The Penn Family Center turns 10

When Stephanie Pierson showed up to a support group for Penn students who have children, she didn’t expect that everyone would be crying within the first five minutes, herself included.

Cartoon of a parent and child reading between two similarly-sized buildings.

“It was just this collective sigh,” she remembers. “Everybody knew the pent-up anxiety and frustration we were all dealing with.” The room included students from all around campus, “but everybody was feeling the same,” she says. “I don’t know how to do this while having a family.”

“It can be hard to find your student parent community at Penn,” says Kendra Hypolite. That’s why, 10 years ago, the Penn Family Center was born.

Today, Hypolite serves as associate director of the Family Center, the student parent support group that Pierson had discovered. But the center’s family-focused efforts extend far beyond that.

Hypolite says people often assume that the Penn Family Center is a daycare program. In fact, onsite childcare is one of the few things it doesn’t offer. “We see ourselves as a hub—a place to deliver programming and resources, but also to connect and advocate for student parents,” Hypolite says. At last count, there were roughly 1,300 Penn students who are parents. The center is open to any of them on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Membership is free, and around 600 students are active members.

 Jessica Bolker has been working with the Family Center since its earliest days and became its director in 2017. Noting that Penn was “very much at the vanguard” with its Family Center, Bolker says the University is still the only Ivy League school with a dedicated family center on its campus.

Launching a family center “was not only about supporting our Penn students,” Bolker says, “but also supporting the academic pipeline, and making sure academia is as diverse as possible.”

When it opened, the center was housed on the second floor of Houston Hall, inside a dance studio. On weekday mornings, Family Center staff would push in their furniture and toys and books and stuffed animals from nearby storage rooms. At 3 p.m., they’d clear it all out again. “Everything was on wheels,” Bolker remembers. “It was a process, but we made it work.” Still, she says, “it didn’t feel like a permanent home.”

After several years of the center-on-wheels shuffle, the Family Center found its current home inside the Graduate Student Center in 2014. “That’s when the whole thing blossomed,” Bolker says. The staff expanded and membership swelled. Evening and weekend events became possible.

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.