The education of Peter Hicks


Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Peter Hicks (W’01) was walking down Locust Walk his freshman year when he saw a sign for the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project (WPTP) and signed up. Maybe he signed up because he liked working with kids. Or maybe it was the perfect antidote for a young man who came to the East Coast from Minneapolis and its suburbs and found a chilly way of life in Philadelphia. “People are much nicer in the Midwest. At Penn, if you don’t know someone, you don’t make eye contact, you don’t say hello,” he said.

Hicks has been tutoring neighborhood children ever since. One semester he coordinated the WPTP, and this semester, he’s team leader for Middle Years Alternative School at 48th and Chestnut streets.

That Hicks volunteers doesn’t make him unique. It makes him part of a small army of Penn students — 3,000, according to David Grossman, director of Civic House, which coordinates campus volunteer efforts — who march into the community to make things better, better for the people they are helping and better for themselves. That’s how Hicks sees it.

“I gained a lot from my experience,” he said.

What he has gained from his experience as a tutor is not only the pleasure of working with children — “In another life I’d become a teacher” — but meeting an “awesome” and “diverse” group of friends and getting a first-hand look at the problems of life in the inner city.

He’s gained something else. He tells the story of a boy he worked with last year. Let’s call him Duane.

“Last year, Duane did not like reading at all, I think because he could not read well,” Hicks said. So he hunted down reading material that fit with Duane’s interests — articles on sports, tales of the imagination, items from Web sites for kids, like

“He was reading them, but I didn’t quite know if it was because I was forcing him,” Hicks said.

Six months later, Hicks got out of class early and dropped in on Duane’s study hall unannounced. There was Duane reading one of the out-of-date school library books that the two had tried, unsuccessfully, half a year earlier. “He was actually reading one of the books we’d checked out. We talked about the book. I asked him some questions. He was able to explain what was going on and the people’s motivation. He was getting more than just the plot.

“It totally, totally, totally shocked me.”

And he learned from Duane’s teachers that the new reading skills had improved Duane’s work in his other subjects.

Besides becoming an important part of Duane’s education, WPTP has become part of the education of Peter Hicks. It showed him, first hand, some of the problems of the inner city. “The amount of books in the library was kind of shocking to me. There were so few computers. The guidance counselors had no computers. There was one computer in the library. I saw the frustration from teachers all the way down.”

For example?

“Kids share a worksheet because the copy machine was not fixed.”

Seeing that sparked Hicks’ interest in urban economic development. The other spark was something he learned at Wharton — an understanding of how political decisions affect real estate values and uses.

A finance and real estate major with a minor in urban studies, Hicks is hoping for a job on Wall Street after he graduates, but that’s a stepping stone to his interest in building a stronger inner-city economy.

Originally published on November 30, 2000