphia Public Library on the corner.
The New College House West director is Trina Sokoloski. She started at Penn in 2015 as director of Hill College House and opened the first New College House at 34th and Chestnut streets, later renamed Lauder College House, in 2016. She will lead the team of students, faculty, and staff in managing the new House, in partnership with Faculty Director Amy Stornaiuolo, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. They are now reviewing applicants for two faculty house fellows, as well as undergraduate and graduate resident advisers.
“It’s exciting to think about creating our new home space. But it really doesn’t become a home until the students move in,” Sokoloski says. “The students who are looking for housing and want to live there will have a really great opportunity to be a part of history.”
Penn Today spoke with Sokoloski as she prepares to move into her new role as director in her new home.
What would you say to a student who was considering New College House West? What should they expect?
Students should expect to be welcomed and belong to a community. And they can expect to have opportunities to participate in a lot of different ways. Amy and I want the students to be able develop leadership skills, to help, to plan, and facilitate. We want to weave together different needs, different activities, different initiatives with our managers and staff so students have a role in how the House functions. They can expect to join this really vibrant space and make it into a home-away-from-home kind of place.
As for the building, it is a really beautiful space that has a really nice sense of warmth, with large windows that let in a lot of sunlight. One of the really nice attributes is the way the suites are set up to offer a balance of privacy in your own individual bedroom while also a sense of community sharing the suite with other students. Another distinguishing factor is that each suite will have a microwave and refrigerator and a kitchen sink and pantry, so there is support for students who want to keep their own food. But the idea is to have them use the community kitchen, to prepare food and eat together in a community-based way.
The students who move in this fall will be the first to live in New College House West. What is special about that experience?
I’m really looking forward to celebrating the students who are coming in as the inaugural class. I think it’s a rare opportunity to put a mark on the House’s history, and, by extension, Penn’s history. Students will determine some traditions for the House and build the House identity, like a House coat of arms and a House motto. I’m excited for those students to lead and be involved in really good conversations about how they want to represent themselves as a College House and represent the House to the Penn community.
What about the Class of 2024, those who did not have a typical freshman experience at Penn?
They’re going to be able to experience life in a College House in a new way but still bring and apply the level of expertise and experience that they’ve been able to gain from their first year. Their insight and input are so valuable. And the level of enthusiasm that I hope that they will bring, since this is going to be a new and different chance for them as they live on campus, is exciting.
What are you most excited about, and what challenges do you foresee?
I’m thrilled to build a new team and develop a plan to create the New College House West experience from scratch. And getting the students involved right from the beginning, really engaging them in that process of building the House identity and making sure that their voices are uplifted and incorporated.
Amy and I have been talking about the basic structure of our plans and touch points where we want to get the students involved. As we identify our new house fellows and undergraduate and graduate resident advisers, they will be involved in the initial planning.
I think there are always challenges with unknowns. Amy and I have been talking about ideas for programming, focusing on creativity and innovation and engagement. We are also developing a plan for how the space will be utilized. We want to make sure that we’re able to really have our students on board and working together to be able to care for the space and maintain it. One of the beautiful parts of this process is that we are able to adapt as we work to meet students’ needs.
What are your favorite special features?
The Quaker Kitchen, structured as a demonstration or teaching kitchen, is one of the features I am most intrigued by. Students will be able to participate in cooking demonstrations with the chefs and learn about different cooking techniques and how to prepare a range of meals, and then of course enjoy the food they prepare. The design is fantastic, a welcoming space that lends itself to sharing a meal. One of the things that I think is so wonderful is that it aligns nicely with the design of the rest of the building. We might build off of those lessons with programming and activities to use the community kitchens to encourage students to try out the techniques that they’ve learned, further enhancing that skill development. The Quaker Kitchen is going to bring a whole different creative level of education and fun to our community around food.
The study rooms are spacious and bright and will allow students to come together to work on projects. The project-development space that allows for use of technology with screens set up so the students can use their devices and see their work and collaborate in different ways. It’s just a great spot and promotes creative thought and play, I think, with the way that it’s designed and with furniture that will support interaction and working together.
What are you thinking about as you prepare to move into your apartment with your family?
The apartments have the kind of the open floor plan that, when it’s appropriate to do so, we will be able to welcome the students into our homes for dinners and discussions and provide another place where students can feel like they're at home. We went through the building a couple of weeks ago and when I walked onto the floor I immediately thought, ‘Oh, how cool would it be to develop progressive dinners with people flowing in and out and being able to interact with each other.’ We can use the space to promote community and bring that personal connection.