Business

They had a vision no one believed. 5 years later, the co.space could be growing.

Penn State sophomore Clay Sulby gets some pasta during a family dinner on Sept. 24 at the co.space.
Penn State sophomore Clay Sulby gets some pasta during a family dinner on Sept. 24 at the co.space. psheehan@centredaily.com

It’s application season for the co.space, and the next person who moves into the intentional community on East Nittany Avenue will mark 100 changemakers who have lived in the house.

Co-founder Spud Marshall isn’t sure yet how they’ll mark such an occasion, but in true co.space fashion, you can bet it will be something fresh, fun and memorable.

Marshall and fellow Penn State graduate Christian Baum launched co.space in 2013. It started by thinking about where the most powerful, impactful conversations in a person’s life take place. Usually, Marshall said, it’s not a classroom or a conference center. Instead, it’s around a kitchen table, in front of a bonfire, sitting on a tree stump somewhere in the woods.

So, what if you design a place to facilitate those life-shaping discussions and experiences while building a strong sense of community? Some place like the co.space.

“We were young, dumb guys that had a vision that no one believed,” Marshall said.

Twenty people — about three-fourths students and one-fourth young professionals — live in the house every year. The first cohort was heavy with entrepreneurs, and the co.space gained a reputation that has stuck.

“Initially, the co.space focused more on the projects that people brought into the home. These diverse projects were physical manifestations of the individuals and where their passions focused,” Baum said in an email. “This project-sentric approach gave co.space an entrepreneurial label, which was hard to shake. Fast forward to today, people don’t join the co.space to bring forth a project. They join so that they can be culturally immersed, pushed outside their comfort zones, exponentially exposed to new people and ways of thinking and essentially ground themselves in a community.”

Sustainability enthusiasts, designers, educators, agriculturalists and people who aren’t quite sure yet have all lived in the house.

“There’s a common thread in people who live here and it tends to be folks who say, ‘I want to do something good in the world,’ ” Marshall said. “It’s also people who are willing to trail blaze their own path.”

“Funky” is probably the best way to describe the house itself — there’s a cave shower, monkey bars and free expression wall. Many of the elements are from monthly “pitch dinners,” where co.spacers come up with ideas to improve their house or community, and get the support to make it happen.

“Everything in this house has been the product of co.spacers before us,” said Maddie Taylor, a Penn State senior who moved into the house in August.

What sets the co.space apart from any other communal living environment (well, beyond the cave shower) is a focus on supporting residents’ individual journeys. Retreats focus on personal and collective goals, a journey board tracks co.spacer’s next steps and guest dinners introduce residents to “changemakers” from the community and beyond.

“It really helps give focus to individual projects,” Taylor said.

Jared Yarnall-Schane, who was part of the first cohort in 2013, worked on his first startup while living in the house.

“It was such an incredible place of support in terms of bringing in community members that became our mentors,” he said. “It really gave us a launching pad to try things and gave us as a company the confidence to go out and try things.”

Yarnell-Schane is now program director for Thought For Food, an international organization that aims to engage and empower young people to tackle the global challenge of feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050. It’s a job he could do anywhere, and he has — he’s lived in Europe and East Africa — but Yarnell-Schane recently moved back to State College. He reunited with his friends Marshall and Baum, who he met at the co.space. State College wasn’t where he thought he’d end up when he was a student, but said there was a natural pull back to the area.

“It definitely was a complete surprise to myself and my friends and family,” he said.

Unlike other college town organizations working with soon-to-be graduates and young professionals, the co.space doesn’t focus on how to keep people living and working in the area. The opposite, actually — Marshall said co.spacers are encouraged to “go do your thing,” travel, experience the world. But when it comes time to pick a place to put down roots, Marshall’s theory is that the co.space alumni will think about the positive, supportive environment where there young ideas took shape.

“That’s the reason people will ultimately come back to State College,” he said.

Five years after starting the co.space experiment, Marshall admits there’s room for improvement, particularly with respect to racial diversity. But he said the organization is here to stay and might even be growing.

“We’ve been talking about launching a young professional after-co.space version of this home,” Marshall said. “We’re starting to create a need.”

Initially there was an idea to expand the co.space concept to other areas, but now Marshall said the focus is on State College, with the same kind of innovative thinking that got them here.

“Imagine a whole block,” Marshall said. “Five years from now, could State College be known as the place that gave birth to creative and supportive co-living environments?”

The application deadline to live in the co.space for fall 2018 is Oct. 11. For more information, visit thecospace.com.

Jessica McAllister: 814-231-4617, @JMcAllisterCDT

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