The Civic Scholars program, which fuses civic engagement with academic courses and projects, is shaping some remarkable, passionate students who are already having an impact on the communities they serve.
By Samuel Hughes
A Civic Scholar was sitting in a café near campus on a hot summer afternoon, wrestling with the Sisyphean nature of civic engagement. She talked for quite a long time—about her frustration with healthcare inequalities, the challenges of coming from a place like Penn to work in a place like West Philadelphia, her growing distance from people she grew up with who don’t share her passion for community service.
“There’s a quote I really like from the Talmud,” Lisa Doi C’13 said finally. “I’m not Jewish, but it really spoke to me.” She began to quote, from memory:
“Do not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s grief … You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
That’s it, in a nutshell.
Not that many people, even at Penn, know about the Civic Scholars program. Part of that is owing to the fact that it’s only four years old, and just graduated its first boutique-sized cohort of 13 in May. Part of it has to do with the nature of its mission, which is a sort of charged, persistent fusion of civic engagement and academic courses and projects, and not entirely easy to get your mind around. Then there’s the fact that an awful lot of Penn students do community-service work, all of it important, some of it also academically based.
Go to the Civic Scholars website, and you can get a reasonably good sense of the concept. By taking a “sustained and connected approach,” the Civic Scholars “engage in community service or social advocacy work” (a minimum of five semesters’ worth) as well as special proseminars, summer internships, selected courses, and “capstone research projects aimed at public-policy recommendations.”
But that still leaves a good deal of room for interpretation, and doesn’t even hint at the range of student achievements. Which was pretty much the idea from the get-go.
“I never created this program thinking that there was a definitive vocational end, training people to go into social work or into public-school teaching,” says Walter Licht, the personable, bushy-browed Annenberg Professor of History who conceived the program and serves as its faculty director. “Some of them might wind up in social work or in public-school teaching. But I always imagined taking some really terrific young people, and then, wherever they wind up, they’re going to shake up where they are. That’s my dream.”
David Grossman Gr’04, the program’s thoughtful executive director, acknowledges that the very lack of a roadmap makes it “challenging to fit within a Penn framework,” adding: “It’s not an academic program; it’s not a school; it’s not a research program that people can pop in and out of when they need money for research or when they want to hear a lecture. It’s not a pure extracurricular which they can choose to leave—if they want to graduate with the credential. So there aren’t the typical carrots or sticks to encourage continued involvement—much of it comes from within them.”
Self-motivation hasn’t been a problem. And as Penn President Amy Gutmann, who has led a number of the meaty monthly proseminars, puts it: “The program’s flexibility is one of the reasons it’s so successful—students have the ability to pursue their passions and leverage what they learn in the classroom in the real world.”
Hence the broad range of academic majors and schools: from economics and political science to psychology and urban studies to biology and crisis management.
Like any new program, this one is a work in progress, and it was rolled out pretty quickly. But it’s already shaped the arcs of some very impressive young men and women. It’s becoming a small but important draw for high-achieving, service-oriented students, for whom a program like Civic Scholars—and the sheer magnitude of service possibilities at the University—can make the difference between choosing Penn and choosing another top-flight school. And most important, it’s becoming a key part of Penn’s multi-pronged efforts to help solve some of the most pressing problems of urban life, and to continue to repair the fabric of its relationship with the West Philadelphia community.
The program “plays to our unique strengths,” says Gutmann: “bringing theory and practice together with the aim of serving the greater good.”
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COVER STORY: Getting Engaged By Samuel Hughes
Photography by Candace diCarlo
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
(Left): Sourav Bose C’11 W’11 | Capstone Project: “Determinants of Pricing for Emergent Inter-hospital Ambulance Transfer in A Developing Setting: A Geographically Randomized Study”
Jayne Bernsten C’11 | Capstone Project: “Reducing the Likelihood of Child Abuse and Neglect: A Policy Approach”
SIDEBAR: The Making of a (Civically Engaged) Scholar
SIDEBAR: A Civic Scholar Sampler
Mark Pan C’11 | Capstone Project: “An Illusion of Safety:
Background Checks for Philadelphia and Penn Students
Volunteering in Public Schools”