of Summer Sessions,
3 1/2 years
is in Philly now because her husband, Center for Undergraduate
Research and Fellowships
Photo by Candace diCarlo
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.
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?
A. 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 Im [also] very entrepreneurial and the ability to create new programs and see them through is just a great joy.
Q. What things about Penns summer sessions have changed over
the years youve been here?
A. [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 Harvards, 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. Its now tripled in size from when it began, and its 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 Ive 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 youre particularly proud of? Are there
things youd still like to see happen?
A. Im very proud of our summer program.
Our 60-Second Lecture Series [see Baseball]Im so impressed by the faculty, that they have the wit, the good humor and the ability to give substantial lectures in 60 seconds. Im awed at how they do that.
Our Moonlight Movie Series, which is very popularin fact, I think its spawning others in the neighborhood, so we have lots of outdoor movies going onI think its great for the community and for the students.
Im 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 havent been successful with yet. Im trying to figure out how to put on a good barbecue at Penn. Ill 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].
A. Is that it? (laughter) Invite Al Roker. Maybe I should do that. Thats great. So when I can have a decent barbecue, thats it. Everything else, I think, is in place and growing. I would probably like to have more summer programs for adults. Thats the other area that I would like to work on.
Q. Did you know much about Philly before moving here from Seattle?
A. No, just long talks from Art. I learned a lot about Philly from him.
Q. Now that youve been here a while, how would you characterize
the two cities?
A. 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? Thats Seattle. Its 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 theres an underlying kind of Quaker model of consensus here, but one you dont notice at first. Its 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 Im starting to get it.
Theres 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 youve spent time in both places, on the whole,
where would you rather be?
A. Philly, of course.
For upcoming 60-Second Lectures and Moonlight Movies, see Whats On.
Originally published on July 18, 2002