These students see the big picture

For those of you who maintain that nothing good came out of those '60s movements, consider this: Adults across the country are rediscovering the joys of academe and transforming their lives thanks to a quirky idea from the 1960s.

And at Penn, the program inspired by that idea - the Master of Liberal Arts program in the College of General Studies - celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

The idea, known as "liberal studies," originated at Wesleyan University, and it sought to break graduate education free from the bonds of overspecialization. Originally aimed at teachers, the liberal studies movement has since embraced mid-career professionals looking to widen their horizons.

Which made it a natural for Penn's College of General Studies, itself founded more than a century ago as a continuing-education program for teachers.

In the 1980s, Penn began testing the liberal studies waters with its Non-Traditional Graduate Studies program, said CGS Associate Director Janet Theophano. But that program only allowed students to obtain graduate course credit that could then be transferred towards a traditional graduate degree in a discipline.

"A lot of students who enrolled in Non-Traditional Graduate Studies didn't want a Ph.D., but it was the only way people who wanted a rigorous and challenging graduate program could think of it [at the time]," she said. "We thought the M.L.A. program was just perfect for these people."

For some, though, the program did turn out to be a steppingstone to an academic career. Charlene Mires, for instance, enrolled in the M.L.A. program while serving as assistant national editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Her original goal was to give her reporting context by studying the history of social change.

"Over time, though, I became more interested in the context than the daily production of the newspaper," she said.

One thing led to another, and after completing her M.L.A. in 1992, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Temple in 1997 and now teaches history at Villanova University.

For others, the program offered a chance to turn ideas into action.

Felice Similaro used the program to focus her desire to give back to the community. The 52-year-old Bryn Mawr homemaker decided to pursue her interest in politics and women's studies first by earning a bachelor's degree from Rosemont College at 45, then enrolling in the M.L.A. program, where she focused on urban studies as well.

Several of her M.L.A. courses gave her insights that directly apply to her job with Urban Bridges, a program based at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Olney/Feltonville that runs literacy programs and other services.

"One course I took was 'Philanthropy and the City.' What I do is grant-writing, and that was a huge help," she said. "Another course that was really relevant to my job focused on the role of churches in the city."

But the most valuable part of her experience, she said, was the ability to see the big picture. "The MLA program allows you to get a picture of the world that is more interrelated and interdependent, and that view of the world works better for me."

While the M.L.A. program resembles a traditional master's program in structure, there are important differences in pacing and content.

Instead of a thesis, students complete a capstone project. "We've had short stories written, artwork exhibited, and performances, all accompanied by written material placing the object's origin in context," Theophano said.

Students may take courses in any of Penn's schools. "This is probably the only place within Penn where we can talk about a real 'One University' setting," she said.

Students may also take day or evening courses and enroll full- or part-time as their schedules allow.

Anita Mastroieni, associate director for programs and events in SAS Development and Alumni Relations, appreciated that flexibility when circumstances forced her to defer her capstone project. "I was supposed to finish in December, but I fell sick," she explained. "I can't tell you how supportive the people were in allowing me to defer work." Mastroieni expects to complete her M.L.A. in urban studies this May.

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Originally published on February 11, 1999