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The First Student Union: The Change Within Houston Hall


By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House


Source: Fine Art America

At the center of Penn’s campus alongside iconic buildings like College Hall and landmarks like the Benjamin Franklin Statue, Houston Hall has had a long history at Penn as a center of social, recreational, educational and cultural activity, and in 2018, the hall has over 120 years of serving the Penn community. Quite recently, the Penn community has begun to adjust to the top-to-bottom renovation of the basement’s Houston Market, completed over Summer 2018. But, with all of this in mind, it seems right to look back at the long history of Houston Hall and how this year’s renovations are just an extension of the hall’s purpose and intention that it’s adopted since its conception.

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Source: University Archives & Record Center, Houston Club Booklet


As many Penn community members may be aware of, Houston Hall started as the first student union in the nation and opened on January 2, 1896. Generally, the student union was meant to serve as a university’s community center for recreation and socialization and often was the host of student affairs and even student governance which can be seen now. As the first student union in the United States, Houston had some liberty to gather influence and set the tone for what would eventually become a common center at any modern university. In particular, Houston drew its inspiration from Cambridge University and Oxford University, where the first union would be established in 1823. However, it wouldn’t be for another 70 years that Penn Trustees would decide to provide students with their own center.

After their decision, Trustee Charles Harrison would announce a competition amongst students and recent graduates who would have the opportunity to design the building. Soon after, two students, William C. Hays, and Milton Bennett Medary Jr. would win the competition and have their designs combined into the architectural style of college gothic and ultimately executed by Philadelphia-based architect, Frank Miles Day. It seemed only natural that the student center for the university would be designed by two architecture students. In order to finance the project, Trustee Harrison was luckily able to secure a donation of $100,000 from Trustee Henry Howard Houston and his wife Sallie S. Houston. Interestingly enough, the building is not technically named for Trustee Houston as it was actually named for his late son Henry Howard Houston Jr. who had unfortunately passed the year after his graduation from the university in 1878.

Once the hall was completed in 1896, the doors would eventually open to the student body. One significant activity that emerged at the beginning would have to be the Houston Club. This club was founded to, as stated in their constitution, “draw together students, officers, and alumni of all Departments of the University in a wholesome social life, and to provide for them suitable amusements and recreations.” The club would soon after establish an internal leadership which many accredit to the first semblance of student governance at Penn. Besides leadership, they also established three committees that were meant to help in the operation of Houston and included the House Committee, in charge of maintaining Houston’s various amenities, the Membership Committee, in charge of admission of new members, and the Library Committee, in charge of all reading material. Interestingly enough, Houston Club was only open to tuition-paying male students at the time, and thus, with the creation of Bennett Hall, the Bennet Club would be created as a female version of this club. As a club, this student group had much influence over the maintenance and usage of Houston Hall. However, this would only last until 1929 when it was replaced by the more inclusive Houston Hall Board, then in 1969 when it was replaced by the Penn Union Council and finally, transform into the modern Social Planning and Events Committee.

With this historical information in mind, it is possible to understand how the services that Houston Hall provides has changed over time. In particular, the original Houston Hall would be almost unrecognizable to many Penn students now and to some degree, would draw in a sense of awe for what was once provided. For example, the original Houston Hall of the late 19th century had such amenities as a billiards room, a chess room, a trophy room, a gym, a pool, and even bowling lanes! At first glance, it was amazing that Penn once had their own bowling lane which is something I’ve only ever occasionally heard in movies and would love to have on campus. But, then I consider what’s in its place now and realize that Houston Market takes up the area.

As I mentioned, Houston Market recently went through their own renovation, valued at around $15 million, and expanded the number of dining options available for everyone. Actually, the last renovation Houston Hall underwent was about 20 years ago. This renovated Houston Market now serves from eight different stations with expanded hours. While the response has been mostly positive, there has been some discussion on the ever-changing purpose of Houston Hall. In an article published on September 20 in the DP, one contributor noted the shift from Houston being purely about student socialization to being mostly a place to work and dine. This opinion piece noted how students nowadays find it harder to locate a central place to completely relax and meet in today’s busy community and believe socializing in Houston has changed. With all of this in mind, it’s clear that Houston Hall has remained a dynamic building on campus.

