A Home in the Highlands for Young Changemakers

by Spud Marshall

It’s been five years since we launched the co.space in the Highlands. In that time, we’ve had the pleasure of working with more than 100 young people who have called this community family.

If you haven’t had the chance to visit co.space before, the home is full of unique items you typically don’t find in a house. We have everything from a cave shower in the bathroom, to a rock climbing wall in our hallway, to an indoor beehive in our dining room. It’s no wonder that our guest’s eyes often scan the space in wonder much like a child first visiting Disney would.

But one of the subtle elements that few notice at first glance is a painted phrase that wraps around our ceiling.

“More than a home. These walls hold the dreams of a better tomorrow… sparks of inspiration… and a tribe out to change the world.”

This simple quote truly encompasses what co.space set out to do five years ago.

What I’ve found during my time in State College is that it doesn’t matter who you talk with – young and old alike – at our core, we are all seeking to find our tribe. We want to find friends and family who can simultaneously challenge us, and make us feel safe. We want to find a community that shares our common values, but is also made up of diverse thought and perspectives.

And yet too often, our communities remain siloed and homogenous. We surround ourselves with people that think and act like we do. A young couple with kids find other young families to hang out with. Elderly communities find other retirees to spend their time around. College students find other peers to party and do homework alongside.

One of the aspects of the Highlands community that I so appreciate is the fact that so many of these different siloed groups exist alongside one another. One of our hopes with the co.space was to create a space where those silos could collide with each other.

We wanted the space to be more than just a home, we wanted it to be a place where meaningful connections were made and conversations had.

As the years have gone on, more and more of those connections are made. One of the most important ways we facilitate this is by hosting a weekly Mentor Dinner at the house. Because our home is geared for students and young professionals to live in, we intentionally bring in older community members once a week to share their stories and ways in which they are striving to better the world. These simple dinners have become the cornerstone of the home.

And in doing so, I’ve observed an important change to the narrative surrounding co.space.

In the first year, when folks talked about the co.space they mentioned what made the house physically unique – cave showers and indoor beehives. Then in year two, people would talk about the fascinating people who lived in this really unique home. And then in the third year, the story that circulated around town was that the co.space was a unique place where fascinating people lived who were working on meaningful projects in the community.

And that’s the story we had always wanted to tell!

The story that there are young people hungry to make a difference in State College and the Highlands community. They desperately want to connect to meaningful work. They want to leverage their passions outside of classrooms and tests. They want to be known for more than just a demographic that parties.

And the most important way to tell that story, is to simply make connections across silos one individual at a time.

In 2012, when we first explored launching the co.space in town, one of the connections that was most interested in helping us bring the idea to life was an organization called the International Friendship House (IFH), who were the previous owners of the home. For years, they operated the property as a place for international students to call home during their studies at Penn State. When we explained to them the concept to launch a home for students and young professionals to build meaningful relationships with folks in the surrounding Highlands community and Centre region, they jumped at the opportunity to support us. They had been considering selling the home but wanted to make sure that it did not become just another student housing option in town. It was important to them that the new owners had a purposeful mission behind the immediate desire to provide housing.

After IFH stepped up to work with us, we began to rally a lot of community support throughout the town. We met frequently with folks in the borough – from council meetings to the redevelopment authority. We rallied the support of local entrepreneurs and Penn State officials who drafted letters of support. Fortunately, the IFH property was already properly zoned so we didn’t have to change much to get the project off the ground. We had been considering repurposing old fraternity buildings at that time, but there were multiple challenges involved with a property like that at the time.

With all the support that we were able to generate – the most important early adopters were the students and young professionals who agreed to move into the home the first year. Many of them signed ‘Intent to Leases’ before we could even announce the property they would move in to. But this allowed us to demonstrate cash flow so we could get the financing for the project.

At the time, my business partner and I were 24. On paper, we didn’t have the necessary reputation, income, or credibility to launch a business like this. But we knew we had the groundswell of community support behind us.

In March 2013, we were able to purchase the home and officially begin the extensive renovation process, which we documented in a weekly video series (that you can still watch on YouTube and will provide you plenty of laughs). And then in August 2013 – mere hours after we finished painting each bedroom – we opened the doors to our first class of co.spacers.

As we look back on that journey, none of this would have been possible without the support of our local community. But looking forward, there are now countless possible avenues in which to grow. We have heard from so many individuals that are looking to live in intentional communities, and have begun putting our feelers out to potentially launch a second home that can provide similar housing for a slightly older demographic, age 25 – 45.

Here’s hoping that for the next five years we can continue growing on building meaningful connections to better the community we all care about so much!



Spud Marshall is an avid connector and social entrepreneur dedicated to cultivating changemakercommunities and innovation ecosystems around the world. He is the CEO and Chief Catalyst for the co.space. Spud also founded New Leaf Initiative, a community innovation hub located on the 3rd Floor of the Municipal Building. His current project is Trailhead which awards grants to people who have innovative ideas to “make our town a more awesome place.  Visit http://www.MeetAtTrailhead.com

Additionally, Spud leads Barefoot Consulting where he provides strategic support to foundations, communities, universities, and organizations interested in building innovation economies and training emerging leaders and social entrepreneurs.