“Do not go past 45th Street,” is what I was told when I chose to enroll in Penn. After having been a participant in PennCORP, one of Penn’s freshman pre-orientation programs, I am now more inclined to go past that scary, imaginary boundary that has been condemned by upperclassmen. 

If you took a peek at my admissions file while applying to the University of Pennsylvania, you would see that I was civically-engaged in high school. On the Common App there is a section that made students specify their hours of community service. For some students, it is a big game to see how many hours they can rack up. Others start to lose track of their hours because they are so invested and passionate for the work that they do.

I could not count how many hours I had by the Nov. 1 deadline; I only knew that I was passionate about addressing and combating the issues that were prominent in my community. I was very concentrated on education reform and pushing for resources my high school lacked, such as giving our students the opportunity to study abroad. 

For the most part, Penn students stay entrapped by the Penn bubble and do not leave campus that much. There are two distinct worlds separating Penn and the local communities on the outskirts. Instead of shunning these communities, Penn students should learn more about their histories and see what they can do to address the communities’ day-to-day problems.

Before arriving to PennCORP, all 40 participants had pre-assigned readings that touched upon the background of West Philadelphia. One of the major topics was about Penn and Drexel University’s involvement in the gentrification of the West Philadelphia area. In one of the assigned articles featured on the website Curbed Philadelphia, reading how 5,000 residents were displaced after having their homes and neighborhoods destroyed to allow for the completion of University City was shocking. 

During the program, we were divided into four groups of 10 students. With our small groups, we participated in workshops that revolved around our identities such as our races, ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic statuses, ages and our identities as Penn students. These identities are very complex and intersect to form people’s lives. We learned that some of our identities can be either target or agent identities, which are terms to describe how an aspect of someone’s background can be used against them or help them in relation to society’s standards.

Furthermore, all four groups were introduced to the nonprofit sector of Philadelphia. I had the privilege of visiting these spaces and be invited to see the kind of work that is being done by organizations like VietLead in South Philly and the West Philadelphia Community Radio (WPEB 88.1 FM). Each of these organizations had their own agendas and missions that related to helping their local residents and letting them have the power to be vocal on what needs to be changed in their area. 

Now that I am at Penn, I am integrating myself in greater West Philly. I believe that it is necessary to see what issues need to be addressed in this community. I cannot be a bystander and be trapped inside the Penn bubble. The real world is outside of Penn’s campus, and I have to remind myself that every time I am crying about the quality about the dining hall food, there are people in the surrounding communities that do not even anything to eat.

I still remember the big, bold letters “Praxis in Practice.” They were the first words I saw when I walked into the Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall. To be completely honest, I did not know what “praxis” meant at all. I had come out of the infamous “senioritis” mode that all high school seniors entering college face. However, if you asked me what putting “Praxis in Practice” means now, I still would not be able to tell you.

One of the student leaders, College junior Aiden Castellanos, had trouble understanding this phrase for two months before explaining it to the PennCORP participants. “Putting praxis into practice is to learn and unlearn how to be a citizen. It is knowing that there is no end goal, but you are constantly trying to make new accommodations based on the new information that is being learned.” Personally, my journey in putting praxis into practice is just beginning.  

Coming from a small city in Connecticut, it is hard to integrate myself in such a large city like Philadelphia. Yet, I am eager to take what I learned from my past experiences in helping my community and bring it here. I must learn the history before I can ever truly effect social change. 

Some of the actions I took back at home might not even work in Philadelphia, and I am okay with that. It is a learning process between myself and the community I am working in. If students would like to get involved, there are many opportunities such as Academically Based Community Service courses, visiting the Netter Center and the Civic House to see what community partners are in need of volunteers. 

It does not matter when someone starts in their service, but to go through four years without acknowledging any issues outside of campus is choosing to be ignorant. Every year the forbidden street that no one should cross will be pushed back even further due to Penn’s expansion. 

The stigma behind passing 45th Street is due to not engaging with the locals that are apart of the low-income community of color. I was given the toolkit during my time at PennCORP, but now is my time to fill that toolbox up and that starts by stepping beyond the 45th Street sign to be able to help the community.

CARLOS ARIAS VIVAS is a College freshman from Stamford, Conn., studying communication. His email address is cariasv@sas.upenn.edu. “Convos with Carlos” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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