4/11/2014 Peter Durantine

The College House Experience: Celebrating a Decade of Community

When Franklin & Marshall College's faculty and administrators transformed the campus' centuries-old dormitory system into student-run College Houses in 2005, they anticipated a period of adjustment, as students grew accustomed to the new residential culture.

Instead, F&M's students immediately embraced the College Houses, each one a self-governing collective with a distinctive identity and form of government within the greater campus community.

The Houses, which mark their 10th year this fall, merged academic and residential life and formed what College officials called third spaces -- common ground where student and faculty can come together for informal discussions and gatherings. 

"I don't think we were prepared for how quickly it all happened," said Todd DeKay, who was the first dean of Ware College House and today serves as the associate dean of the College and director of disability services. "It was quite remarkable."

  • Bonchek Welcome: Bonchek College House residents embrace what has become a House tradition of welcoming new and returning Franklin & Marshall College students. (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • For students, the Houses' weekly bagel breakfasts are a must-attend event. Residents catch up with their Housemates and chat with F&M's resident faculty members. (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • House residents frequently invite their professors to speak on the issues of the day. Here, Ware College House Don Joel Eigen moderates an F&M faculty panel discussion at Ware College House. (Photo by Eric Forberger)
  • The Houses host a range of activities to stimulate the mind. This reading group at Brooks College House, led by Professor of French Lisa Gasbarrone, discusses Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables." (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • Each of F&M's five Houses has its own crest to identify the House and denote its purpose. Banners are carried into Convocation at the academic year's start in August and into Commencement in May. (Photo by Nick Gould)
  • Art exhibits, such as this display of modern art at Brooks College House, are among the creative and intellectual experiences common in the Houses. (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • House residents frequently say they feel their House is like a second family. Junior Andre Douglas and sophomore Dillan DeCaro enjoy some down time in his room at New College House. (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • House residents take pride in supporting the community. Here, first-year student Alex Mederos, of Brooks College House, prepares local elementary students for a basketball shooting challenge. (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • The Houses are venues for thought-provoking speakers. Philadelphia broadcast journalist and author Larry Kane shares stories of covering the Beatles with students in New College House. (Photo by Krissy Montville '14)
  • F&M faculty who serve as House dons and deans, such as Professor of Sociology Joel Eigen, don of Ware College House, say they enjoy the opportunities to talk with students outside the classroom. (Photo by Melissa Hess)
  • Each House is named for a benefactor of the College. Here, Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield speaks at the dedication of Weis College House in 2011. (Photo by Nick Gould)
  • The Houses offer spaces for intellectual stimulation, studying, and socializing. For these students at Brooks College House, it's a game of cards to relax after a day of classes. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Former F&M President John Fry proposed the College House system in 2002. After three years of far-reaching research by a committee that included representatives of colleges that had such systems, F&M in 2005 opened four College Houses: Bonchek, Brooks, Schnader (now Weis) and Ware. In 2011, New College House opened.

F&M now has been through two four-year cycles of the College House experience. Whenever he describes the College House to friends attending colleges elsewhere, junior Andre Douglas said they inevitably tell him, "It sounds Harry Potter-esque."

And, indeed, many current students who've grown up with the fictional Harry Potter and his Hogwarts School understand the College House structure better than they do the dormitories they would find on the majority of other campuses.

An English major, Douglas lives in New College House, where as a sophomore he served as the Senate Scribe. He said that he's afforded many opportunities to participate in various activities such as serving as House Advisor, a mentor for students in the House, as well as the governance of the house. 

"Through the College House system I've become involved in things I wouldn't have known about," Douglas said.

The House system originated in England and was developed at the likes of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Those colleges encourage competition -- particularly in sport -- between houses, whereas F&M's house model promotes cooperation.

"We've actively resisted pitting the houses in friendly competition," F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield told parents during Homecoming and Family Weekend in October 2013. "They engage collaboratively, and that builds mutual respect."

Since opening nine years ago, the College Houses have transformed the campus culture, expanded classroom experiences, and enhanced the college curriculum, New College House Don Dean Hammer said.

Hammer, The John W. Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government, said the College Houses have effectively merged residential life and the life of the mind, creating an atmosphere where students feel comfortable exchanging ideas and learning from each other.

"I think the houses have started broadening for students what is possible," Hammer said.

Each College House also has an administrative dean on the premises. Dons and deans guide and counsel the residents of their Houses and help them launch new student initiatives.

Among ways House leaders work together is by pooling resources -- each House has an annual budget for initiatives -- to jointly host speakers or hold events. Last fall, for example, Brooks and Bonchek College Houses jointly conducted a contra dance.

"Inter-house collaboration is a critical part of the success of the model," said Brooks President Mark Harmon-Vaught, a junior.

He said he and his fellow House leaders want each House to develop its own individual identity, while still cooperating collegially in the spirit of growing a larger form of F&M pride.

