Four bikes lean against the wall in the dining room. On the dining room table, a pile of mouse traps wait to be assembled. A floral slip cover hides what the inhabitants call an “ugly, brown” couch in the living room and Wii bongos sit near the television. The kitchen shelves are lined with coffee mugs from Penn — where Pollock, Sun and Warrell all graduated this past spring.
What makes this seemingly unremarkable living situation so different from other groups of recent college grads living in a group house is the fact that, before this summer, none of the four were friends.
“Have you ever seen The Real World?” Hass asks, trying to explain the living situation.
But this isn’t about a collection of archetypes getting drunk and throwing punches. Pollock, Sung, Warrell and Haas are four of 16 fellows participating in Philly Fellows, a year–long program that connects recent graduates, fresh out of college, with Philadelphia–based nonprofits. The brainchild of Tim Ifill and his college roommate Matt Joyce, both 2003 graduates of Haverford College, located on Philadelphia’s mainline, the friends began developing the program in 2004. Basing it on the model of Haverford House, a program at their alma mater, they accepted the first cohort of fellows in 2006. Since then, Ifill said the program has changed very little. Each winter, Philly Fellows targets seniors from area colleges, including Penn, Haverford, Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College and Temple University, and encourages them to apply, but any American citizen attending any university in the country may apply during their senior year.
Accepted fellows spend their first year after graduation living together in one of the three Philly Fellows houses — located in Northern Liberties, West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia — and working 40 hours a week at different nonprofits. The fellows also participate in leadership and development training, which Ifill said includes a monthly workshop designed to teach nonprofit–related skills and monthly networking dinners, designed to connect the fellows with community leaders.
Though Ifill said most participants are graduates looking for a start on the non–profit career ladder, each fellow has his or her own reason for joining the program.
Pollock, who majored in Urban Studies at Penn, said she joined because she wanted to make a change and the idea of living in a community of people who had similar goals was very appealing to her.
Warrell, also a Penn Urban Studies major, said she had always been interested in doing a year of service following graduation, but she found that many other programs involved spending the year abroad. Her interests lay more in domestic service. Philadelphia had a particular appeal: after spending four years inside the Penn bubble, she was eager to explore the city from outside of the university.
Once accepted to the program, fellows are assigned to a host organization based on what Sung called “a mutual matching process.” She explained that each fellow picks his or her top four or five nonprofit agencies and, after an interview process, is matched with an organization.
“And I don’t know how exactly they do it but I feel like everyone is at their first or second choice. And everyone’s really happy,” said Sung, who works at the Education Law Center, an “educational and legal advocacy organization.” The organization works to “improve public schools all across Pennsylvania through either direct legal services — legal advocacy and sometimes representation in cases — and also through policy and legislative advocacy as well.” During her time at Penn, Sung, who studied Management at Wharton, gained experience working in local public schools and tutoring. She currently has plans to go to law school — the Education Law Center seemed like a perfect fit.
Pollock, a former Daily Pennsylvanian staff writer who works at Philadelphia Young Playwrights, said she is similarly suited for her job, which involves teaching playwriting in public schools in the Philadelphia region with the goal of improving literacy and encouraging self expression among students. “It fits very well with my history at Penn, which was very much theater and theater for social change, directing Vagina Monologues and Penn Monologues.” Other organizations that host fellows include the American Red Cross, Project H.O.M.E., the Philadelphia Education Fund, the Community Design Collaborative, the Energy Coordinating Agency and the Juvenile Law Center.
Although the program is only in its fifth year, nonprofits and local leaders have taken notice. Each year, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter personally inaugurates the new class of fellows and each year more organizations request fellows than receive them. Those that seek to host a fellow must go through a rigorous application process. Since not every nonprofit that applies to host a fellow receives one, the fellows said they believe their host organizations appreciate their work more.
The other major component of the program is the unique living arrangement, which is designed in part to help make the experience more affordable.
Philly Fellows is funded through the AmeriCorps Vista program, a national service program founded in 1965 to fight domestic poverty. Through AmeriCorps, each fellow receives a monthly living stipend of $970, health care insurance, student loan deferments and an education award worth up to $5,325. The award can be used for student loans or graduate school.
The organization owns all three of the houses that the Fellows live in and provides free housing, independent of the AmeriCorps stipend. Ifill said providing free housing in one of the three houses owned by the organization allows the fellows to “have a little extra money in their pockets to enjoy Philly,” exploring the city in a way that they may not have been able to while in college.
