The Benjamin Franklin Scholars program promises to offer undergraduates a fulfilling, intellectually rigorous way to pursue their interests at Penn, but some students say the program could use improving.
BFS takes different forms in each of the four undergraduate schools, and each has its own requirements and acceptance process. In the School of Nursing, the School of Engineering and the Wharton School, students join immediately upon acceptance into Penn, while interested students in the College of Arts and Sciences must apply separately after being admitted.
Although each school requires different courses within the program, College students who participate in BFS have arguably the most comprehensive experience: Freshmen live together in Riepe College House and take an intensive, interdisciplinary multi-credit course called the Integrated Studies Program.
Students have raised concerns about the curriculum, saying that the program’s goal of meaningful interdisciplinary study isn’t always achieved.
“The program could ideally improve on its consistency to choose good subjects to integrate and good methods of integrating them,” College freshman Richard Potter said. “There was a wide disparity between this semester and last semester with the strength of integration.”
“It felt like we were doing the same thing over and over again. We weren’t really learning,” one student, in the program who requested to remain anonymous, said. “It felt like we were really just throwing out words that had to do with each discipline, but no one knew what they meant. It can be kind of disheartening, like, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
Next fall, students in ISP will study themes of identity, inheritance and change through the interdisciplinary lens of anthropology and classics. In the spring, they will investigate decisions and learning through the study of cognitive neuroscience and philosophy. It's a downgrade from the past three years, which integrated three subjects instead of two.
The courses are meant to be engaging and challenging, classical studies professor and BFS Director Peter Struck said.
“What’s distinctive about the program is a certain amount of raw intellectual curiosity,” he said. “We’re looking for students who want to do something hard — and that’s not everybody.”
Students in the Integrated Studies Program agree the experience is engaging, but also say that improvements could be, and have been, made.
“My initial experience was kind of rocky because there wasn't much transparency between the administration of the program and the students at first. Everything was a little vague,” College sophomore and BFS Advisory Board representative Mary Peyton Sanford said of her first year in the program. “They have improved this and continue to do so, which I imagine would be extremely helpful for incoming students.”
Students have varying opinions on the program's sense of community. Some feel that living in Riepe and taking small classes together creates a sense of unity.
“Your classmates become your closest friends, considering that these are the same people that you study with, go to class with and live with,” College freshman Ivana Kohut said. “It was a way for me to find a niche at Penn and to make a big campus seem smaller.”
Other students, however, report different experiences.
“It would be nice if the BFS community was more tightly knit,” Sanford said. "There are so many interesting, brilliant and unique students in the program, and it would be incredible if we could all get together more often to learn about and be inspired by each other.”
“Some people find their community there, but some people really don’t,” the anonymous student added. “I’m not there [in Riepe] very often, and most of my hall isn’t either.”
Struck says the program will continue to integrate feedback and improve. In order to gauge and implement student opinion, the BFS program has included student representatives on its Advisory Board and encourages students to voice any concerns at Monday night study hours and other programs.
“As we go on and develop and change pieces of BFS, we’re doing that with constant feedback from students and trying to be responsive as we can,” Struck said. “Each year, we do revise and streamline the offerings, so we’re definitely very interested in what our students tell us.”
Despite any difficulties students may encounter, most say their experience in the Benjamin Franklin Scholars and Integrated Studies program has been worthwhile.
“At the time I thought, ‘This is useless, why am I doing this?’” College sophomore Alex Palmer said. “But a lot of the readings were key readings that people mention all of the time. In a lot of other classes, I recognized things I knew from ISP.”
“The process of being able to discern exactly what pieces of knowledge you need to find the ‘sweet spot of integration’ is challenging, but once you see how things can come together, it’s not only rewarding but beautiful and elegant,” Kohut added.
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