A Civic Scholar Sampler

Civic Scholar Brian Mertens C’11
| Capstone Project: “The Crusade for
Pure Milk Has Begun: Science, Politics, and Municipal Milk Regulation in Philadelphia, 1899-1914”

Shortly after arriving at Penn in the fall of 2007, Allison Huberlie C’11 co-founded a program called Penn for Youth Debate. It was a subject she knew well, having been a champion debater in her New Hampshire high school, and what started as a modest program in five Philadelphia public schools has since expanded to more than 30 public and charter middle and high schools. The students, whose ages range from 12 to 18, debate everything from universal healthcare to the military draft to the benefits of social networking—“big contemporary social issues,” as she puts it.

The program, with its myriad responsibilities and time-sucks, fulfilled her community-service requirement as a Civic Scholar. It has also been her passion.

“I owe everything to debate,” says the bright-eyed, quick-talking Huberlie. “There’s nothing in college that I haven’t been able to relate back to it—literally nothing. Every single thing I do, I can take something I learned from debate and apply it.

“The basic idea was that debate is just really incredible for students, but that the impact could potentially be magnified for students from less privileged schools,” she adds. “First, there’s the literacy, critical-thinking, public-speaking skills, which are all incredible and amazing. But another thing that debate did for me was, it really surrounded me with high-performing peers. So putting underserved students in an environment where everyone wants them to go to college can also be helpful.”

Under Huberlie, Penn for Youth Debate partnered with a local nonprofit called After School Activities Partnership.

“They teach things like chess and Scrabble, and they wanted to add debate, but while they had the infrastructure to do that, they didn’t have the knowledge expertise, and we had that,” she explains. “They do all the administrative stuff, and we provide about 75 Penn volunteers to go once a week to these schools and teach debate to the students and act as their coaches.”

Then there are the tournaments—at least three a year—as well as scrimmages during the week. Tournaments, usually held on college campuses, provide a “chance for the students to show off their skills, to compete against each other,” says Huberlie. “We try to make sure there is an academic focus, and just bringing the students onto a college campus has a profound impact on them. They see what it’s like here, and they want to replicate that for themselves. We also do college preparation for the students.”

That in itself is no small commitment. Until the last big expansion, Huberlie personally worked with every student on college essays and applications. She then created a structure in which the Penn volunteers are responsible for every senior on the debate team, “nagging them and making sure” that their applications and recommendations are in.

The program has had a significant impact on the teachers who are involved with debate. “We’ve been lucky with a lot of these teachers,” Huberlie says. “We’re never going to have enough volunteers to staff every single school in the city, but with a lot of the schools, if you find a young teacher who’s going to be there for a while, and get them involved in debate, they will kind of keep that program going on their own. Then we can pull out the volunteers and put them somewhere else where they’re more needed.”

Maria Fitzgerald, a chemistry teacher who had been tapped to lead the debate program at Bodine High School for International Affairs in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, recalls not just how good Huberlie was with the kids, or how much she mentored them and critiqued their debate preparation before tournaments, or how knowledgeable she was about debate; she also recalls the sometimes-overwhelming logistical work and perseverance needed to make things happen. (After she’d made arrangements for the kids to stay with host families of debaters for a tournament in New York, for example, the School District’s lawyers nixed that plan, whereupon Huberlie had to find them all hotel rooms—then come up with the funding for both the rooms and the insurance. She did it all, fast and without complaining.)

“She was one of those people who, when you work with them, you know the job will get done,” says Fitzgerald. “I would sometimes forget that she was only a college student. She was so competent that I would think of her as someone who was about 30.”

Huberlie’s senior capstone project examined how the leaders of Philadelphia charter schools perceive the tradeoffs between accountability and autonomy.

“I interviewed 16 leaders at 16 different charters,” she explains, “and ultimately focused the paper more on the tradeoffs that leaders face between accountability—through standardized tests, audits of finances, how teachers are accountable to one another—and their autonomy to design the curriculum to spend money the way they want to spend, and how those two things balance each other out.”

Among the lessons Huberlie learned from her civically engaged mother, who works as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, is that “business skills are lacking in the nonprofit world.” That insight is at least partly the motivation behind Huberlie’s first job after graduation (foreign-currency trading at Credit Suisse) and behind her eventual plan to attend Harvard Business School, which has an educational-management program.

Whatever part of the educational-management field she goes into, Ali Huberlie is going to help. There’s no debating that.

