Campus Life 101: What It’s Like to Be a Philly College Student Right Now
We visited 15 campuses in the Philly region and asked students about living, dating, partying — oh yeah, and studying — at their schools.
Students routinely describe the liberal arts school as an intimate (“really small”) school where everybody knows everybody. The school’s Plenary system — biannual all-student meetings to ratify the school’s alcohol policy and honor code — gives students a say in campus life. Campus controversy: In October, a group of students protested Plenary, seeking better representation for marginalized students. In December, a group called the Queer Agenda re-designated gendered bathrooms for use by all genders. Hookup vs. dating: “Yes, there’s a hookup culture,” says sophomore Belu Madariaga. “There’s also a ‘Haver-married’ thing where you meet someone and instantly act like you’ve been together for 10 years.”
Location: University City
Students at the West Philly school known for engineering report that the campus provides cultural opportunities as well as standard city frustrations. The emphasis on gaining real work experience through co-ops presents unique challenges, which is why some students say involvement in clubs and organizations is key to finding a niche. Campus controversy: After professor George Ciccariello-Maher’s controversial “All I want for Christmas is white genocide” tweet became a national story, “The general feeling on campus was that he has the right to say these things. His intentions weren’t to offend anyone in any way,” says junior Matt Kopyt. Party scene: “A lot of Drexel kids will go to Penn parties,” says third-year senior Austin Philip. Head down: “In engineering, people don’t really talk about political issues, ” says sophomore Jerry Xie.
Location: East Falls and Center City
Thomas Jefferson University’s East Falls campus, formerly Philadelphia University, is a bucolic escape from downtown’s bustle. Students describe classmates as studious and their campus as “quieter than other campuses” and “not a party school.” Great views: “I like how it’s close to the city but it’s still in the suburbs,” says sophomore Carly McNall. “It’s pretty — a lot more nature than you would see in the city.” Hookup vs. dating: “Freshman year, it was just a lot of hookups; now, this year, it’s more serious stuff,” reports sophomore Jack McIntyre. Party scene: “People mostly go off-campus for parties. Temple is definitely big,” says McNall. Freshmen are said to congregate at “Bridge,” literally under a bridge just down Henry Avenue.
Location: Bryn Mawr
Like Haverford, this all-women college is governed by a Plenary system, giving “Mawrtyrs” a voice on campus issues. Campus controversy: “This past semester, we renamed the big hall on campus because it was named for M. Carey Thomas, and she was very openly a white supremacist,” says sophomore Laney Myers. Students protested the Lower Merion police over racial profiling and membership in the Trump-supporting National FOP. Party life: Halloween, May Day and November’s “East vs. West” are big party days on campus, but Bryn Mawr party-seekers generally “go to Haverford or Swarthmore or Penn, even,” says sophomore Caroline Soffer. We are family: “The academics are so rigorous, but campus life is just like a little house,” says sophomore Jamila Ghazi. “We go by first names; everybody knows each other’s [gender] pronouns.”
Location: Chestnut Hill
Its old stone buildings and dark, wood-lined hallways give campus that classic academy feel. Students say the vibe is comfortable and relaxed; everyone knows everyone … and everyone’s business. On Catholicism: Maja Kramer, a sophomore from Poland, says the school’s affiliation doesn’t hinder religious diversity: “I’m not Catholic, and I have a bunch of friends who are Muslim or Jewish or atheist.” Campus gripes: Senior Amir Nash would like a little less oversight: “It’s a dry campus. You can’t even have visitors overnight. I’m 23 years old … you’re telling me I can’t have a visitor in a room that I pay for?” The school prohibits overnight guests of the opposite sex. Size matters: “Campus is really amazing for me because I like smaller schools,” says sophomore Kris Chan. “I like when professors actually want to help you.”
Location: West Philly
The Jesuit school with the storied basketball program sits just over the city line from Lower Merion. Students report a tight-knit community, a commitment to good works, and a desire for better dining hall food. Hawk pride: “There’s a lot of school spirit around sports, especially basketball games,” says sophomore transfer student Kaitlyn Masone. Diversification: “Diversity is still an issue, but it’s progressing. … Still, not many people are informed about international issues,” says freshman Natalia Velazquez. Do-gooders: “Because of the Jesuit ideals ingrained in our minds, we’re focused on helping others wherever we can. Right after spring semester, students go on a trip for a week or so just to do service,” says senior Franki Rudnesky.
Location: Center City
At this small arts school in the heart of Center City, on the Avenue of the Arts, students are loudly liberal and big into diversity and equality. Much of the student body lives off campus. Campus controversy: When a group of anti-gay religious protesters descended on campus with signs and a megaphone, students responded in a most art-school way. “Within minutes, students pulled up with an amplifier, an aux cord, they were blasting Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar and people were dancing, yelling back,” recounts recent grad Sam Becht. Theater students protested typecasting of people of color during Convocation. Party hardly: “There are very few UArts parties. Most of us just go to Temple,” laughs freshman Carzell Anderson. “There are a couple of ‘party houses,’ and we have names for each, like ‘Cat House’ and ‘Cheese Palace,’” says grad student Lindsey Evans.
