Not Your Father's East Halls

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For Penn State alum Chris Guarino (’94, Business Logistics), everything about moving his freshman son Tyler into McKean Hall—the same East Halls dorm Guarino had moved into as a freshman in 1990—was very different this time around.

“McKean Hall,” he texted flatly to several of his former floor-mates last Friday night, along with a series of pictures of present-day McKean that rendered their memories of the building they once called home utterly foreign. Visual proof of its recent renovations left the group of alums shocked and disoriented.

“Not the McKean I remember.”

“Is that the ground floor??”

“That bathroom is nicer than the one in my house.”

The new McKean Hall dorm makes the 1990s version—which was, essentially, the 1960s version—seem less like “classic college dorm room” and more like “austere prison cell.” There are now private bathrooms with tiled floors. Stylish furniture in expansive common rooms. A thermostat and A/C in every room.

Good luck agreeing on that one, new roommates!

If Guarino thought dropping off his boy at the very same place his own outstanding college career began would be an emotional, nostalgic experience, he was mistaken—mostly because he didn’t even recognize the place.

“There are guys and girls on the same floor,” Guarino marveled. “Tyler’s RA is a girl, and she’s right across the hall.” The father of three remembers he and his new friends from the first and second floors of what was then all-male McKean standing around awkwardly in the quad with the young women from their “sister” floors of Pennypacker Hall shortly after move-in. “We didn’t really do anything with them,” he said of the contrived new-student social.

If you’re an alum who graduated more than a decade ago, you probably remember just such a mixer. What you also may remember is definitely not having a sushi bar, a certified Kosher dining facility or a gourmet coffee shop in Findlay Commons, along with a host of other made-to-order options. But, that’s the status of things today at what is now referred to as the very urban-sounding East Food District.

Penn State freshmen seem to be living in a whole different stratosphere than the far-from-spoiled first-years of decades past. They have an allergy-friendly dining station in the commons—No dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, gluten or sesame on the menu!—and an expanded IM building next-door, which boasts a 40-foot climbing wall in addition to a range of other cool fitness amenities too lengthy to list.

Within a day of moving in, Tyler and his three roommates had carefully positioned their four giant flat-screen TVs for optimum viewing and gaming. They were effortlessly hanging with the females on their floor. And every student there was capable of texting one another their moment-to-moment whereabouts, rather than having to make a plan once and then just meet up, like in pre-cell phone (read: Stone Age) days.

“Their whole experience is so different from how ours was,” Guarino mused as he stood in the McKean lobby on Saturday night waiting for his son to come downstairs and say goodbye.

Tyler finally did, but begrudgingly. “Everyone’s getting ready to go out,” he huffed as he gave his dad and stepmom half-hearted hugs before quickly disappearing back into the elevator. On the surface he sounded like a petulant teenager, another spoiled underclassman unable to recognize how much his parents had done to get him here or how much they’d miss him.

But, anyone who’s been a college freshman knows better:  Those first days and nights of being truly independent are wondrous and stressful. You can't miss a moment. Roommates are being sized up. Crushes are being formed. Bonds are being established that could fizzle by the end of a single semester or hold fast for decades; you don’t yet know.

When it comes right down to it, fancy bathrooms and sushi stations don’t negate the fact that in those early days of freshman year you’re all a little lost. You’re all a little nervous, and you’re all taking the first tentative, exhilarating steps toward the life you’re about to choose for yourself. Everyone’s getting ready to go out.

Some things never change.

Have a great year, freshmen!  

Robyn Passante (’95, Journalism) spent two years living in Brumbaugh Hall eating Chicken Cosmos and walking 10 miles to class, uphill both ways