Overall, the new renovations of Summer 2018 seem to be a part of the constantly evolving intent of Houston Hall. While Houston is still a place where people congregate to eat and do work, the purpose has definitely changed since its conception in 1896 as recreational activities like pool tables and TV rooms mostly exist within college houses. Even though the conversation continues on campus, this walkthrough of Houston Hall’s history has only solidified its status as a staple of Penn’s campus.



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Caught In The Sun: A Reflection on Penn Students’ Summer Activity

By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House

While the heat begins to fade on campus, it is undeniable that the summer season is winding down for Penn students. Besides returning to Philadelphia, another significant stepping stone of the summer is the end of the various summer experiences Penn students participate in. As we all begin another year, everyone has to catch up on what they’ve been doing for the last three months. Whether it’s an internship, travel or simply heading back home, Penn students are sure to have exciting and interesting stories about their summers. But, the question always comes up: what do Penn students typically do over the summer? While we’re still fresh off the heels of Summer 2018, we can look back at previous years to see what Penn students tend to do over the summer.

Published in January 2018 by Career Services, their report presents a breakdown of the results of a questionnaire surveying students on their Summer 2017 activities. [Add link/source of the report.] For starters, with over 3,000 responses, over 70% of students in all three surveyed populations worked over the summer. The next two highest activities common amongst students include completing classes and traveling or taking time off. In particular, sophomores were more likely to complete classes or travel/ take time off. Interestingly, more than three-quarters of students had a paid position. Though the report does not clarify what types of positions were held, this is amazing because there’s always so much talk around unpaid internships and how difficult they can be for students to participate in. Overall, the numbers point to an overwhelmingly involved and active summer for many students.

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2017 Career Services Summer Survey

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2017 Career Services Summer Survey

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2017 Career Services Summer Survey

After understanding the general picture, the report additionally outlines where people were employed. For example, most Sophomores and Juniors stayed in Pennsylvania while Seniors mostly went to New York. However, most people who responded to the survey either were in New York, Pennsylvania or California. The summer destination of Penn students additionally makes sense when you consider what they were doing. Most Seniors and Juniors worked in Finance which is a clear reflection of the business-oriented mindset of many students at Penn. Most Sophomores were involved in the Education industry, though there is no detail as to what this entails. Similarly to the state, most surveyed students worked in three distinct industries: Finance, Education and Technology. With both the industry and geographic distribution in mind, the map of where people worked in becomes clearer.

If we dive deeper into the common employers for students, it’s easy to see that Penn employs the most students over the summer. Whether it’s doing research with a professor or working at the hospital, a summer in Philadelphia almost seems like a staple for many students for their time at Penn. Other than Penn, the employers tend to vary between years. Seniors worked with employers like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Juniors worked with employers like the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia or J.P. Morgan. Many Sophomores stayed within the university’s many departments such as the Perelman School of Medicine. Though there are definitely trends around what students did, there are still so many ways to diversify your experience. With this one report, it’s possible to get a picture of what students generally do, even if the results for Summer 2018 have yet to be published.

When considering that Penn is one of the largest summer employers, the scope of support from Penn becomes that much more noteworthy. Whether it’s providing research positions, opportunities abroad through organizations like the International Internship Program or On-Campus Recruiting, Penn provides many paths to finding positions over the summer. However, in addition to this, another valuable service the university has begun to provide would have to be funding for these summer opportunities. As a result of generous donors, Career Services was able to provide about $3,500 for a select amount of students to cover expenses for unpaid or underpaid experiences in the summer.

In particular, this service holds great significance to me because it funded my own summer experience. For the summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Department of State’s internship at the US Embassy in Lima, Peru under the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement section. For ten weeks, I was able to meet with high-ranking officials in the foreign service, participate in daily, embassy work, interact with Peruvians from all sectors, write and edit government reports and learn about regional and national politics hands-on and out in the field. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without funding from Penn to support my transportation, living expenses, and food. With their support, I had significantly less stress about financial logistics and was able to fully immerse myself in the experience, and I don’t doubt the funding made every other recipient’s summer experience that much less stressful.


