Civic House contributes to a true education

Before former President Jimmy Carter delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree May 18, he joined President Judith Rodin in a ceremony announcing the creation of Civic House, the university's newest community service initiative.

Proposed and designed by a coalition of students who take their societal responsibilities seriously, Civic House, in an old Victorian house on the western edge of campus, will serve as the home and headquarters for scores of community service projects.

Each year, literally thousands of Penn students, faculty, and staff work in partnership with families, schools and neighborhood organizations. Let me give a few examples. The West Philadelphia Tutoring Project engages more than 300 Penn students in one-on-one tutoring with students at area schools. Penn CORP is a four-day, intensive introduction to community service that enrolls 50 incoming freshmen each year. The 100 students in Alternate Spring Break spend spring vacation in service projects in cities from Fort Worth, Texas, to Memphis, Tenn., to Philadelphia.

Penn has also pioneered in the creation of "service-learning" courses, in which students combine community service with research and analysis. In Anthropology 310, for example, Penn undergraduates learn about nutrition and then teach the subject in partnership with sixth-grade students at Turner Middle School. Undergraduates in Environmental Sciences 404 learn the science of lead toxicity and then work with students and teachers at Shaw Middle School to improve the environment around the school.

These examples indicate something of the wide range represented in service-learning at Penn. In all, more than 50 such courses have been offered in the past couple of years, and the number is growing.

The scope and variety of these courses and volunteer efforts have made Penn a nationally recognized leader in sponsoring community service activities. Still other projects are in development. In the near future, we intend to launch a program to bring scholars to campus whose writing has influenced public policy debates in areas such as poverty, urban education and social change.

The inauguration of Civic House provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of community service at a research university. To put it bluntly: why does the university host such involvement in the community, and why do so many students, faculty, and staff members participate?

The university's mission statement has long embraced a combination of teaching, research, and service.

Historically, however, the relationship between universities and their surrounding communities has typically been vexed and often adversial. Some of the suspicions and tensions generated by those earlier conflicts persist. But meaningful, measurably productive partnerships are multiplying in areas of shared concern, from job training and local purchasing to school reform and safety. These projects are based upon the proposition that the University's future is intertwined with the well-being of the city and region.

Community service and service learning provide a means of acknowledging and nurturing Penn's close links to its community. Civic House is the latest evidence of this encouraging trend. The students who take part in its projects will have the chance to contribute to the city in which they live. In addition, they will enjoy a far richer educational experience. And they will, as a consequence, be better prepared for their roles as citizens and leaders in the 21st century.

Peter Conn, who holds the Andrea Mitchell Chair in English, serves as faculty advisor of Penn's new Civic House.

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Originally published on May 28, 1998