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INTERVIEW


Linking Research and Fellowships


We spoke to two of the driving forces behind the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships: Dr. Arthur Casciato, the center’s director, and Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, the provost. What follows is an edited version of those two separate conversations.

 

GAZETTE: What was the impetus behind the center?

BARCHI: The impetus was to increase opportunities for undergraduates to be involved in all sorts of undergraduate research, in areas ranging from the humanities to the sciences, and to create an environment where students could exchange information about research they’re doing, learn about opportunities for support of research open to them, and generally interact with other students who are engaged in projects along the same avenue.
   
It also included bringing the resources the University was providing for prestigious scholarships. Clearly, if students were going to compete for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, they would need a good deal of
preparation and guidance. We wanted to put that kind of expertise and resources into a convenient and accessible location for the student body.

GAZETTE: Was your office given a charge?

CASCIATO: Very clearly, as the title suggests, this is the office for undergraduate research and fellowships, and I don’t think those things are separate. They’re supposed to work in tandem. If we can be in touch with and promote and celebrate undergraduate research on the campus, it also give us access to identifying talented undergraduates who are doing interesting things and building a relationship with them. We can also educate them about the opportunity of these prestigious fellowships. And I think Penn is singular in having these two offices together.
    But Penn hasn’t done as well as it should be doing, in terms of winning Rhodes, in winning Marshalls, winning these other prestigious fellowships, and we were brought together to see what we could do about it. My job in the next year is to capitalize on this success and try to get more people to apply. I don’t know if we’ll win these fellowships again next year—there’s a lot of luck in it—but one way of judging how well we’ve done at the center is if we can get more people to apply.

GAZETTE: You’ve got bright students; what is it about the culture of the University that is causing them not to apply?

CASCIATO: There’s a kind of pre-professional fast track at Penn that characterizes the student body, for better or worse. In some ways, it draws attention away from these other, more prestigious awards. The competition for those jobs seems to be lively and fierce, and there’s all sorts of people here for that, but less for what we do.

GAZETTE: And yet if you look at one of the better-known winners of the Rhodes [former President Bill Clinton], that would seem to be something that might not hurt your chances in future life.

CASCIATO: That’s one of our jobs, to get people to see that the winning of one of these prestigious things doesn’t hurt your chances to succeed, but actually makes them better.
   
The center’s job, in terms of its scholarships and in terms of research, is to strengthen programs that already exist—University Scholars, Benjamin Franklin Scholars, general honors—and to extend those services that are in those programs already to the entire University undergraduate community. So in a way, our two winners represented both halves of our constituents.
   
But this is not going to be Rhodes and Marshall boot camp. We’re not going to add to the burden of kids who are already in a very difficult, fast-track world with all sorts of pressure. We want to take people who are talented, but one of those talents may not be how best to present those talents, and then to support them in that and help them to be confident and present who they are. In this particular culture it’s important to see who’s doing good work around here, but that’s not so we can draw them in here and make up all kinds of stuff that will help them be a Rhodes or a Marshall. I want them to be more natural, more organic, more themselves.


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/6/01