The School of Social Policy & Practice spends every summer opening Philadelphia students’ eyes to the possibilities of a new future.
The Pipeline for Promise Program offers a free summer course at SP2 to community college students, introducing them to the foundations of social work, its ethics and its various fields of practice. The program aims to teach students that higher education — and even a graduate program at Penn — are possibilities for them, regardless of their backgrounds.
“A lot of times, for people who go to community [college], Penn is not on the radar,” Jack Lewis , who co-teaches the program, said. “The message that a lot of people get from community college or from growing up in Philly is, ‘Don’t even think about Penn, you can’t make it at Penn.’”
The program was created by Anthony Bruno , an SP2 lecturer and professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. Claire Lomax , who graduated from the College in 1984, funds the initiative through the Lomax Family Foundation.
When Bruno died in February 2013, Caroline Wong took over as the program director.
“He encountered a lot of students [in community college] that he thought would be good for the field of social work, but maybe they didn’t know much about social work as a profession,” Wong said. “He wanted them to think not only about this as a profession, but also think about going beyond community and on to graduate school.”
There are about ten students enrolled in the Pipeline program at a time, which offers one social work course per summer to each student, for three consecutive summers. The deadline to apply for this summer’s course is April 30.
Wong and Lewis said they hope Pipeline students apply to undergraduate universities after finishing their time at community college, and ultimately pursue a master’s degree at a graduate school. The first Pipeline for Promise student to complete this process, Theodore Brandon, is currently pursuing a degree in SP2’s Master of Social Work program.
Brandon was in the first group of Pipeline students. In 2008, he was attending the Community College of Philadelphia, where he took a class on criminal justice taught by Bruno. At the time, he had a strong interest in criminal justice, but he was thinking about pursuing a career in law enforcement — like his parents, who are both retired Philadelphia Police officers.
“I thought I was really headed more toward the law enforcement side,” Brandon said. “But after taking the [Pipeline for Promise] class, I really found my niche.”
In 2010, Brandon transferred to Temple University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. After graduating, he applied to Penn’s MSW program, which he enrolled in this fall. Next year, he will have a field placement with SP2’s Goldring Reentry Initiative, working with incarcerated individuals three months before they are released from prison and three months afterwards to support their transition back into their communities.
The Pipeline for Promise program helped Brandon realize he could approach criminal justice from a social work perspective such as this one.
“In today’s world, we’re moving away from the punitive approach to law enforcement,” Brandon said. “Hopefully I’ll be one of those practitioners that’s able to bridge the gap between that punitive stance and the rehabilitative stance.”
Although the Pipeline program has a different director than when Brandon was a student, professors still aim to provide students with new perspectives on their potential career options.
“Not only do [the students] get the program, but they get Jack and me,” Wong said. “We’re providing advising and mentoring throughout [the year], not just during that summer program.”
Lewis and Wong aid students throughout their educational careers and with their applications to other institutions. They invite speakers to the classroom who work in various fields of social work — ranging from child welfare to criminal justice — to help students realize that social work offers a wide range of opportunities.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t quite understand what social work is, so they get this perception that a social worker is someone who works with DHS and takes away someone’s baby or hands out a welfare check,” Lewis said. “Part of [the program] is helping people understand what the profession is, these are the values, these are the skills you get from social work. And why not think of it as an option?”
Lewis said he and Wong also teach students to take advantage of all educational resources. Due to the Lomax family’s funding, even the cost of textbooks is covered for Pipeline students; they are also given Penn Cards to access University libraries and computer labs.
Lewis and Wong also encourage students by inviting speakers to talk about the struggles they faced throughout their education and careers — and also by sharing their own stories.
Lewis, who specializes in mental health and cultural confidence, has worked in hospitals, mental health centers and school administrations during his career in social work.
“We talk about our journey — telling our stories and what challenges we faced as people of color trying to go through schools — and not letting what people tell you stop you from meeting your goal and objective,” Lewis said.
One of their speakers last summer was Solomon Jones, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and the author of 10 books. He visited the students to teach them about writing, and to share his experiences facing adversity. Before he became a successful writer, Jones spent time living in shelters or on the streets. Lewis said Jones’ experience was extremely inspiring to the Pipeline students.
“A lot of folks came out [of Jones’ lesson] feeling empowered,” Lewis said. “Every individual feels empowered going through this experience because they look at it from a different perspective, realizing that yes, they can be successful and go through college and complete it.”