Samuel Ribnick C’11 | Capstone Project: “In Pursuit of Education: The Creation of a Black Public School System in Washington, D.C. through a Century of Change, 1807-1900”

The student urge for civic engagement is an increasingly powerful one, and certainly not confined to Penn. For most Civic Scholars, community service began in the home or high school. In addition to some mandated civic activities by “top-flight high schools,” Licht points to the role of nonprofits and NGOs and high-profile philanthropists like Bill Gates and Bono.

“The kids are picking up on something happening above and beyond Penn,” he says. “And they’re in a global world, so they’re sensitive to issues of AIDS in Africa or Darfur. Katrina was an essential experience for them, in getting themselves engaged.”

While the academically based community-service courses were often (not always) great, they tended to be “one-semester affairs” that did not lead to a bona fide research experience.

“Thanks largely to Ira, we’ve made huge strides on the academic side, in University-assisted community schools,” says Grossman. “Civic House has paid attention to the student-development piece, in nurturing student leadership and understanding around these issues. And we have a lot of students who, by their own gumption, have woven together their academic work and their civic-engagement work toward something where the whole is more than the sum of the parts when they graduate. But we’ve not nurtured students from the beginning who care about that. Civic Scholars was an attempt to respond to that.”

About five years ago, having meditated on that programmatic gap for several years, Licht and Harkavy had lunch together.

“We were chatting about this idea that both of us had an interest in,” recalls Harkavy, “and Walter is the one who said, ‘Let’s take it to the next level.’ He took that conversation to the provost and to the dean of admissions—and it developed very quickly. I remember him coming back very excited, but with some degree of trepidation as well, and he said something like, ‘This is moving quicker than I ever dreamed.’”

The program has been strongly supported by both the provost’s office and President Gutmann. The idea “immediately resonated with me, both as a scholar and as Penn’s president,” recalls Gutmann. “It aligns perfectly with the Penn Compact, allowing students to directly engage in community projects and generate research.”

The nettlesome question of how to select the Civic Scholars was given over to the admissions office, which would scour the applications of those being admitted to Penn and recommend a small number, based on their personal essays and their community-service work. The fear was that if there were a Civic Scholars box on the application, too many students would check it.

On the whole, the process has worked quite well, and resulted in a remarkable mix of talented, civically engaged students. But it has drawn mixed reviews from the students.

“I would definitely change the selection process,” says Brian Mertens C’11, a health and societies major (see sidebar). “It’s based off of your college application, which is not necessarily the best representation of yourself or your commitment to community service. I could probably find five stellar people on campus right now who aren’t in Civic Scholars who are more involved [in community service] than some of the Civic Scholars are now.”

Licht and Grossman acknowledge the merits of that concern, and are not completely closed to the possibility of taking on new students during their freshman year. But in the meantime, Mertens isn’t complaining about the results—or about the fact that the program “really changed the direction of my academic career.”

That flexibility—and entrepreneurial ability to take charge of situations—is one of the things the program is looking for.

“We’re excited about those students that can deal with ambiguity,” says Eric Furda C’87, Penn’s dean of admissions. “For a lot of students, a lot of families, they want to know: What is the track? What is the outcome of that track? And there’s comfort in that. But what about students who take something that’s in formation and who help influence that formation? Those are the leaders. Those are the ones who are going to have an impact.”

Of the 15 Civic Scholars who signed on that first year, only two dropped out. And despite the minor criticisms, all of the graduating seniors I spoke with were somewhere between proud and thrilled that they had been part of that first trailblazing cohort.

“I think Walter did it right,” says Allison Roland. “Because he has really molded every facet of my academic and extracurricular time at Penn. It’s not just, ‘OK, I’m going to take three ABCS [academically based community-service] classes and some other courses, write a thesis, do an internship.’ You have to go to proseminars. You have to be involved in service at least five semesters. In every single domain of your time here, Civic Scholars sort of filters in. It’s not overwhelmingly all-encompassing, but everything I’ve done has had a Civic Scholars component. And I think that’s the way to go, because it keeps civic engagement and the issues percolating in everything you do.”

This past May, two days before Commencement, the 13 graduating Civic Scholars gathered at MarBar, the sleek, modernist bar above the Marathon Grill at 40th and Walnut streets. Their families were there, too, and soon the parents were swapping stories about their sons’ and daughters’ adventures in civic engagement, and examining the capstone project reports on display—and, of course, wanting to meet Grossman and the famous Walter Licht. Then Provost Vincent Price, a strong supporter of the program, arrived and introduced himself to the students and their families. Finally it was time for him to award the certificates to the newly minted Civic Scholars.

“Franklin wanted to create a new generation of leaders, young people dedicated to responsible, responsive government,” he told them. “You lead by example.”

And so, after the obligatory hugs and promises to stay in touch, they walked out into the rainy spring afternoon and the rest of their lives.

“It was bittersweet,” Licht was saying a few days later. “These were our first children, our pioneer program.” He found himself thinking back to the spring of 2007, when the idea was just going from lightbulb-over-the-head to reality, when he was trying to recruit them—with no program, no brochure, not even a website.

“I don’t know how those four years went so fast,” he sighed. “As I said to a couple of them, ‘I was just on the phone with you, trying to recruit you to Penn. Now you’re on your way out the door.’

“They will be special, this cohort,” he admitted. “That first year, there were just 15 of them, and then down to 13. We were like a little family. And one word came up several times—the consistency of the experience. We were a kind of constant presence for the students over their four years. They were in and out of a lot of things, and this was their ballast in some sense. They knew we were here, constantly, part of their lives.”


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COVER STORY: Getting Engaged By Samuel Hughes
Photography by Candace diCarlo

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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SIDEBAR: The Making of a (Civically Engaged) Scholar

SIDEBAR: A Civic Scholar Sampler

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SIDEBAR: The Making of a (Civically Engaged) Scholar

SIDEBAR: A Civic Scholar Sampler


©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/24/11