For Sourav Bose C’11 W’11, civic engagement was the result of many factors that fall under the categories of nature and nurture.

“My parents are physicians, as is my sister,” he says. “So there’s a certain service element that I grew up with, and my intrinsic values guide me toward service work.”

Bose has taken the concept to another level, though. Before he even got to Penn, his family’s summer visits to India had prompted him to found a nonprofit organization there that focuses on health education and literacy; he had also conducted research on the variable sequences of the gp120 protein of the HIV-1 envelope at the Public Health Research Institute and volunteered as an EMT with his local fire department in Leonia, New Jersey.

While the latter helped him recognize “the impact I could have in my own community,” he says, working in India showed him that all communities are, at their core, the same. “And working for the community had similar impacts, despite the differences in the tools that you use and the cultural sensitivities that are required, and the exact mode in which you are helping—or rather, contributing.”

Bose, who’s also in the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management (majoring in biology and economics and crisis management), continued his work in disaster management and pre-hospital healthcare at Penn, serving as chief of the student-run Penn Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), which provides medical services for the Penn campus and surrounding areas. He also did research with the Department of Emergency Medicine at HUP on resource needs in the Philadelphia ambulance system.

Eugene Janda, chief of Fire and Emergency Services at Penn, recalls an incident back in April when, in the small hours of the morning, a campus security guard was seriously injured by a car that drove up on the sidewalk. Two groups responded immediately: the Philadelphia Fire Department and the Penn MERT. Even though Bose was a month away from graduating, and had finished his term as chief and was now officially just a MERT advisor, he supervised the MERT response.

“Sourav could have been out at a party, or just relaxing and having a good time before he left Penn,” says Janda. “But he wasn’t. He was out supervising the MERT in his uniform while they helped to assess and stabilize the injured security officer.”

Bose’s capstone project—“Determinants of Pricing for Emergent Inter-hospital Ambulance Transfer in a Developing Setting: a Geographically Randomized Study,” which won the Rose Undergraduate Research Award—grew out of two summers’ worth of work in rural Guatemala, as part of Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative. The first summer’s work was “ethnographic in nature,” and the second summer was a “focused project looking at access to emergency healthcare in a community [which] drew on my Wharton education, the University perspective on anthropology and working with people, and certain technical perspectives from a variety of different fields,” he says. “But most importantly it was geared toward the community and working in a community setting and pursuing some sort of sustainable community model for developing access to care.

“We now have data that we can publish and share with those who are working in developing countries,” he adds. “The piece of the project that I’m most proud of is not the results to the actual survey but the methodology that I created to develop that data, which was a novel, low-cost, low-tech approach to doing geographic randomization of surveys—in rural areas, for example, with no addresses or no enumerable element like phone numbers or social-security numbers.”

Bose spent two years working as a research assistant to Roger Band, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Penn.

“It was clear from my initial interview with Sourav that he is dedicated to research, and, unlike most pre-med students, he is very adept at working with spreadsheets and analyzing large data sets, which has been been tremendously helpful,” says Band. “He developed a methodology for this one paper we’re submitting now from when he was in Guatemala, and he basically needed to develop a research tool, which he did almost de novo. He was able to figure out all the IT-related components, and how to do the statistics around his methodology—basically just a new way to collect data in a resource-limited setting. To do any of those components requires a different skill set than I have. That he was able to come up with all of this stuff was pretty impressive.”

Asked, in an admittedly leading fashion, if there’s something Franklinesque about Bose’s range of talents, Band laughs. “Yeah, I’ll go with that. He’s a pretty multidimensional guy.”

Bose, who may be most proud of his time volunteering at the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, will be spending the upcoming academic year earning his master’s in public health in the United Kingdom on a Thouron Fellowship, and will be returning to Penn’s medical school in the fall of 2012 (and, he hopes, submatriculating into the MBA program at Wharton). Further down the road, he envisions himself “working as a physician and consulting with governments and corporations, working in disaster zones or high-risk areas to optimize delivery of public-health resources.”

But at this point, he says: “My perspective is that I haven’t actually accomplished anything.”

When it comes to volunteering and community service, Brian Mertens C’11 has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“I’ve been on both sides,” he says. “I was a volunteer at a needle-distribution center, and they didn’t seem interested in having me around or not having me around. If I showed up, I showed up. If I didn’t, I didn’t. There was never any orientation material; I was never introduced to who was in charge or given any contact information. I’d email people and they never got back to me.” As a smart, well-organized student majoring in health and societies, he could have helped that organization—if it had been organized enough.

