Making Gardens Bloom
More financial aid helps students,
Penn, and the world.

By Amy Gutmann | Spring announces herself to our campus each year with two delightful heralds: flowers and foliage in colorful bloom; and Penn seniors mobilizing en masse to make their marks on the world. As a former scholarship student, I take an avid interest in tracking the growth and progress of Penn’s financial-aid recipients. Many of these talented and industrious young people already have followed Voltaire’s injunction to “cultivate one’s own garden.” Even before they leave Penn, their gardens are bursting with breathtaking accomplishments.

In addition to being grateful that a college scholarship enabled me to pursue my life-long passion for education, I have two other reasons for increasing the accessibility and affordability of
a Penn education to the finest undergraduate, professional, and graduate students: One, a diverse student body strengthens Penn by enriching the Penn educational experience for our entire community. Two, making Penn more accessible will produce new generations of leaders from all backgrounds who are well prepared to advance both mutual understanding and innovation in a diverse global society.

Over the past three years, Penn has made a quantum leap in endowing scholarships, propelling us forward toward reaching our goal of becoming the premier urban teaching and research University with the most far-reaching global perspective and impact.

A few months ago, Penn made history by announcing that, beginning this September, we will offer loan-free packages to students with family incomes of less than $100,000 and will ease the debt burden for financially eligible families above that level. By September 2009, we will eliminate loans for all students eligible for financial aid.

Until recently, students on financial aid at Penn and at most of our peer institutions had virtually no choice but to graduate with debts on average exceeding $20,000. Now, for the first time, students from low- and middle-income families can graduate debt-free. 

We also have launched an outreach program to get the word out to high-achieving students of limited financial means.

We will fund these new aid packages through our Making History Campaign, which includes a $350 million goal for undergraduate financial aid, and a $323 million goal for graduate and professional student aid. As of April 10, we have raised $287 million toward these goals.

The experiences of our gifted and idealistic Penn students show how our investment in financial aid is strengthening Penn as an academic powerhouse while also advancing the public good.

I begin with Chrysta Irolla EAS’08, a bioengineering major from Brooklyn, New York, who embodies Penn’s signature talent for passion combined with entrepreneurial flair. Chrysta chose Penn over a full scholarship to a predominantly engineering institution because she preferred our dynamic, interdisciplinary environment and the wide range of practical opportunities she saw here. While fitting amputees with prosthetics during a School of Engineering and Applied Science-sponsored service trip to Asia, Chrysta was inspired to find new ways to use her engineering skills to help others. Back at Penn she invented a “smart sock” that enables amputees with prosthetics to walk more comfortably by sensing and redistributing the pressure that walking places on the injured limb.

With the assistance of her professor and the members of her engineering entrepreneurship class, Chrysta drafted a business plan and obtained input from potential investors. Weiss Tech House, Penn’s technology hub, furnished funding and space for her to build a prototype. The SmartSock is now a finalist in PennVention, Penn’s competition for student inventors, and a semi-finalist in the Wharton Business Plan Competition. In her spare time, Chrysta assists West Philadelphia elementary and high school science teachers in creating hands-on learning opportunities that bring science to life in the classroom.

Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, owned a silver cream pot that bore the poignant motto: “Keep bright the Chain.” Accomplished undergraduates like Chrysta Irolla are keeping bright the chain of learning at Penn for our faculty as well as for their fellow students.

Our great graduate and professional students also are forging strong links in that chain. Eminent faculty members prize the opportunity to exchange knowledge with emerging scholar-teachers. Having travelled a little farther along the academic road, graduate and professional students also furnish invaluable mentoring support to undergraduates. Our mentoring program includes nearly 170 active mentoring pairs of students interested in law, government relations, medicine, business, and several doctoral programs.

Mario Lozada C’07 is among the program’s “satisfied customers.” One of the first in his family to attend college, Mario needed help finding a graduate program that would enable him to combine his passions for the Chinese language and for advancing human rights. Penn’s mentoring program quickly matched Mario with Kesarin Phanarangsan, a PhD. student in our East Asian Languages and Civilizations department. Kesarin described the nature of her studies and the types of academic work graduate students perform in the various fields he was considering. With Kesarin’s help, Mario decided that a law degree would give him the broadest range of options. He plans to study international law at Boston College Law School this fall.

Stories of students making a difference like Chrysta, Kesarin, and Mario abound in the undergraduate, graduate, and professional student ranks at Penn. We can raise their number by strengthening Penn’s need-based financial aid program. For example, with more robust financial aid, graduates who wish to join Teach for America or perform other types of public service will be able to make that choice without the pressure of having to repay college loans.

Reaching our financial aid goals also will enable Penn to become ever more eminent and enterprising. We currently pay a large portion of financial aid grants with operating funds. When more of these costs are covered by our endowment, we will have more flexibility to support other priorities.

A successful campaign not only will enable Penn to lead the world in the education of great future leaders. By empowering the best and brightest undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to put their multidisciplinary knowledge into practice, we will place the care of the world’s “garden” in the most capable of hands.

May|June 08 Contents
Gazette Home
Previous issue’s column

©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/24/08