FOCUS, a new student group, aims to consolidate access to campus resources and provide underclassmen with a support system so they can adjust to life at Penn and thrive both academically and culturally.
“Our purpose is not to make new resources available but to bring all the resources that are currently on this campus for every student ... together in one place,” College freshman and FOCUS Leadership Team member Athena Buell Becerra said.
The idea for the group stems from “Higher Learning,” a 2010 book by Makuu Black Cultural Center Director Brian Peterson. Peterson described a concept for a student organization that Peterson termed FOCUS — Fundamentals of Collective Undergraduate Success.
The idea was to find a way to bring together students of all backgrounds to create a “community of trust” that would foster diversity and help students adjust to and succeed in college.
“We’re all having the same struggles, but we’re not talking about it,” Peterson said.
The five members of the FOCUS Leadership Team — Pinkney, Buell Becerra, College junior Jonathan Paz , College sophomore Javellys Polanco and Wharton junior Andrea Cuartero — have created the real thing on campus. This semester, FOCUS took off as a “student-run resource engagement team of all backgrounds,” Pinkney said.
“This is honestly us manifesting Brian’s original notion of a way to improve Penn,” Pinkney said.
Paz was the first one to get excited about Peterson’s idea. He read Peterson’s book and approached him about starting the group on campus. But now that the group has taken off, Peterson said he has taken more of an advisory role, preferring to sit back and let the students run with the idea.
“I really want them to design something that they think is going to fit the current Penn undergraduate,” he said. “They are the current Penn undergraduates. So if they take ownership of it, that’s beautiful.”
FOCUS is built on their three core pillars: academic enrichment, individual support systems and multicultural praxis — the implementation of theories. FOCUS is also divided into two main components. FOCUS enrichment is the “lifestyle” component of the organization that intends to build community among participants through events and FOCUS apparel, College senior Azani Pinkney said. It is already active on campus.
The second component, the FOCUS program that focuses on mentorship, will be launched in the fall. FOCUS leadership hopes to have 20 upperclassman mentors to work with 50 underclassman participants to make sure they’re settling into Penn and that they continue to be successful.
The group also wants to change Penn culture to focus on collective rather than individual success. “We need to build each other up as a group,” Buell Becerra said.
Since October, the FOCUS leadership team has been working with administration to help develop and implement their concept. They’ve been in contact with the leaders of the cultural resource centers, as well as administrators who work with pre-existing resources with similar goals to FOCUS.
Reverend William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access, has been active in advising the students, suggesting ideas like hosting a retreat to help solidify their goals and plans for the group.
“We wanted them to see for themselves and feel for themselves what would it look like actually if they were to undertake this idea,” he said.
Gipson said it was logical for the FOCUS leaders to seek his support and guidance since his office already offers similar resources like PennCAP — Pennsylvania College Achievement Program — which matches peer counselors with incoming students to support them throughout their transition to and time at Penn.
But whereas PennCAP works with primarily low-income and first-generation college students, FOCUS seeks to have a broader target audience.
“The difference here is that these students have come raising very important questions about the process of education itself at the college level,” Gipson said.
“It’s about creating this mix [of students from all backgrounds] but then creating a community of trust where we can talk about some of these issues that we experience that we may not have a space to talk about,” Peterson added.
Pinkney said that regardless of a student’s background, everyone will need support entering college, and that’s a need that FOCUS intends to address.
“In terms of a group that is consolidating resources and promoting success in a way that is all-inclusive, we do feel like there is nothing like this now at Penn,” he said.