The curriculum for every student at Penn, no matter his or her school, is built around collaborative study. Students in the Schools of Engineering, Nursing, and at Wharton are all required to take some courses at the College of Arts & Sciences—Wharton says that up to 43 percent of classes its undergrads need to graduate can be taken outside of Wharton—and a communications major in the College tells us that “you can take courses in any of the schools, including graduate level courses.” In fact, it is not uncommon for a student to pursue degrees from two schools at the same time. A student can pursue a bachelor’s in psychology from the College while working on a BSE in computer science from the School of Engineering. Penn calls this arrangement a coordinated dual degree, and there are a number of these formalized programs in place. The Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, for one, combines a BS in economics from the Wharton School with a BA in international studies from the College of Arts & Sciences. Plus, a handful of students in any given year create individualized majors by working with a faculty mentor to develop a “coherent set of courses,” and a research project. Having students from different academic backgrounds in one classroom can only enhance the experience there. “The cool thing is that the nature of everyone’s experiences and accomplishments is different,” one double major explained, “so you can learn a lot from others.” In fact, one recent alumnus credits the collected experience of learning from friends and classmates as his most valuable experience at Penn: “Being inspired by them helped me figure out what I wanted most from my future and motivated me to actively seek it out. Without that motivation I wouldn’t have worked hard to put myself on projects that engage my passion of exploring the social determinant of health.”
Two spaces come to mind when students talk about Penn’s avenues for service and community engagement: Civics House and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Civic House is the service hub on campus for students with extracurricular and career aspirations in community engagement. Programing like Alternative Spring Break and the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project are House staples, and lots of the student-led social advocacy groups on campus are supported in some way by Civic House with funding, meeting space, or publicity. Workshops and career panels at Civic House help student seeking public interest careers find their way, plus their internship program places undergrads in summer- or semester-long gigs at Philadelphia nonprofit organizations (and funds positions that would otherwise be unpaid or lowly paid).
The Netter Center’s mission is based on the concept that “Penn’s future and the future of West Philadelphia/Philadelphia are intertwined” and a host of programs work toward the goal of improving the quality of life in West Philadelphia as well as the Philadelphia community at large. One graduate we interviewed cites Netter’s Penn Program for Public Service, in which she participated during the summer between her junior and senior year, as one of her most valuable college experiences. She reports: “I spent my summer teaching at a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School at an elementary school in West Philadelphia and writing a group research project on how to increase student engagement in school through a culturally relevant and peer-assisted reading model. It was an incredible learning experience because it completely broke down the ‘ivory tower’ paradigm. I experienced first-hand how universities can engage in action research that is driven by and directly intending to solve a real social problem.” Though this graduate majored in literature, her experience with the Netter Center, along with her other extra-curricular experiences at Penn, was the impetus that led her to a career in education. She eventually went on to pursue a Masters of Public Administration with a focus on nonprofit program evaluation.
With so much cross-pollination between departments at Penn, it should be no surprise that Penn alumni are involved in plenty of field-bending enterprises. Grammy winner John Legend famously served as musical director of the jazz and pop a cappella group Counterparts while he was a student a Penn (English degree with a concentration in African-American literature and culture, if you’re curious!) and plenty of other graduates as well are acting on passions they discovered or nurtured on campus. One young alum, Omar Maskati, who recently made his off-Broadway debut, is a graduate of Penn Engineering, but also acted during his time there with the musical comedy troupe Mask and Wig. And a 2008 grad, who studied environmental science and political science while maintaining a major commitment to Penn Dance Company, found a career path that merges those interests. From graduate school to a stint in digital communications for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to her current position, this young alumna explains the effect Penn has had on her overall career trajectory, thus far: “I see myself as equal parts scientist and artist, but until recently, I have pursued these two prongs of my interests and identity separately. . . . I became interested in how I could integrate both in my career, and while doing communications work at EPA, I realized that I combine my love and knowledge of both ecology and art to educate and inspire people to change their perspective and behavior on environmental issues. . . . I now work at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, a 340-acre nature center in Northwest Philadelphia, where I run the environmental art program. I finally found a way to bring my science and creative sides together! Everything I did at Penn informed this trajectory and prepared me for where I am now. I even took an arts management class through Wharton, which I draw from regularly in my job.”
The inclusive, homey vibe at The Kelly Writers House is not due solely to its location in an actual house, complete with comfy couches, an open kitchen, and dining room table, but rather the people you’ll find inside. Built in 1851, the structure has become the gathering place of an eclectic group of writers, yes, but also “wild freethinkers” and “voracious readers” from every academic discipline. On any given afternoon, this place is buzzing with book clubs, workshops, tutoring programs, and, in the repurposed parlor, weekly events with “poets, fiction writers, editors, composers, publishers, painters, musicians, literary agents, screenwriters, essayists, playwrights, journalists.” An Alumni Mentors Program connects students interested in writing-related careers with some professional guidance, and each semester the Writers House funds special projects (like blogging your way down the Mississippi River) through fellowships and prizes. If you are a writer of any kind, this may be where you find your people, but students across schools often find a piece of home here, too. Budding journalists take note: Students regularly rate The Daily Pennsylvanianquite highly as well.
Another unexpected place to find your niche, the Weiss Tech House is a student-run hub of innovators entrepreneurs, and tech enthusiasts. Inventors can compete in the annual PennVention competition, social activists can teach science and technology in local after school programs (baking soda and vinegar volcanoes!), and aspiring marketers can hone their communications chops via outreach and promotion efforts. Anyone with an idea can apply for a sizable grant through the Innovation Fund, a mini venture-capital fund that has supported commercial launches of projects like “edible marketing” and motion technology. Weiss House says they welcome students of any major and skill-set, so this could be a great place to embrace your tech side outside of your field of study.
A majority of the alumni we interviewed were involved in campus clubs and student organizations during their time at Penn. One alumna wrote passionately about her experience with Penn Dance Company, a student-run modern dance group (“It was really important to me to have a creative and artistic complement to the science I was getting curricularly”) and another described her sustained involvement with the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, a Civic House program, of which she ended up joining the executive board. A Wharton alumnus with a BS in economics told us, “I was very involved in the finance clubs on campus, especially the Pennsylvania Investment Alliance. This club invested about $30,000 of club member money in stocks that we discussed in weekly meetings. It was an amazing experience to debate the merits of investing in certain companies alongside other students who had a passion for it.”
Penn alumni advised: Don’t discount the value of club experiences toward your life in the professional world. A dancer detailed beautifully how her involvement with Penn Dance translated to soft skills: “I had the opportunity to serve as co-chair of the company, which meant that I coordinated all the details of scheduling rehearsals and theatre space, running company meetings, managing show budgets, and generally spearheading the company. It was probably the experience that prepared me more than any other for managing projects in the ‘real world.’”