Since he began working at the Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI)—a program based in the Netter Center that addresses issues of nutrition, obesity, and diet-related disease—he’s seen the flip side: a well-run organization that is understandably wary about taking on volunteers who show up with the best of intentions, commit to a lot of activities, then don’t show up.

“The implications of these kinds of relationships in nonprofits, and how the nonprofits operate, I find very intellectually stimulating,” he says. “They’re their own kind of beast, and I’ve really benefitted from my exposure to them. We’re really critically evaluating what is good, what is altruism, what is philanthropy, and thinking about these issues in greater depth than other students who haven’t been exposed to it would. We all have these different experiences in service; some of them are successful, and some are not. And I think discussing those models and what works and what doesn’t, and the nuances of volunteering and the public good, is really beneficial.”

Mertens’ first job with UNI was as an assistant supervisor in its garden, which he quickly determined was not the best place for him. He also ran one of UNI’s cooking crews, in which high-school students from several area high schools teach healthful-cooking classes throughout West Philadelphia. Last summer he was responsible for running a program in which UNI placed rising high-school seniors in professional internships in private businesses and at Penn.

“Brian went to our grant meetings with the funder who was going to help us make that happen, and learned the requirements for that grant and also for the program, and then really ran with that project,” says Kristin Schwab, UNI’s director of youth development. “There’s no way we could have pulled it off without him.

“In my five years of working here with Penn students, three of the top students were Civic Scholars,” Schwab adds, the other two being Anushka Nadarajah C’11 and Jeremy Levenson C’12. “There’s something good going on there, because it connected me with the best students here that are really committed to tying in that service with their academics.”

Mertens’ capstone project was “The Crusade for Pure Milk Has Begun: Science, Politics, and Municipal Milk Regulation in Philadelphia, 1889-1914.” It examines the efforts by the Board of Health of Philadelphia to regulate and inspect milk at a time when its role in infant mortality was becoming clear. It also evaluates how the medical community’s emerging understanding of bacteriology changed the Board’s concept of the milk problem, especially regarding hygienic conditions in the dairy industry—and explores the still relevant confluence of science, politics, and public health.

Like a lot of Civic Scholars, Patrick Krieger C’13 had plenty of community-service work during his formative years in Ohio. He doesn’t mind working hard, and when he taught summer school at Wilson Freedom School in West Philadelphia last year, he was up at 6:30 and in the classroom by 7:30. Every morning.

“He was always on time, and he knew all the children’s names the first day,” says Kuzonza Barnes, the mother of one of his 10-year-old students. “I liked the fact that he was respectful to parents—always addressed me as ‘Ms. Barnes.’ And he expected the best out of the children.”

Krieger, who even went to church with the Barneses, acknowledges that he brought high expectations for the kids.

“In my classroom, my students will be learning,” he says. “Sometimes they say, ‘Oh, why do we have to work?’ I tell them, ‘It’s called school. I want you to be the best students in your school next year.’ They know I expect them to have their feet under their desk, their backs straight. I will not take any attitude in the classroom.”

By several accounts, Krieger did control the classroom remarkably well, with a quiet, firm hand. (It also didn’t hurt that he knew when to spring the occasional surprise party.)

“When they acted out, he would get them under control,” says Kuzonza Barnes, an assertion confirmed by 10-year-old Kimberly. “But he didn’t like to yell. He had good control over the class.”

Not that he found teaching easy.

“Working in the schools was just a shock to me,” he says. “You walk in there and it’s chaos—kids screaming, yelling, running, hitting. I was thinking back to, ‘Where was I in the second grade? Were there students screaming back, refusing to do things?’ It’s challenging when they’re misbehaving and acting out, no matter how much you know about classroom management.

“I think urban education is the hardest and most important field in the nation,” he says. “Being able to shape and mold minds at the most crucial stage of life is the most important thing I’ve done. My work can be frustrating, and it’s stressful, but it’s rewarding when students get it.”

While he hasn’t lost any of his interest in urban education, teaching itself has lost some of its luster.

“I completely understand the turnover rates,” he says, and admits to a sneaking desire to work for Apple. “But then I think about it—what am I using this degree for? My Penn connections may allow me to gain funding for a charter school. We’re in a learning environment that has so many ideas. I want to effect change. The question is, how can I do that with my Penn degree?”—S.H.


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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