"We work hard to collaborate and foster a more unified community arising, as it should, from the Houses themselves."

A Faculty Presence

Borrowing from the Oxford and Cambridge models, F&M's College Houses have onsite faculty members (a don and a dean) as advisers, residence halls, and large, open common areas -- those third spaces where faculty and students meet for organized events and informal discussions.

"It's a setting where faculty and students meet for intellectual conversation," said Joel Eigen, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, who is in his ninth year as don of Ware College House

Screening films such as F&M Professor of Film and Media Studies Dirk Eitzen's documentary, "The Amish and Us," talks such as "Crisis in Crimea," featuring three faculty members from the History, Russian and Government departments, and lectures on such topics as "The Future of Hunger," are examples of the intellectual conversations at the College Houses.

A 35-year professor who built a career engaging with students in the classroom, Eigen said as a don he has gained more insight into the students of F&M than he might have if the old dormitory system persisted. "They want to be taken seriously as scholars," he said.

Brooks College House Don Lynn Brooks said she has seen College Houses positively affect the way students engage with faculty and one another. Students are finding greater opportunities for personal and intellectual growth, she said, laying the groundwork for a more civil and diverse campus.

"The College Houses have created a real sense of identification for the students," said Brooks, F&M's Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and Dance. "They are important forums where the students can make friends, share ideas, and step into leadership roles."

Dons and deans are required to have an office in their College House, but may still keep their department offices. Brooks, in her second year as don, chose to have just one office -- in Brooks College House.

"I love the proximity to the students," Brooks said. "I get to know the students in a different way here because we don't have that artificial factor that grading presents. They don't have to impress me or hold something back."

Students say the setting makes it easier for them to meet new people in their first few weeks on campus. Once they settle in, the House becomes like home, and their fellow students a family.

That sense of community, of not feeling alone on those first days away from home, appealed to Arissa Brown, a senior from Utah and member of Weis College House, and her sister, Jordan, a first-year student in Ware College House.

"It was definitely one of the bigger factors in my coming to F&M," Arissa Brown said. "Weis made it like more than just a community. You really had a home away from home."

Mutual Ground

Before the College Houses and their third spaces, faculty and students had few places on campus where they could informally meet, Eigen said. He recalled bumping into a Ware resident at a House bagel breakfast one morning and asking him about a class the student was taking. Before long, they were engaged in a stirring conversation about medieval law.

"I would never have had that conversation before," Eigen said. "It has established a greater continuous connection between my life and the student's life."

Assistant Dean of the College Suzanna Richter, dean of New College House, said third-space conversations between faculty and students have enhanced the teaching and learning experience at F&M. "It's a transfer of knowledge that would not have happened before," she said.

One purpose of a don and dean is to provide guidance when students feel they need some.

"There's a sense of relief among the students that they're not alone," Richter said, after meeting with a student in her New College House office. "And giving them advice tells them that there are options to consider."

As much as the students embrace having faculty advisers available to them in the College Houses, they embrace equally the opportunities the Houses give them to govern themselves. Each House elects its leaders, organizes a government body, establishes rules for conduct and order, and develops policies that ensure the House is well maintained.

Bonchek College House resident Gina DiBenedetto, a House leader who mediates disputes among her fellows, said the Houses have enhanced all aspects of her F&M experience.

"It not only made my social experiences better, but, academically, I felt more comfortable going to college," DiBenedetto said. "Just knowing there were two faculty members in the House who knew me enough to care made a big difference."

Students such as DiBenedetto, and Brooks College House Adviser Caitlin Brust, a senior English literature and philosophy major, said getting involved in their House governments exposed them to significant social and academic opportunities, such as learning to create and organize events.

"It's kind of a gentle invitation to do things in college," Brust said, quoting an F&M professor. "This is the perfect setting to figure out what you want to do."

Brust, a senior, chose to stay at Brooks this academic year rather than follow the typical upperclassman path and rent an off-campus apartment. At her House's weekly bagel breakfasts, she sees the lasting effect the residential community has on her fellows.

"There are a lot of upperclassmen who come back for breakfast and still talk about the House as if they're still living in it," she said.

If there's a test of the College Houses' effectiveness, Eigen said, it's the reactions he gets from parents and alumni who are hearing about the Houses for the first time.

"Invariably, I hear, 'This isn't the school I went to.' And I say, 'No, it's not the school you went to. The College Houses have made it an entirely different experience.'"

Sharing an example of how he believes the College Houses cultivate a culture of belonging and inquisitiveness, Hammer recalled observing students who attended an informal lecture with National Public Radio legal correspondent Nina Totenberg.

"They were sitting in their living room. They were sitting where they had experiences, where they had bagel breakfasts, where they watched movies, and they were talking with someone who they admired and grew up listening to," Hammer said. "I remember standing there and thinking, 'This is what it's about.'"

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