US Embassy in Lima, Peru (The place I spent my summer of 2018)

Overall, while the summer season has ended for Penn students, many come back to campus with great experiences working, taking classes or simply going home. The professional culture at Penn is a staple of the undergraduate experience, and it’s always best when Penn can help smoothen that process and provide an extensive list of resources!


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Spring Fling 2.0: The Evolution of a Penn Tradition

By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House


Source: The Daily Pennsylvanian

As another year comes to a close on Penn’s campus, it’s quite unavoidable to reminisce about the semester that has just passed and all of the events that came with it. While some were much less Penn-oriented such as the 2018 Super Bowl Championship of the Philadelphia Eagles and others a more Penn-centered type of event such as the continued dialogues with former Vice President, and current Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor, Joe Biden, Penn students had a variety of events to attend and participate in. One of those events, a classic Penn tradition, saw a significant shift than traditionally known by which many people were intrigued by. That event would be this year’s Spring Fling, held around three weeks ago close to the end of the semester. Spring Fling, technically started in 1949, has traditionally been a weekend of celebration through carnival-style activities, typically in the Quad, a Saturday-night concert and numerous off-campus parties. But, this year’s fling experienced a soft reboot, of sorts, with various elements being changed. But, before we embark on all of the noise, it’s best to understand how Spring Fling began.

Spring Fling began in 1949, but it went by a different name then. What we now know of as Spring Fling used to be called Callow Day back in the day. The source of the name comes from Penn’s famous varsity heavyweight crew coach of the time, Russell “Rusty” Callow, and the seeds of the celebration would begin one time Coach Callow mentioned that the crew team would lose significant support if something wasn’t done to improve attendance. In response, a group of students gathered at the banks of the Schuylkill with straw hats, Callow’s signature look, and would continuously return even after Callow’s departure until the celebration eventually became Skimmer Day. The celebration soon would become a “weekend of social, musical and athletic events both along the River and on-campus” that saw people enjoy the crew races but also jazz bands, motorcades, concerts, dances and much more. Soon enough, the event would become so popular that attendance was soaring and tickets were sold to attempt to limit the massive crowds at the races. With this massive crowd, however, comes the massive hysteria that accompanies the partying and alcohol known to be associated with Skimmer Day. While many years saw action, 1955 and 1963 were particularly held as one of the worst Skimmer Days as those celebrations saw mass arrests, destruction of public property and hostility between students and cops. After the rowdy events of 1963, Skimmer Day was canceled in 1964 and wouldn’t be reintroduced to Penn until the next year. Around 1971, Skimmer Day had begun to fade the minds of students who preferred to participate in private gatherings and other external events instead of school-sponsored events. It wouldn’t be until 1973 that Skimmer Day would be reinvented by a group of students who wanted to bring back the spirit of the celebration into the Spring Fling we know today. Though the history of this tradition has had a long and complicated one, it survives to this day and is a highly-anticipated event. Though we cannot ignore the scandalous events associated with the event as students, it has become a much more tamed celebration for students to let out the stress of the spring semester before finals at the end of the semester arrive.


Source: The Daily Pennsylvanian

Now, with regards to this years celebration, one would think with the announced changes and the history of the day there would be another complete shift for the celebration. But, in actuality, the celebration has not drastically changed as much as it has before. Some of the big changes include the more contentious shift of the Saturday carnival to Penn Park form the Quad and the shift of the concert from Franklin Field to Penn Park as well. The overall Spring Fling has also been shortened down to one day as it used to generally be a two-day celebration. While the performer for the concert usually draws jubilant anticipation for weeks before, this year’s “throwback” headliners generated mixed reviews. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported on April 17, the week after, that the concert seemed to have had a lower turnout. They also reported potential reasons for the lower turnout which include disappointment by upperclassmen of the move from the Quad and Franklin Field while others just weren’t as interested in the performers. The question arises as to what there can be done with regards to sentiment for this year’s fling by organizers such as SPEC. It is clear that they wanted to create a much more succinct experience in one day and were probably limited in the amount they can put on, but this year’s fling should send signs that the transition wasn’t so well received. As a current student, I find myself agreeing with many people in that the celebration didn’t seem as expansive and exciting as previous years. Many of my friends opted out of various school-sponsored events and instead attended private events off-campus. While SPEC put on a well-planned event with lots of free food and activities at the carnival and a multitude of artists, I believe many students would want Spring Fling to be revitalized with the excitement it used to have. While not an easy task, I believe that SPEC and all organizations associated with the celebration are more than capable of reigniting interests for this nearly 70-year-old celebration.

