Staff Q&A: Pamela Edwards

Pamela Edwards, associate director, PennCAP; coordinator of Pre-Freshman ProgramPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

Penn can be a pretty overwhelming place, especially for students who are the first in their family to attend college or those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Pamela Edwards’ job is to make sure these students—new to Penn, and new to college life—get the support they need.

Edwards helps to run the PennCAP program and coordinates the Pre-Freshman Program, designed to give academic, cultural and personal support to students prior to their freshman year. “The primary purpose is to help the students not only assess and strengthen their academic skills, but also to just introduce them to the array of resources available to them as Penn students so when they start classes in the fall, they already know where to go to get the help they need,” says Edwards. “We know [this] can certainly increase their chances of ultimately graduating from Penn.”

Once the academic year begins, students who were in the Pre-Freshman Program can also enroll in PennCAP, in which academic counselors provide coaching, support and assistance in developing personal and educational goals throughout their entire Penn career.

Q. What’s the purpose of the Pre-Freshman Program?
A.
It initially started as more of a socially focused program to help students of color get acclimated to the University of Pennsylvania. By about the late ‘80s or so, it became much more academically focused, and today, it’s a pretty academically challenging program that is geared toward a select population of incoming freshman to help them assess and strengthen their academic skills. There’s also a very pretty extensive support aspect to it. What we want to do is equip our students with the knowledge that they need to be able to make it. That’s what they’re here for. For some students, in particular the students who are the first in their family to go to college, they don’t really have a clear understanding of what it takes to make it in college, let alone a place like Penn. They know that they’re smart, [but] it takes more than being smart in order to make it here. We just want to make sure they know where to go to get the help they need.

Q. Who are the students in the PFP and PennCAP?
A.
The students that we have in the program tend to be not your typical Penn student. We tend to have students who are from small rural communities. We have students who are the first in their family to go to college. We have students whose family incomes are lower than typical. We have athletes in our program, in particular those who are involved in fall sports so they get an opportunity to understand the importance of time management prior to the academic year starting. We have students from all races. I think that the Pre-Freshman Program is the gateway to access for underrepresented students at Penn, because it provides an opportunity for them to learn about the University, to understand what the academic rigors are and expectations of Penn professors before the academic year starts.

Q. Specifically, what is the PFP experience like?
A.
The students take college level credit-bearing courses when they come to PFP. A typical day might be starting a math class at 10 o’clock in the morning, and ending with writing at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The curricula does vary by school so that students in Engineering are taking a different set of courses than students in the School of Arts and Sciences. In addition to the classroom component, there are supplemental instructions. We also try to introduce students to the rich resources here at Penn. They will each have an orientation to the library, they will each find out about the Weingarten Learning Resources Center.

Q. Do you help introduce them to cultural life at Penn as well?
A.
We usually go to New York City for a day. We do a big amusement park trip and much smaller trips such as cultural dinners, where we’ll take a group of students down to Chinatown for dim sum. We also have a pretty neat peer counseling program where we hire former PFP participants to work with and mentor the incoming students for PFP and throughout the students’ first year.

Q. Is it a mandatory program for certain students?
A.
Once a student has decided they’re definitely coming to Penn, the admissions representatives will recommend students for the program based upon their knowledge of the students. Our office will then invite those students; it’s completely optional. We will have about 100 students who will participate in the program every year. We invite about 300.

Q. What’s been the feedback about the PFP?
A.
I would say, by far, students say that their decision to participate in the Pre-Freshman Program was the best decision that they made about coming to Penn. Some students even express their desire to give back, come back and help in some way. In fact, many of the peer counselors that we hire are students.
Sometimes they will complain while they’re going through it because of the workload. By about three weeks, they begin to realize, this is a great experience.

Originally published May 22, 2008

Originally published on May 22, 2008