By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger
Each semester, the individuals living at the co.space attend a retreat to bond and get to know each other.
You could say that Spud Marshall and Christian Baum specialize in community, with a goal of bringing people together for a positive purpose, while fulfilling a need. The two are known among the State College community as forward-thinking individuals and are credited with their prior work at New Leaf Initiative, which began in 2009 and was deemed a “home for changemakers.”
Because of their reputation, the two were approached by a neighbor selling a fraternity house and this kicked off what would become the co.space, an alternative living arrangement for Penn State students, who often go on to make big changes in their fields, with innovative solutions or revolutionary startup ideas.
“It really was our lightbulb moment, when it came to creating the co.space,” said Marshall, explaining that zoning regulations thwarted that particular sale, but opened another door to a partnership with the International Friendship House in downtown State College. “They had a boarding house in town and were incredibly visionary and forward-thinking. They were looking to re-invigorate it and we wanted to buy,” he said.
Next came the process of renovations, which the team documented on YouTube. By 2013, the organization was up and running and accepting students who were seeking to connect with a community of collaboration.
A purpose-driven life
The co.space house contains eight double rooms, four single rooms and guest rooms, accommodating approximately 20 individuals at any given time. According to Marshall, rent is currently $750 a month and is comparable to that in town, although the organization has no college affiliation. So far, 195 individuals, who have met the criteria of being “creative, driven and purpose-led,” have passed through their doors. Residents stay for one or two years.
Marshall describes the application process as unconventional. “We don’t require that the 20 tenants be entrepreneurs. We try to balance it out so that we may have a few interested in the health field, others in the education field, others who are interested in being entrepreneurs, and others from various walks of life. We also like to find people who enjoy hosting guests in the home,” he said. The goal, Marshall explained, is to help people connect with a community of changemakers. “We facilitate those connections."
“I credit a lot of experiences to the co.space, which comes with a built-in family and, as an international student who didn’t have family close by, they have a bias towards action that is very empowering and endearing,” D’Souza said.
Living and learning
Emily Lundeen is a house manager at the co.space. She lives at the house free of charge in exchange for taking care of day-to-day tasks like making sure the house is stocked with supplies and that everything is operating properly.
“I sometimes deal with conflict management, roommate troubles, that sort of thing,” she added.
Lundeen is pursuing her bachelors in psychology and working on her Masters in Speech Therapy. She has been living in the home for a year and explains that residents get the opportunity to meet people they otherwise would not have met. “We have quite a few juniors and so much of their college years were affected by Covid-19 and this is all about forming connections now,” she said.
To form those all-important connections, each semester, an all-expense paid retreat is held for the residents to bond and get to know one another. The group continues to grow and collaborate at a family dinner, which is hosted at the house every Sunday, where residents can meet to catch up and pitch project ideas for the house.
Wednesday evenings are mentor night. “We bring in community members who tell their stories and what they are doing. They could be mental health leaders, heads of school districts, etc. We expose them and they can form the mentor connections,” said Marshall.
Marshall said that exposure to thought leaders can inspire students to think outside the box. For example, in the first three years of the co.space, a few tenants formed something they called “Green Towers,” focused on sustainability and hydroponics. They traveled the world, attending startup competitions and pitching spinning vertical greenhouses and indoor beehives they called a beecosystem.
Unfortunately, pioneers don’t always perform perfectly the first time and things can go wrong once in a while, explained Marshall, divulging that approximately 30,000 bees escaped into the living space at one point.
Rather than offer a stinging rebuke, Marshall chuckled and explained where those students are now: “One took a position as the Head of Community for the Founders Institute, an American business incubator in Palo Alto, California. Another works as the Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Biomimicry Institute in Montana and uses nature-inspired designs to solve problems in the human world. They go into the Amazon jungles and learn from critters and animals there.”
Royce D’Souza is a philosophy student who lived in the house from 2019 to 2021 and was inspired to work on several projects with residents. During and after his time at Penn State, the Arlington, Virginia, resident started three companies, the most current being an alternative to Grubhub. “I credit a lot of experiences to the co.space, which comes with a built-in family and, as an international student who didn’t have family close by, they have a bias towards action that is very empowering and endearing,” D’Souza said.
Spud said he hopes the co.space will continue helping Penn State students for many years to come. “We believe that some of the most powerful conversations are organically driven and facilitating that atmosphere of collaboration has been rewarding both for us and, we believe, for every resident who has resided and grown in the co.space.”
Have you ever been inspired by someone else to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor? If so, please feel free to share with us here.
The tenants at the co.space demonstrate a spirit of fun in the house.