Overall, this traditional celebration held near the end of the spring term continues to be a place for people to let some stress out before finals come creeping up on us. Spring Fling is widely anticipated by every student to celebrate the arrival of spring and can hopefully continue for students in an appropriate, exciting, new way for future generations of Penn students.

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Fling was Flung

By Kiera Reilly, C’93

Photos contributed by Derek Braslow, Lisa Grabelle, Howard Levene, Wendy Spander, and Joel Yarbrough

Spring Fling weekend at Penn was a two-day festival held in April in the Quad. During the day there were food vendors, student performing arts groups and bands would sing or dance on a stage in the Lower Quad, and often there were games and other activities in the Upper Quad. At night there were concerts with popular bands or comedians performing in Irvine or Hill Field our senior year.

We remember fondly the fun we had at Fling each year, even though it seemed like it was often cold and wet. Amazingly, we have photos from Fling – and t-shirts – that our classmates shared with us. Take this trip down memory lane of Spring Fling 1990 – 1993.

Spring Fling our Freshman year was called, “Fling in Wonderland.”


Spring Fling’s theme in 1990 was, “the Wild Fling.”



Penn Spring Fling

Photo courtesy of Derek Braslow. We think this is from a Fling – it looks like a Fling photo!

Spring Fling Junior year was, “Mardi Gras at Penn.”

Penn Spring Fling

Spring Fling photo courtesy of Lisa Grabelle



Penn Spring Fling

Spring Fling in the Lower Quad, photo courtesy of Joel Yarbrough

Our Senior year, it was a, “Three Ring Fling.”


Penn Spring Fling by Wendy Spander

Spring Fling senior year – we think – photo courtesy of Wendy Spander



Penn Spring Fling

Fling was a bit muddy



Penn Spring Fling

Spring Fling crowds in the Quad

Read our previous Spring Fling posts:

Spring Fling Concerts

Student Bands at Fling

This year, for the first time since it began in the 70’s, Penn’s Spring Fling was moved to Penn Park and was only on one day. We wonder how the students of today will remember Fling. Do you remember Fling when you were a student?

Penn Class of 1993 25th Reunion #93tothe25th

Penn Class of 1993 25th Reunion Countdown

The weekend of April 13 – 14, marked 4 weeks until the 25th Reunion of the Penn Class of 1993 (May 11 – 14, 2018)! Meet us at the Button!

Register NOW to attend our 25th Reunion!

Join us we count down the weeks to our reunion #93tothe25th:

  • Follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.
  • Classmates are invited to join our Facebook and LinkedIn groups.
  • Donate to The Penn Fund in honor of our reunion! We want to break the 25th reunion participation giving record and every gift matters!
  • Do you have old photos or mementos from our time at Penn? Photos of Spring Fling? Football at Franklin Field? Classes at DRL? We are taking a trip down memory lane and would love for you to share your memories with our class in a future post. Please email us!
  • Book your hotel room or AirBnB now! See our class website for details.



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The Mesopotamian Endeavor: Penn Museum’s Archaeological Exhibit About the Middle East


Source: Philly Fun

As the current home of towering pharaohs and ornate headdresses of royals from about 5,000 years ago, the Penn Museum stands on the edge of campus as an institute of archaeology in the university. The museum, as one of the oldest buildings on Penn’s campus, also has their fair share of achievements throughout their lengthy life. The museum is one of the greatest archaeology and anthropology research museums in the world and the largest university museum in the United States. However, sometimes it’s distance from the center of campus makes the museum seem too far for the average student to visit and learn about. Well, just in luck for the average student, the museum is actually embarking on opening a new exhibit that has been in the making for over a 100 years. The name of the exhibit is the Middle East Galleries, opening on April 21, 2018, that has been advertised as covering “8,000 years of history in 6,000 square feet of gallery space,” and seen as a huge endeavor for the museum.

