Pilar: Penn—oh, I loved it…when I first got here, because I did Af-Ams. The Af-Ams is the African-American Studies Institute thing. And, they have like, the black kids who are coming to Penn in the fall, they come in the summertime…there’s grad students here, there’s like black faculty and they teach like a week, like intensive, like research kind of…”
Interviewer: So, you choose to be in it?
Pilar: Right…it’s usually like all the black kids come. So, you’re there and like…you notice by the end of the week, you’re like…you’re up like these crazy hours and you’re up writing papers and so, by the end of the week, you’re really close with all these people.
Pilar grew up in a predominately black working class area just outside of New York City. She had an exclusively black peer group prior to college and was excited to make a place for herself at the University.
Sandra also enjoyed the Summer Institute. She had previously visited the University on a recruiting trip for the swim team and had not been able to attend Minority Scholar’s Weekend. Until the Summer Institute, Sandra had not made much exposure to the study of Black issues.
Interviewer: So, what was [Af-Am’s] like?
Sandra: Af-Am’s we like, well, my experience here at Penn previously was a predominately white experience…So, it was a totally different experience…And, also we were studying black issues…It was just like the flip side of a coin, it was really interesting. I learned a lot. I had like a whole other way of thinking because I had never studied black issues before, like you never talked about social inequality. All my friends that first year came out of Af-Am’s…because I spent the majority of my time with them in Af-Am’s.
Before coming to Penn, Denise had attended a small liberal arts college in California but left after the first semester because she did not like the campus or the student body. When she got the invitation to the Summer Institute, she was thrilled to get to know other black students and “get into the swing of things.” Her previous college held a similar program but she did not participate in it.
Interviewer: What was it like when you first got here? What were your first impressions of Penn?
Denise: Oh, it was wonderful. I did the Af-Am Institute…it’s all black, oh yeah…We come and you know, it’s a week of these intense classes, they give you three different classes, you know, mini courses that you take and you get to meet other people. And, I thought that this was really big for me because I’m like, okay, when I come back to school I’ll know some people, you know, while I’m getting in the swing of things. And, I hadn’t realized that happened in my other college too, like there were [black] kids who had some sort of program and they all knew each other, and it was real comfortable for them…And, I came here and I loved it. I thought it was great. I was like the dorms are great. I was like the food is great. I was really excited. I was like it’s in Philly, Philly’s a black city, I just though it was all wonderful. And, then when I started Penn, you know, I was like, okay, this is great.
The Du Bois College House was an important attraction for many black students from integrated and segregated backgrounds alike. Du Bois sits on the very most outer edge of campus away from the goings-on of more centrally located residences such as the Quad (where the majority of freshmen live), broaching a predominately black West Philadelphia neighborhood. Students were excited about the fact that there was a place reserved for them and their interests. The Du Bois House was tantalizing for students from integrated schools and neighborhoods in that they foresaw the opportunity to socialize and live with many same-race peers who would share similar interests. As Tia contended:
…a lot of us come from schools, a lot of minorities come from schools where they were of the minority and then when they get here, because the school larger than the high schools that we were in, we wouldn’t find people to hang out with, so for the first time in our life, they’re the same race as us.
Those from segregated backgrounds, too, expressed the belief that they would have a better social life at the University if they lived there because it would ease their transition into the predominately white campus culture. They wanted to stay within the social confines of the black student community where they felt most comfortable. Du Bois houses approximately 200 students, most of whom are black.
Oprah was originally assigned to another residence hall but asked to be reassigned to Du Bois after she came for the Summer Institute. She wanted to ensure that she would have ample opportunity to develop a black peer group. Oprah stated:
I came here for an Af. Am.’s weekend and I had already been assigned a room in [name of residence hall]. And, I came to Af. Am.’s and everyone was like: “I’m living in Du Bois. You’re not living in Du Bois?” And, I was like: “No.” And people were like: “Girlfriend, come live in Du Bois!” Everyone was like: “That’s where I’m living!” I was like: “Oh, my God, I want to live there!”
At the time of her interview, Oprah had several close friends, all of which where black. Throughout college, she had been active in several black organizations, including the Caribbean Students’ Organization and the Gospel Choir.
Unlike Oprah, Aloicious was from a predominately black area in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. His friendship group in high school had been all black and he had been one of many black students in his honors classes. He explained:
Interviewer: Did you want to live with students of your own racial and cultural background?
Aloicious: Yeah…It was just a matter of me having something in common with people…I wanted to meet some intelligent, focused, motivated black people when I came to Penn, get to know them well and hopefully foster a good relationship with them.
Aloicious lived in Du Bois for all four years of college and was very involved in black student life at the University.
Troy referred to Du Bois as his comfort zone. Coming from his inner-city neighborhood in New York, he appreciated the fact that he could come home to a place where black people were in the majority after spending his entire day amidst whites.
Interviewer: What made you decide to live in Du Bois?
Troy: Hands down, I wanted to make sure I knew the other black students that were here. Since there weren’t a lot, I wanted to know the ones that are here. It’s my comfort zone, my comfort zone.
Troy was a resident advisor in Du Bois and organized many social activities for black freshman to help ease their transition to the University.
Certainly not all black students want to live in Du Bois College House for a variety of reasons. In their interviews, several students explained that Du Bois was not an attractive housing option for them because they did not want an exclusively black peer group nor did they want to feel cut off from mainstream campus life. Students who chose to live outside of Du Bois and did not have black friends are often considered “not black enough” and risk being shunned and ostracized by their same-race peers.