Q&A: Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum

Swain-Cade McCoullum

In 25 years at Penn, she’s seen the University and the community draw closer together. Now she’s engaged in getting Penn students to embrace the city as a place to live.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

In a few short years, Penn has dramatically improved its reputation and sparked a renaissance in its home neighborhood. But its students, by and large, still head elsewhere to pursue their careers or further study.

Changing that is one of the items on Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum’s to-do list. Her office is involved in the Greater Philadelphia College Town Project, a regional initiative aimed at raising Philadelphia’s image as a college town to the level of Boston or Berkeley—which, in turn, would attract more students from outside the region to study and maybe even live here.

The College Town Project, launched recently following nearly a year of citywide discussion and planning, is merely the next logical step in the University Life Division’s efforts to get Penn students to embrace the city more fully. And as a result of those efforts, some Penn students have created programs that involved them in city life and have stayed on after graduation, becoming big Philly boosters, a fact that pleases the West Philly native and Girls High graduate no end.

McCoullum’s office also oversees the non-academic side of student life at Penn—clubs and organizations, fraternities and sororities, parties and activities. So it should come as no surprise that she and her staff have taken up the cause of getting Penn students to explore the lifestyle and entertainment options Philly has to offer.

We met with McCoullum between meetings one recent morning to get her take on how well Penn has done in strengthening its students’ ties to Philadelphia.

Q. What about our students’ attitudes towards the city? It seems to me that the big city out there doesn’t register with them.
Oh, that’s absolutely not the case. Penn students have been actively engaged in the life of the city. [One] of the projects [is] a series of walking tours that one of our own grad students, Kyle Farley, developed and [is] currently used by New Student Orientation, where students are introduced to the life of the city, all over the city, very early in their tenure at Penn. Student organizations like the Undergraduate Assembly, ably led by Dana Hork (C’02) this year, have done projects like Change for Change (Current, Nov. 8), which has donated needed funding to organizations like the Red Cross in the city, and also to our own [Veterans] Upward Bound project. And in fact, in VPUL we have a number of additional connections to the city, where students help [local public school] students move along in the educational cycle. Not only through tutoring but through mentoring projects, there are a lot of service projects where students team up with kids and families throughout the city to do things that will better the neighborhood.

Students tell me, in fact, that the reason they choose to come to Penn and the reason they stay at Penn is because of the links of this university as a vital part of the urban infrastructure of the city of Philadelphia.

Q. What about when they graduate? What are we doing to keep them around?
We have a number of partnerships that started about five years ago. There was a key group of undergraduates that worked with the mayor’s office and a number of other civic agencies to specifically target opportunities for graduates of Penn and other Philadelphia colleges and universities to remain in Philadelphia. The group initially started to do programming where they reached out to connect to the types of activities we had during New Student Orientation, [then later] extended its programming through graduation, where students were invited to cultural organizations like the Art Museum and the [Free] Library for events that targeted college students and gave them more information about the quality of life in the city and region and job opportunities that would retain them in the region.

A number of students have actually stayed on in Philadelphia and made a terrific career. Jon Herrmann (W’00) (Current, Feb. 3, 2000) is an example of a recent graduate who made it his life’s work as an undergraduate at Penn to do such things as the Foundation, which is a community-campus arts organization that runs a series of performances and outreach projects for Philadelphia. He stayed on and is now actively working with the College Town Project.

Q. Is Jon a native?
No. He’s not from Philadelphia. And Malik Wilson (C’99) is another kid who came to Penn with his parents, who were with me in DuBois College House 20 years ago. His parents are currently faculty in the D.C. metropolitan area, but Malik came back to Penn as an undergraduate, and he stayed in the city. [Wilson edits the philly2nite.com entertainment Web site and is also involved in the College Town Project.]

And Andrew Zitcer (C’00) is another classic example. He was a co-founder with Jon of the Foundation. He still believes he is the Foundation, but he’s one of my own VPUL staff members now.

I don’t think any more that there is a graduation. I think that graduation at Penn now means that you begin a new life with Penn and the city.

Q. When did the issue of keeping our students in Philly and getting them more involved in the city become a live one?
When Judith Rodin was appointed president of the University. Judith is a native of West Philadelphia, who attended Philadelphia public schools and then came home to be our first woman president. She and I shared an alma mater [Girls High School]. I’m also a native Philadelphian, and I think that with Judith coming home as a native Philadelphian there was a real confluence of interest in making the University a full partner with our neighborhood and informing a set of ties to the West Philadelphia and larger Philadelphia communities.

Q. You’ve been at Penn for nearly 25 years. How have you seen it change?
[There is a] much more diverse faculty, staff and student community on campus that much better reflects the rich diversity of the city and of our West Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s wonderful to see so many people of so many different backgrounds who can come together and gain from each other and work together to enliven and enrich the community.

Q. How would you compare our relationship with Philadelphia to, say, that of Columbia with New York, or Harvard with Boston and Cambridge?
Oh, we far outpace any of these in the depth of our partnership with the city, in our care and concern for our community, in the reach of our students, faculty and staff, and in the sheer amount of programming. We constantly get approached by other colleges and universities [about our efforts].

We have worked very, very hard at Penn to remove barriers to the community and to the citizenry of our city—in fact, quite literally; as you know, the president and the deans looked very thoughtfully at the actual physical configuration of our campus, and through such projects as the extension of Woodland [Walk] and the reconfiguration of the new [Charles Addams Hall], where the facade literally was knocked down and windows were created to literally represent this university’s desire to be open, accessible and welcoming.

Originally published on November 29, 2001