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1899 Excavation of Nippur, Iraq; Source: Penn Museum’s A Brief History of the Penn Museum

However, before we embark on the details of this magnificent exhibit, it will help us to understand a little bit of the history of the museum and just how long this exhibit has technically been in the making. The Penn Museum was founded in 1887 when Provost William Pepper eagerly assisted an archaeological expedition go to Mesopotamia that approached him with the proposal. The eagerness behind the support was due partly to Provost Pepper’s efforts to lead the university through a renaissance that would allow it to become a modern university. Soon after, the group would embark on their archeological expedition after securing funding and support from the university as a host of the archeological findings. The expedition would head to Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city in modern day Iraq, that would soon enough establish the university within the world of archaeology. Provost Pepper would soon after establish the Department of Archaeology and Paleontology, and the university’s museum would be known to be mostly filled with items members of the university excavated themselves. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 1894 that Provost Pepper was able to purchase land from the City of Philadelphia where they could formally build the museum in its own building. The museum, after further development, would go on to famous projects like the Excavation at Ur in modern-Iraq until now when it plans to open its new exhibit.


Source: Penn Museum Website

This new exhibit, the Middle East Galleries, as stated before, has technically been in the making since the conception of the museum. The first expeditions that the museum supported were to ancient Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, in Nippur. The purpose of these expeditions soon became centered around understanding the first examples of humans settling down into sedentary lifestyles where they farmed and lived in established cities. This transition in lifestyle has been one of the most important transitions in human history because it determined the lives we live now. This phenomenon, called the Neolithic Revolution, saw the humans of the time transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the farmer lifestyle which gave way to various societal developments like writing and the construction of cities. The exhibit will begin at this point in human history and attempt to portray to the public the way life used to be during this time as understood through various items of the time.

With all of this information, the focus of the exhibit can be understood to be focused on the idea of settlement and the establishment of cities. Through various promotional material, the museum hopes to take the visitor from the settlements of humans nearly 10,000 years ago up until the modern age. On their website, the museum has released various videos about the process of such an endeavor which includes topics like conservation and how to understand the people of this time. One video in particular speaks about how this exhibit will have a focus on understanding the 99%. By the 99%, this refers to the general people of the time who weren’t royalty and who couldn’t afford extravagant temples or eloquent headpieces. The exhibit will attempt to focus on the lives of the people and how they lived day-to-day. Another video outlines how the discovery of an iron sword, being displayed in the exhibit, is representative of a transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and how people began to make weapons differently. With this being just a sneak peek of the content, the exhibit is almost guaranteed to amaze and intrigue its various visitors in late April.

Overall, the exhibit is likely to be another achievement of the museum that hopes to portray a story of early humans and how these things we call cities came to be. When considering the history of the Penn Museum, it will be interesting to see how developed and detailed the exhibit will be as it has been in the making for quite some time. Lucky for us, the exhibit opens on April 21, which is this Saturday. For all alumni who will be coming back to campus in May, this is a perfect opportunity to experience this new exhibit at Penn during Alumni Weekend, beginning on May 11. You don’t want to miss out!

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Reaching Out to West Philadelphia: The Work of the Netter Center and Penn in the Neighborhood

By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House


Source: Netter Center Collection

Since the second half of the 19th century with the move of the university from the 9th and Market/ Chestnut region, the University of Pennsylvania has shared a common land with the community of West Philadelphia. Though our geographical neighbor, learning and venturing out into the community is not traditionally prioritized by the average Penn student who tends to stay within the university limits. But, though the average Penn student doesn’t explore the neighborhood as much, this does not mean that Penn is isolated from West Philadelphia. There are various departments, centers and individuals who work directly with West Philadelphia, and one in particular that has led noteworthy efforts in engaging Penn in West Philadelphia has been the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

The Netter Center was formally opened as the Center for Community Partnerships in 1992, but the efforts for community partnerships had been established a few years prior. In 1983, Penn’s Office of Community-Oriented Policy Studies was created to help connect institutional initiatives with West Philadelphia, including through the West Philadelphia Partnership. Two years later in 1985, the idea of academically based community service (ABCS) began when Penn students presented a research proposal for a summer job training corps for West Philadelphia youth as part of their honors seminar class taught by Ira Harkavy and Lee Benson. Soon after, the official center would be established to create and manage projects and programs that saw various individuals, particularly Penn students and faculty, mutually engage with West Philadelphia. Nowadays, the Netter Center, under founding director Ira Harkavy’s (C’70, GR’79) leadership, runs numerous programs throughout the academic and summer terms with programs like the aforementioned ABCS courses, traditional service programs, and community development initiatives, as outlined on their website.