The fellows also agreed that living in the city on the salary provided by a nonprofit would be difficult without the added benefit of free housing.
“If I had wanted to stay in Philadelphia and just work for a nonprofit on my own, I probably couldn’t have afforded it in terms of living, because first of all there aren’t that many jobs open. Second of all, the ones that are open just don’t pay that well,” Pollock explained.
“I don’t know what the poverty line is, but we’re hovering right around there.”
In fact, all fellows qualify for the federal food stamps progams, and are encouraged to use food stamps by AmeriCorps at its training program the summer before the fellowships start. Pollock described the experience of using food stamps as a young, college–educated, relatively well–to–do person as “a really important experience.”
“The federal government has decided that AmeriCorps volunteers are going to get below living standards because they call it a stipend and not an income,” she explained. “That’s part of AmeriCorps. They want to you learn what these systems are.”
While the fellows emphasized that they are still able to live comfortably on their stipends, Warrell said that living on a budget, in general, is a different experience compared to the “Penn culture.”
“There’s no more bank of Mom,” she added.
Another goal of Philly Fellow’s housing system is to ease the transition from college into the real world, one which is often more difficult than young, optimistic grads expect.
“The year after college is a weird year for anyone. And every single person that I know is going through major roller coasters and transitions, whether they’re i–banking and get home at one in the morning or they’re working on a farm,” Pollock said. “It’s just a very big, big change. And I think this program is really good at easing you into that.”
Ifill explained that he wanted to incorporate community living from the get–go, precisely for that reason. “We liked the extra level of engagement and the idea of having that support structure,” he said. “It makes the transition easier and less stressful in the long run.”
That doesn’t mean moving into a house with strangers was easy, however.
“It’s kind of like freshman year of college all over again,” Warrell said.
While the residents of the house in Northern Liberties said they don’t have a formal method for dividing up chores and interacting with each other, the other Philly Fellows houses’ have regular house meetings and chore wheels. They also acknowledged that working at different non–profits made living together less difficult than if they were all going to work together each day.
Nevertheless, Pollock said she felt very lucky to have the experience of living with other fellows. “We just moved right into a network of support that was built for us.”
While Warrell said that many aspects of life aren’t that different from college, some things — while small — still surprised her.
“I think definitely transportation has been one of the biggest things… I can’t just walk five minutes and get to class. I have to commute,” she said. “And that’s something that you take for granted.”
Other adjustments the fellow noted included paying for gym membership, not having campus police officers stationed on every corner, going to bed earlier and not having all of one’s friends living in a two–block radius.
But one of the biggest surprises has been the change in priorities each fellow has experienced.
“It was a big change to be accountable to other people,” Pollock said.
“Because you’re doing what you can at least feel like is public service work, it’s definitely not as self–serving, I think, as a lot of other things are,” explained Warrell. “I think it just puts my value system back together in a way… College had sort of crumbled it. I just feel like I lost a lot of my priorities [while in school].”
So what does the future hold for fellows in the program?
“It’s like senior year all over again,” Pollock said.
For Haas, a graduate of Haverford, the year of service is a way of “postponing the inevitable.”
For many others, though, the future is clearer. Ifill said many fellows go on to attend graduate schools across the country.
Sung, for one, is currently studying for the LSATs and hopes to go to law school the year after the program. Warrell is also studying for the LSATs, but wants to get a few more years of work experience under her belt before applying for law school. Another fellow in the South Philadelphia house deferred acceptance to Penn Law School for a year to participate in Philly Fellows.
It is also not uncommon for former fellows to stay in Philadelphia. Some stay on at their nonprofit whether or not they are fulfilling the same role in the organization. Other fellows move on to different organizations that they established connections with through their fellowships and networking sessions.
“A lot of the Philly Fellows from last year are still in Philadelphia. Three of them live across the street in a house together, because they loved this neighborhood so much,” Pollock explained.
Pollock, who is applying to graduate school, sees the experience as an important transitional moment, no matter what one plans to do. “Whether you know what you’re doing directly after Philly Fellows or not … this experience just makes you a better candidate for anything.”
Despite the initial difficulties of living with strangers and the possible uncertainly for the years following the end of the fellowship, the fellows agreed that doing the program was worth the challenges.
“I’m not going to lie,” Pollock said, “It’s been difficult at times, really difficult, but it’s also really rewarding.”
***Applications for Philly Fellows are due on January 31. An information session will be held at Penn on Tuesday, November 30, at 7:00 p.m. in the Civic House living room. For more information see PhillyFellows.org or contact email@example.com.***