Location: North Philly
The nerve center of Philadelphia’s college scene, Temple’s North Broad Street campus is perpetually abuzz and noticeably diverse. Campus controversy: “There’s a lot of debate going on about the [proposed football] stadium,” says junior Mike Kaba. Late last year, the school’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance called for Patrick O’Connor, chairman of Temple’s board of trustees and onetime attorney for Bill Cosby, to step down. Hookup vs. dating: “I just saw that Temple is the most sexually active college in the nation, so yeah, we have a hookup culture,” says junior Morgan Pivovarnik. “It’s never in a shameful way,” adds junior Kate Lyn Broom. “We’re super sexually active, but in a really empowered way.”
With its picturesque architecture and landscaping, the suburban liberal arts college’s setting is perfect for getting lost in one’s studies and getting wound up about the issues of the day. Campus controversy: Several students report a need for more ethnic studies programs. Divisive op-eds in the Daily Gazette school paper prompted boycotts. Every year or so, students hold a sit-in in an attempt to convince the school to divest from fossil fuels. Students notably protested Bell Curve author Charles Murray’s 2016 talk. Hookup vs. dating: “You are either in the hookup culture or you are ‘Swatmarried,’ which basically means you are inseparable,” says senior Robby Jimenez.
Location: West Chester
The large state school an hour outside of Philadelphia gets good grades from students for its sense of community and bar scene. “I visited a lot of schools, and this was the friendliest,” says freshman Jamie Hogarty. Mood: “It’s a big campus and really diverse. You can be friends with people who like to party and be friends with people who like Bible study,” says recent grad Sharon Driedger. Campus controversy: A Westboro Baptist Church-like group called Matthew 24 Ministries has demonstrated on campus. “They shout sexist, homophobic remarks, and people here have started to respond,” says senior Emily Castillo.
Location: University City
Philly’s most prominent and thus most closely watched school. Name an issue in the national culture wars regarding college campuses and it’s happening at Penn. Party fouls: “Parties get shut down kind of early, so that’s whack,” says sophomore Dante Moore. Campus controversy: “There were several protests last year after the GroupMe incident” when black students received targeted racist messages, says sophomore Stephanie Diaz. No commitment: “Hookup culture is more prevalent here. A lot of people make an active effort to stay hooking up and not dating,” says sophomore Jasmine Henry. Under pressure: “‘Work hard, play hard’ is what you usually hear,” says sophomore Samarth Agrawal. Junior Allison Sparrow says students feel “the university doesn’t care about stress levels,” but she figures stress comes with the territory.
America’s oldest historically black college averted an existential crisis when its accreditation — at risk over financial woes and concerns about past leadership — was renewed late last year, a show of faith in new president Aaron A. Walton that should buy him time to continue to right the ship. Social life: “It’s pretty small. … You see the same faces,” says freshman JoVaun Buney. “Everybody knows each other. It’s fun,” adds freshman Tony Tuckfield. Campus controversy: In the face of a statewide state-school budgetary and benefits standoff in 2016, students and faculty held strikes and demonstrations. The mood: “School spirit is gone,” says senior Qualyn Meade, due to cuts made by the school in the wake of the accreditation crisis. “We’re trying as student leaders to provide programming and things for the students to do to keep them involved on campus.”
Students describe their campus as LGBTQ-friendly and close-knit. A major source of campus pride is the school’s robust study-abroad program. On diversity: “Arcadia is diverse and not diverse all at the same time,” says senior Deja DePass. “Many people of color feel as though they are often underrepresented and find it difficult to connect when there are so few students who look like them.” Romantic challenges: “Since the student body is more than 50 percent girls, it could be more difficult for straight women to find a boyfriend,” says senior Margaret Blackmon. School spirit: Through Arcadia, students can study everywhere from South Africa to Chile to New Zealand. Given students’ travels, the campus can feel like a “passing-through point,” says senior Emily Evans, “a means to an end of exploring the world!”
It’s not just about basketball here. Villanova students are imbued with a school spirit and sense of community that transcends Wildcats boosterism. Go ’Cats!: There’s also pride in the student body’s volunteering efforts, especially Fall Festival, the country’s biggest student-run Special Olympics program. Generalizations: “Our stereotype is to be ‘Vanillanova,’ and to an extent that may still slightly be the case, but I’ve never felt different or not included on campus because of my race,” says senior Mona Agarwal. On manners: “Everyone always says that holding the door open for each other is the key thing that every Villanovan does, and that shows how supportive we are of each other,” says sophomore Claudia Chiulli.
Students at this mid-size Catholic school in North Philadelphia report a mix of liberal and conservative attitudes within the student body. Campus controversy: Students and alumni exploded in outrage in January when the university announced a plan to deaccession 46 pieces of art from the school’s acclaimed museum to fund programs in the school’s five-year plan. Hookup blues: “La Salle is so small, if you end up hooking up with one person, there’s a chance that your friend has as well,” laughs junior Kylie Shore. Party scene: “A lot of parties are for Greek life members only, or the ‘guys pay $5, girls get in free’ parties,” says junior Adam Zipko. And “We have something called ‘Late Night La Salle’ events, and people go to them, but are you really going to just not go out afterward?” asks junior Grace Batista.
—Reporting by Helen Armstrong, Katie Bourque, Amy Chan, Lauren Kubiak, Sarah Madaus, Erin Moran and Heather Thompson
*All student totals include graduates and undergraduates.
Published as “Remember When College Was Fun?” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.