With this general background in mind, one can begin to explore the opportunities and services that the center offers to the average student and even to alumni. In order to learn even more about the center, we reached out to the current assistant director, Rita Hodges (C’05, GED’15), to learn from a representative of the center, and after a short conversation, many services, programs, and initiatives were highlighted that exemplify the mission of the center. As an assistant director and former undergraduate student involved in the center, the insight the conversation provided was helpful in understanding these projects. First and foremost, as assistant director, Hodges does quite a bit at the center which includes supporting the internal operations of the center, overseeing marketing and communication, working with development and alumni operations, and working closely with the director and associate director on replication outreach activities. One interesting project that the center is working on would have to be the replication outreach initiatives which sees the center participate in the creation of a network of colleges and universities around the nation that are improving relations with their local neighborhoods through conferences, workshops, and continued partnership. The center additionally engages in helping establish regional training centers on university-assisted community schools and has recently worked to establish one at UCLA.


Source: Netter Center Collection

Outside of this position, other services the center offers include ABCS courses, averaging about 70 per year in 30 different departments, internships, work and volunteer opportunities, and extensive work in local schools to help create centers that benefit the local population, both local students and parents through its university-assisted community schools program. There are mentoring and tutoring programs, STEM related programs, that help expose students to STEM fields through lessons and activities run by Penn undergraduate and graduate students, and programs focused on literacy, health and nutrition, arts and culture, college access, career readiness, sports and basically anything you can think of! The opportunities, however, are not just for current students as the alumni network and opportunities are just as substantial. The center maintains a relationship with alumni by running various events such as volunteering during alumni weekend or class reunions. Many Netter Center alumni maintain a solid relationship with the center by coming back for events like panels and volunteering. One event that the center helps run is the Basketball Clinic that sees alumni, their children, local children and Penn’s basketball players from the 1979 Final Four Team come together to play basketball for a day. The diversity of events and services offered clearly extends much farther than one can imagine.

With all of this in mind, the question arises as to how the relationship between the two has changed over time. Through a long history, the relationship between the neighborhood and the institution, while not always perfect, has definitely improved. Various departments, besides the Netter Center, have engaged with the community. In particular, one department that stands out is Penn Athletics who has been partnering with neighborhood schools to help students learn and participate in sports like track & field and lacrosse through the Young Quakers Community Athletics program that it runs in partnership with the Netter Center. After speaking with Assistant Director Hodges, it was made clear that President Amy Gutmann has made it a priority in her presidency to engage the community more in a mutually beneficial way, not only through academic partnerships with Penn students and faculty, but also by overseeing various initiatives on the business side of things such as working on economic inclusion and helping small businesses. Ultimately, while the relationship has definitely improved and seems to be heading in a much better direction, there is still so much work to be done between the neighborhood and the institution. There are still ties to develop between Penn and local schools and increased interaction between students and residents through pathways like ABCS courses. The work will continue as the relationship between Penn and West Philadelphia becomes even more mutually beneficial, allowing Penn to be a support institution for the neighborhood while it enhances its own research, teaching, learning, and service.

Ultimately, as mentioned above, the history of Penn and West Philadelphia could fill an entire book and this post is too short to do it justice, but the takeaway is hopefully one of awareness. As they celebrate their 25th anniversary, the work of the Netter Center has been developing and strengthening ties between the neighbors, and their work should be highlighted in order to hopefully allow more people, students, and alumni, to participate in the variety of programs they offer and to continue developing that connection.

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Have You Met the Gibson Girl?

