A ‘surreal’ experience as students move into New College House West

One-hundred and forty-three members of the first residents to live in New College House West moved in on Friday, Aug. 27, marking the second phase of Move-In and the opening of a new facility on campus.

Penn President Amy Gutmann and a student elbow-bump as a greeting
Alberto Abad, a new resident of New College House West, elbow-bumps Penn President Amy Gutmann. President Gutmann welcomed new students during Move-In and toured the house alongside students and staff on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

Inside New College House West, it’s immediately apparent that it lives up to its name: It is, at its core, a modern imagining of a college house. Windows are ever-present no matter what corner you turn, inviting nature inside. Contemporary furniture and appliances take up residence in communal kitchens and smart classrooms sit adjacent to a large Quaker Kitchen equipped with video cameras for teaching. Even the wood that makes up a rail bar in the Main Lounge practically glistens in the sunlight, like a beaming welcome from a building that’s as excited for its new residents as they are to come inside.

Today, like those moving into it, New College House West begins its story at Penn.

In total, 427 students will live in New College House West, consisting of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. A third of the house’s students—143—moved in on Friday, Aug. 27, and were welcomed in-person by Penn President Amy Gutmann. Sophomores make up 303 of those new residents, many of whom will be experiencing campus for the first time after taking classes remotely since spring 2020.

“It’s so surreal,” says Yune Kim, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences from Knoxville, Tennessee, who is living on campus for the first time at New College House West. “It’s like, ‘Am I supposed to be here?’ Because I’ve been at home all year last year. I think that once I start seeing more people and taking classes, it will feel more real to me, but for right now it feels like an out-of-body experience.”

Penn President Amy Gutmann poses in front of staff of New College House West
Penn President Amy Gutmann with New College House West staff on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

She notes that she’s a bit nervous about being on campus and not knowing the area very well, but excited to see people whom she’s met virtually through joining student clubs as a first year, and through classes.

Alberto Abad, a business management senior in the Wharton School who transferred from a university in Madrid, Spain, says he initially was accepted to Penn in 2020, but deferred once the pandemic hit. To be on campus now and living in the brand-new New College House West facility is surreal for him as well.

“I didn’t believe it until I stepped onto the university,” he says with a laugh.

As the semester starts, he’s most looking forward to meeting his professors. But for now, after moving in on Monday and mostly being alone, he’s just excited to meet his two new roommates, who moved in Friday amidst the bustle of students and their families hauling carts through the halls.

New College House West has had a long road to its debut: It is a $163-million, 250,000-square-foot facility that began construction in early 2018 and completed construction this spring. It’s bounded by Locust Walk and Walnut and 40th streets and was designed by architects from Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who also designed Lauder College House and took student and staff surveys into account when designing New College House West.

Among the building’s indoor features, in addition to 452 undergraduate bedrooms, are a Main Club Lounge, a fitness and wellness center, music practice rooms, classrooms and seminar rooms, study rooms, communal kitchens, the yet-to-open Café West coffee shop, and a unique Quaker Kitchen space that will feature programming centered around learning the fundamentals of food preparation and nutrition. There are also countless seating areas throughout the building meant to encourage a communal environment, some of which boast stunning corner views of Locust Walk with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Outdoors is a green space that is open to everyone and can host public events for 600 to 1,300 people. There are also outdoor areas accessible from inside the building, like a bridge seating area on the second floor that overlooks the community green space and an adjoining courtyard.

New College House exterior and green
New College House West and its courtyard, with trees strategically placed to make room for future event programming. (Image: Greg Benson)

One theme of the house’s design: engagement.

Lisa Lewis, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and faculty director of College Houses and Academic Services (CHAS), says the need for New College House West was twofold: as a space to accommodate sophomores, who for the first time this year are required to live on-campus and have a dining plan, and to invigorate 40th Street.

“In terms of where the house is situated, it’s another house that’s close to West Philly neighbors, and so I think as the University leadership was thinking about what this new house could bring, it wasn’t just about a space for bodies, but about how to make it vibrant,” Lewis says. “And connected not just to the Penn campus, but also to West Philly more broadly. There will be spaces for the general public to come in and there will be a coffee bar where people will come in and buy coffee and sit. It’s an open door, if you will, and it’s being good neighbors.”

Karu Kozuma, executive director of CHAS, says he’s eager to see how students ultimately use the new space.

“It may be designed a certain way, but students will make it their own,” Kozuma says. “And our role in CHAS is to support that, as long as it’s safe and inclusive. But if students want to take an approach to a physical space or programming space, it is sometimes a blank canvas in many ways.”

Benjamin Glass, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology and a graduate resident assistant at New College House West, who was on-site for Friday’s Move-In to welcome new residents, echoes that keen anticipation of how the space evolves.

Back of T-shirt that reads NCHWest Create, NCHWest Engage, NCHWest Care
Benjamin Glass, a graduate resident assistant at New College House West, wearing a T-shirt that lists some of the themes of the house.

“I’m really excited to see how this space ends up getting used,” Glass says, citing the courtyard and especially the communal kitchens on most floors. “New College House West was built with community at the center,” he says. “The way the residence is built, I’m excited to see all that hard work pay off with our residents and see how they build community with one another.”

He adds that he and other resident assistants have been conscious of how to accommodate sophomore students who are living on campus for the first time.

“We’re sort of understanding that the needs of sophomores this year are more similar to the needs of freshmen in a normal year, and we’re putting thought into what kinds of resources and programs we want to promote to help them with that transition,” says Glass.

Kozuma, meanwhile, encourages sophomores who are new to campus to ease into the experience.

“I think if second-years can take pressure off themselves, that’s my advice,” he says. “For any year, actually. We project what we think we should know at a certain point and if we don’t reach it, we pile on. But for the returning Class of 2024, they had a distinctive first year, and they won’t know building names, etc. But that’s OK, and we’ll be there for each other.”

Chaz Howard, vice president for social equity and community, expressed gratitude for the “deep sacrifice” of RAs, GRAs, and faculty directors for “working while at home.” Moreover, he encouraged live-in residents to take care of each other, especially on the back of a difficult year.

“There’s a lot of strange transitions and newness right now,” Howard says. “And I think New College House West in so many ways embodies this sort of transition in newness that our whole world and country and campus are feeling. It’s a physical manifestation of this new chapter and season, and I think that’s beautiful.”

People strolling Locust Walk with suitcases and move-in carts
Move-In, as seen from Locust Walk on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.