Staff Q&A: Valerie Ross

Penn used to be a sleepy place during the summer. Not any more.

Much of the increased activity is Valerie Ross’ doing.

She arrived at Penn in the winter of 1999 with a charge to put more sizzle into the summer. And she hit the ground running, putting together a variety of events and activities and turning the summer program for high school students into a true college preparatory experience.

Valerie Ross



Director of Summer Sessions,
College of General Studies

Length of service:

3 1/2 years

Other stuff:

Ross is in Philly now because her husband, Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Director Art Casciato, got homesick while they lived in Seattle.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Now, three years later, she can see the results of her efforts. The field trips and special events have become seasonal staples. The number of summer courses has grown to more than 300, and just about all of them are full, thanks to new promotional materials, catalogs and brochures that earned her staff two gold medals from the University Continuing Education Association, beating out 400 other entries in the publications and campaign categories.

All this keeps Ross very busy, which is exactly how the former Esquire editor and professor of English (at Miami University in Ohio) likes it.

Q. What about this job appeals most to you?
The combination [of administration and academics], the ability to still be very involved in academic life. I can only teach about one course a year now because of the other constraints, but it keeps my foot in that part of things. But I’m [also] very entrepreneurial and the ability to create new programs and see them through is just a great joy.

Q. What things about Penn’s summer sessions have changed over the years you’ve been here?
[Our precollege program for high school students] was a very small program when I came, and it was also a relatively unstructured program. It was more like Harvard’s, where students would just come for the summer and take courses and that was it. Now our program has all sorts of activities associated with it. It has college workshops, admissions workshops, professional skills workshops, weekend outings, during-the-week activities in the College Houses. It’s now tripled in size from when it began, and it’s regarded as one of the premier high school programs in the nation.

My quietest contribution has been to retool summer course offerings. I looked at what we have offered in the past, what was successful, what were gaps, and I’ve been working to expand and tighten at the same time summer course curricula. Because I have an academic background, I have some understanding of professors’ needs and how to shape offerings and consider offerings that students suggest.

This year, for the first time, most of our courses are overenrolled. When I started, most of them were underenrolled or had to be canceled. Now, cancellations are much more rare and full courses are much more typical.

Q. Is there anything you’re particularly proud of? Are there things you’d still like to see happen?
I’m very proud of our summer program.

Our 60-Second Lecture Series [see “Baseball”]—I’m so impressed by the faculty, that they have the wit, the good humor and the ability to give substantial lectures in 60 seconds. I’m awed at how they do that.

Our Moonlight Movie Series, which is very popular—in fact, I think it’s spawning others in the neighborhood, so we have lots of outdoor movies going on—I think it’s great for the community and for the students.

I’m happy with our summer course offerings, but I want them to expand and get more faculty involved in summer programming.

I would love to be able to come up with a few more activities of sorts that I haven’t been successful with yet. I’m trying to figure out how to put on a good barbecue at Penn. I’ll feel happy in terms of summer events when I can have the grills out and some music playing and see people—

Q. Invite Al Roker [“Today” weatherman and barbecue maven].
Is that it? (laughter) Invite Al Roker. Maybe I should do that. That’s great. So when I can have a decent barbecue, that’s it. Everything else, I think, is in place and growing. I would probably like to have more summer programs for adults. That’s the other area that I would like to work on.

Q. Did you know much about Philly before moving here from Seattle?
No, just long talks from Art. I learned a lot about Philly from him.

Q. Now that you’ve been here a while, how would you characterize the two cities?
Seattle was a very reserved, more rule-bound culture. People [would] come together and actually debate about parking spaces. You know, who should park where in a parking lot in a community shopping center? How many spaces should the pizza place get versus the movie place? That’s Seattle. It’s just a tremendously organized, low-key place. But everyone has a cup of coffee in their hands.

Philadelphia I would never describe as low-key. Philadelphia is a really energetic place, and there’s an underlying kind of Quaker model of consensus here, but one you don’t notice at first. It’s not a place where people come together and debate things. And it took me a while to grasp the Quakerness of Philadelphia. But I now think I’m starting to get it.

There’s the stereotypical Philly, you know, people brawling over a sports game or something. But the real Philly, the fundamental Philly, is thoughtful and gradual and comes slowly to a decision.

Q. And now that you’ve spent time in both places, on the whole, where would you rather be?
Philly, of course.

For upcoming 60-Second Lectures and Moonlight Movies, see “What’s On.”

Originally published on July 18, 2002