By: Jorge Penado, C’19
International Relations Major
Work-Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House

Who would have known that postcards on Penn’s campus in the late 19th century and early 20th century could bring light to a phenomenon happening across the United States? When one first takes a look at these postcards, as depicted above, it wouldn’t necessarily raise an eyebrow. The image is simply of a woman dressed in Penn garb or carrying a red and blue flag. At first glance, they simply look like a depiction of someone with exuberant school spirit, a billowing flag and extravagant outerwear. However, once we take a look past the initial image, the history of these postcards reveals a sociopolitical movement in the US and how it spread to Penn’s campus. These so-called “College Girls” or “Gibson Girls” took the nation by storm in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but besides being an artistic illustration, they also represent a complicated era in the history of the nation.

Who is the “Gibson Girl”? The Gibson Girl was the personification of feminine beauty and attractiveness in the United States largely during the Gilded Age. This ideal representation of women was usually portrayed through pen-and-ink illustrations that depicted an upper-middle-class woman with a small waist, upswept hair, a perfect outfit and a detached nature. This form of illustration was initially started by Charles Dana Gibson who was an American graphic artist from New York City. The Gibson Girl, at first, was a creation of Gibson to satirize the upper class while also being a representation of the beauty standards of that time that he says he saw on the streets of New York. With regards to Penn, the Gibson Girl had an alternative name, simply the College Girl, which various elite colleges used to portray their own university and were placed on postcards. The Gibson Girl soon became a trend that other artists adopted. This trend seems simple at first but can be interpreted in various ways.


Source: Borgen Magazine

However, before we explore some of these interpretations, let’s go back 100+ years in time to the late 19th century and early 20th century. Where was the nation, and particularly Penn, at that time in relation to women? For one, the Women’s Suffrage Movement was in full force in the country. While we all know women’s suffrage wasn’t nationally established until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was accepted, the idea of women’s suffrage had been introduced as early as the 1840s. The famous Seneca Falls Convention was held in 1848. The first national suffrage organizations were established in 1869 by pioneers like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. Susan B. Anthony was arrested and taken to the Supreme Court in United States v. Susan B. Anthony for voting in the 1872 presidential election. Senator Aaron A. Sargent introduced a women’s suffrage amendment to Congress in 1878. The leading National American Woman Suffrage Association was created in 1890. There is no doubt that the role and rights of women in American society were being challenged during this era and that suffrage advocacy was on the rise.

Now, while this was a nationwide view, there was simultaneously a Penn movement during this era. The late 19th century saw a variety of achievements and changes in the way Penn was run in relation to women. This era was the time in which various women were officially accepted into the schools of Penn and granted diplomas. In 1878, Anna Lockhart Flanigen and Gertrude Klein Peirce were the first women to complete a collegiate course of study at Penn. In 1879, the Trustees announced that “persons of both sexes are now admitted,” to various departments in the College, the School of Engineering and to the Department of Music. In 1880, the School of Auxiliary Medicine admitted its first women students. In 1881, the Law School admitted its first woman student. In 1882, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was the first to admit women to courses leading to a degree. And the list goes on. For Penn in particular, this was a clear shift in the access to education that women were getting after years of self-advocacy. There are various records of women attending open lectures at Penn or being enrolled as “special students” for years beforehand without ever gaining full access. After years of pushing, the tide began to shift.

Now, with all of this in mind, we can much more clearly begin to evaluate what role the Gibson Girl played in society. Particularly, some argue that the Gibson Girl became a depiction of the social anxieties that came with the changing role of women in American society. The various achievements of women in society and college brought about a fear that women would not be satisfied with traditionally domestic life and would alter their role as an educated woman. It became a much more conservative depiction that seemed to focus on the frivolous, playful pursuits of women as a means to reassure people who were afraid of the changing roles. The Gibson Girl was contrasted with the New Woman because of the belief that she wouldn’t involve herself in politics and would thus not join the suffrage movement unlike the latter. While many saw the Gibson Girl as a new interpretation of the American woman who was independent and active, others saw her as conservatively trying to address the changing role of women.

At first glance, these beautiful sketch images seemed to be simple and representative of Penn’s school spirit. However, once we take a deeper look, we begin to see a much more complicated history in a time where society was changing. While the depictions are now an interesting thing to take in as art, it is equally as important to understand the backstory and the resilience of women of this era who fought for their right to education and right to vote such to create a better world for women in the US now.

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