First graduating class of Civic Scholars looks back on four years

The program was created to weave community service into academic work

· May 12, 2011, 9:39 pm   ·  Updated May 13, 2011, 12:00 am

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Four years after they were hand–selected from the admitted class of 2011, Penn’s pioneering class of Civic Scholars is preparing itself for graduation.

Walter Licht, the program’s faculty director and a Penn History professor, first came up with the idea for Civic Scholars in the spring of 2006 while trying to conceive a program wherein civic–minded students could integrate community service into their academic work.

Licht’s initial proposal was met with great enthusiasm from both Penn President Amy Gutmann and then–Provost Ronald Daniels.

“Before I know it, the provost took it to the trustees and had the program approved,” Licht said. “I thought we would have about a year to plan, but the president and provost encouraged me to think about trying it out immediately.”

For the students admitted to Penn as Civic Scholars, this meant playing an important part in the formation of the program.

“I said to them the first day, ‘This is your program, this is an open book, and this program better be different by the time you graduate,’” Licht recalled.

Civic Scholar and College senior Allison Roland believes that the program has been successful in this aspect, crediting changes to the size of the program staff and improved relations with the West Philadelphia community as the result of student initiative.

“Everything we did warranted immense feedback and helped Walter and David (our advisors) figure out the best ways to structure the program,” she wrote in an email.

David Grossman, executive director of Civic Scholars, asserts that the students have been tremendously helpful “not so much in shaping the foundation, as really filling in what [the program] would look like.”

“We have been pretty committed to keeping things as we conceived them in the beginning — not that we were inflexible, but rather there was a desire to give the original plan an opportunity to work itself out through the first graduating class,” Grossman said.

Civic Scholar and College senior Mark Pan recalls one incident in particular where the Civic Scholars took an active role in altering one of the building blocks of the program. Originally taught by faculty, the freshman and sophomore mandatory proseminars have since become almost entirely planned and led by students.

Licht, sensing the students’ dissatisfaction with the original structure of the proseminars, was responsive to their ideas on how to change them.

“They are really receptive to our feedback,” Pan said, “because it’s such a small, pregnant program.”

This issue of size is one that the Civic Scholars program will likely have to face in the coming years.

“There is pressure to expand the program,” Licht said, though he is hesitant to increase the size of the Civic Scholars class. He addressed some “growing pains” the program has experienced, specifically the difficulty in amassing the entire group at a singular place and time.

“We have experienced a lot of change and a lot of difference in having 15 initial folks to where we have nearly 60 now, and learning how to best pull that group together such that it feels more of a whole, is an area for development,” Grossman explained.

As for the Civic Scholars’ individual futures, Licht has high hopes for how they will integrate their work into their future careers.

“What I’m hoping is that coming from this very shared experience, that they wind up in places, in organizations, and institutions and workplaces, where they will have an impact,” Licht said. “Where they will be pushing those institutions to be acting in much more socially responsible ways than they do.”

Interviewed his freshman year upon entering the Civic Scholars program, College and Wharton senior Sourav Bose seemed to share a similar hope for the program.

“I look at it as vocational training. We gain knowledge of theoretical aspects of service, of how things we do affect issues in society,” he said.

Now about to graduate, Bose credits his “preserved perspective” to the Civic Scholars program.

“The curriculum in Wharton and the College can be really distracting, especially together, and in a lot of my research it has been the Civic Scholars component that has kept me on track in thinking about problems from a civic perspective,” he said.

Similarly, Roland credits Civic Scholars in “spark[ing] a general sense of the importance and value of civic engagement.”

The graduation of the pioneering class of Civic Scholars will likely prompt discussion on how to improve the program.

“We really wanted to give the first group a run and then reflect back on that to see what changes there might be,” Grossman said. Thus far, he is satisfied with the program’s progression.

“[The Civic Scholars] have affected it just by virtue of being who they are,” he said. “The dynamics of the program change for the good because of the scholars who are involved.”

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