Summer sessions go extracurricular

On a mild day in early June, a group of your friends is laughing and enjoying a picnic on College Green. Now and then a Frisbee gets tossed about in a carefree way. You can't tell exactly what they are smiling about or just who's there because you're headed the other direction - to class.

It could be "Deviance and Social Control," or maybe it's your English proseminar, "Invalid Women," that you're trying to make on time.

Either way, it is summer and you'll be inside cramming and researching when colleagues and friends are working that summer job or tan.

Valerie Ross, the new director of Summer Sessions, is trying to make the intellectual endeavors of 3,500 eager and non-traditional students a bit more bearable. She has introduced a line-up of activities that aim to add a shot of life into a commonly sedate season of campus life.

At noon each Wednesday there will be the "60-Second Lecture Series," a very brief oration by a succinct faculty member.

"Who Writes Short-Shorts" will offer students the chance to pit their story-telling skills against fellow classmates in an on-line contest judged by an as-yet-unnamed literary editor - Ross knows a few, she used to be an editor at Esquire.

There's also the organized outings to local restaurants and sporting events and an outdoor film series near Harrison College House.

Ross began organizing activities when she took on the director's mantle part-way through January.

"I'm trying to contribute my own experiences to the summer events," Ross said. Those experience are mixed, to say the least: English professor at Miami University of Ohio, journalist in New York City, market researcher at the Milwaukee Better Business Bureau, founder of a jazz school and editor of Cream City Review and other literary journals.

But she isn't just guessing what the students may like. This year's Summer Sessions course guide offered a $10 fee reduction if applicants took the time to fill out the attached survey. She used her residence in Harrison College House, where she's associate dean, to carry out informal polls.

"I pestered students on elevators and in lobbies," Ross said. "They either liked the ideas or went 'bleh,' and let me know what appealed to them. What I'm hoping to do is use focus groups over time to get a sense of their needs."

The diversity of Summer Sessions participants makes designing activities that appeal to them more difficult. A little over half of Summer Sessions students come from outside of Penn's traditional schools. Ross and the Sessions staff are trying to draw upon resources from across the campus. "We are slowly building a coalition between offices and schools to see how we can partner in various ways to improve the summer program," Ross said. "I'd like to familiarize myself with the terrain, and then start harassing people."

She seems to be familiar with the terrain already. She pointed out that when Summer Sessions began in 1904 - when tuition was a simple $10 - men had more options at their disposal than women since the latter weren't allowed to use the pool or other facilities. Eight years later there were trips to City Hall, Valley Forge, Girard College and the highlight, a moonlight boat ride to Wilmington. "Not a bad idea, actually," Ross said.

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Originally published on April 29, 1999