Staff Q&A with Harriet Joseph

Harriet Joseph

Peter Tobia

For 25 years, Harriet Joseph has helped to guide Penn students through their academic careers. She’s also one of Penn basketball’s biggest fans.

The Daily Pennsylvanian has called her Penn Basketball’s resident “Bubbe.”

Other students know her as their academic advisor.

For 25 years, Harriet Joseph has helped shape the landscape of student life at Penn. She’s worked in the College of General Studies (now called the College of Liberal and Professional Studies), running the precursor to the Master of Liberal Arts program. She’s served as a College advising officer and she’s worked as director of the Alumni Council on Admissions.

Seven years ago, Joseph brought her knowledge and experience to the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) to run the University Scholars program, and since 2008, has worked as the director.
Whatever her title, she will always consider herself a devoted Penn basketball fan.

Students who use CURF resources are some of Penn’s best and brightest. And Joseph says she and her staff have their hands full pointing them in the right direction. They oversee the University Scholars and Ben Franklin Scholars programs, encourage students to apply for grants or fellowships such as the Rhodes, Gates and Marshall scholarships and connect students with researchers who are eager to have assistance on projects.

In a decade, CURF has grown by leaps and bounds. Since its creation, 1,100 research projects have been listed through CURF and currently, 260 projects are listed by faculty in the research directory. In the last decade, CURF has also nurtured an increase in the number of applicants for the Fulbright Grant: There have been between 80 and 115 Fulbright applicants from Penn annually in the last 10 years, compared to 45 to 55 applicants each year before 2001.

The Current met with Joseph in her office located in the soon-to-be renovated ARCH Building on Locust Walk to talk about the past decade, what lies ahead for CURF, and how being around the men’s basketball team just brings out the “Jewish mother” in her.

Q. What did the landscape for undergraduate research and fellowships look like 11 years ago?
A. Before CURF was started, [information about how to apply for] the fellowships, from what I can tell, [was] in several different places. Fulbright was in departments or could have been off in International Programs, the [Ben Franklin Scholars] program had some connection to Rhodes.
Previous to CURF, from 1939 to 1999, there were six Rhodes [from Penn]. Since CURF, we’ve had six Rhodes. It doesn’t mean we have done all the effort we need to do, but we certainly are out there.

Q. Talk about the early days of CURF.
A. There were two orphan programs, Ben Franklin Scholars and University Scholars, that had been around for 30 years, and both programs were sort of nowhere. They were not [housed] in the College, they were funded partially by the College, partially by [Vice Provost for University Life], partially by other kinds of funding. So the idea was, [the programs] would be a funding source for CURF but also a pipeline for CURF. …
We’d also started, the summer before that, the PURM project. It was the Provost Undergraduate Research Mentoring project, and it was set up to fund [research conducted by] 12 pairs of faculty and rising sophomores for 10 weeks in the summer. It was so successful with the first round that it went up to 18. It became what we now call the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Project. … We had 60 students participate this summer.

Q. Do students come to you with a specific project in mind, or just generally know they want to do research but don’t know where to begin?
A. All of the above. There are kids who say, ‘I want to expand this project.’ There are kids who say, ‘I want to join University Scholars as a result of having this project.’ There are kids who get put into the pipeline for Truman, Goldwater, and Udall, which are some of the undergraduate fellowships that kids will apply for to give them funding to continue on to graduate school. We have a huge database of kids who have asked for funding or have received funding and we use that database to encourage kids to apply for [fellowships].

Q. So it’s not just sitting back and letting students come to you. You really go out there and recruit students for these opportunities.
A. Yes, and we have research peer advisors who are recruited every year. These are kids who are willing to organize in the residencies.

Q. What are your goals for CURF?
A. We actually want to improve the outreach to students for fellowships. We send out letters, but [the letters are] an explanation from me that invites kids to come to fellowship sessions. We’re actually going to look at kids at the end of their freshman year and the beginning of their sophomore year and try and connect them to mentors to convince them that getting a graduate degree is not so bad. Penn tends to be a little bit pre-professional so there’s this whole, ‘I have to graduate and go to Wall Street right away’ mentality. Convincing these kids that ending the year on a Fulbright, or a year on a Rhodes, or a Marshall, or a Mitchell might be something that enhances their experience and makes them more marketable in the real world afterwards is important. And we think that faculty can help us with that.
We are unique amongst our Ivy competitors because their undergraduate research offices are separate from their fellowship offices. We are the only one of the Ivies that has a central office. Finding these kids and putting them in the pipeline is a little bit easier.
We’re finding that kids who have done undergraduate research projects that have become significant parts of their lives then have a legitimate reason for wanting to go. You don’t just apply for the Rhodes because you want the Rhodes, because the committee will see through that. What [administrators of the Rhodes] want is for you to have a legitimate reason for why studying at Oxford will enhance what [students] want to do in the future.
The other thing we’re trying to do … is try and quantify how many kids are doing research. By looking at kids who take independent studies, we’re looking at kids who work in labs doing research, by getting departments to report who’s doing research on their own and who’s volunteering. Then we’ll continue to try and convince faculty that undergraduates can do research and they ought to be using them or hiring them in some way.

Q. Are faculty excited to have undergrads assisting with research?
A.They’re finding that the more they start with undergrads, the more they realize undergrads can do this. … The more successful undergraduates you get working, especially in the science labs, the more faculty will want undergraduates.
These kids really get to work with some great faculty they wouldn’t get to work with otherwise.

Q. How much contact do you have with students?
A. I kept directorship of the University Scholars program when I became director of [CURF] for the main reason that I wanted to do academic advising. The best thing I’ve ever done on this campus, and continue to do, is academic advising of undergraduates. I technically have the 140 or so University Scholars as my advisees for four years. I have to sign off on their choosing classes as freshmen and sophomores; I have to do worksheets for them when they’re declaring majors. I also encourage them to think about research. I insisted on keeping that because I thought if I were just the administrator here, I would never see students. This way, probably about a third of my time is spent advising undergraduates.
Plus, I’m the ‘mother’ of the basketball team. I’m an avid fan of the Penn basketball team, so I do a little bit of recruiting for the coach. The men’s coach [Jerome Allen] was one of my students when he was an undergraduate, although he was in Wharton.

Q. So you’re sort of like their mom away from home?
A. The Jewish mom in me comes out all the time. I recruit for them and I talk about Penn and kind of unofficially keep track of their academic stuff.

Q. How did you get connected with the team?
A. I’ve loved basketball forever. My husband dragged me to the Palestra when I first was dating him in 1974, before I was ever at Penn. He now claims he created a monster because we go to every game that’s here in Philly, and if we have to travel to Delaware or New Jersey, we’ll do that. We don’t typically do the California trip. We might go to Duke.
I started working here in 1989 in the college advising office and I met [former men’s basketball coach] Fran Dunphy and we became friends and he would start bringing kids by. I actually became the academic eligibility officer for the College when I was in the College advising office, so that’s where I got to see a lot of them, too. They still come by. I have contact with the alumni all the time, too. They jokingly say they could not have gotten through Penn without me.

Originally published on October 13, 2011