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In the beginning of the year, especially if you are just starting out at Penn, there is one thing you should really do: Take a walk.

Through the hood.

I'm not trying to help you build some sort of street smarts, but if you do gain some, it's all the better.

I'm talking about knowing and getting involved in your community. Not to discourage studying, but a college education is about more than just going to classes and trying to make the grade. It's also about understanding your place as a citizen, as well as a student. Civic engagement can inform your education and perspective in very important ways, and Penn is an ideal vehicle for it.

We all know that we've worked hard to get here, but one cannot ignore the influence of larger social structures, which give rise to both the privilege we share of being Penn students as well as Philadelphia's current socioeconomic inequalities. It's impossible to ignore symptoms of the complex relationship that Penn has with West Philadelphia, and easy to be intimidated by it. Some signs are subtle, like the undeniable meanness of Fresh Grocer employees, or the thick tension in the air on SEPTA rides.

And then, some signs are more explicit - like those that read, "This is West Philly, University City is a marketing scheme," conveying discontent regarding the effects of gentrification caused by a private university amidst a working-class urban neighborhood. These signs are perhaps more an indicator of a lack of common understanding, however, than an insurmountable wall - and that can be alleviated by a little extra engagement.

Realizing that you are on an urban campus, in which people's jobs, struggles and everyday realities - realities in stark contrast to yours - are embedded in the social fabric is an important component of your Penn education. There's a responsibility to give back to others who may have been deprived of the chances and opportunities you've had the luck of receiving (Yes, you are lucky to be here - I know. I have graded some of your tests and papers.) And, from a self-interested perspective, Penn's future is undeniably intertwined Philadephia's; improving local conditions benefits our campus as much as it does everyone else.

Penn has established organizations to specifically address community concerns. The Barbara and Edward Netter Center works to improve "the quality of life in West Philadelphia/Philadelphia" through various activities. Civic House offers countless volunteer opportunities and even organizes tours around Philadelphia, which I took my first year here and highly recommend.

These organizations and others can help you get involved, whether through community gardening, involvement in local politics, being a Big Bro or Sis, improving nutrition and combating obesity, or even organizing your own thing like breakdancing workshops or poetry readings . There are endless ways to contribute, and certainly at least one way that might inspire you and touch someone else.

And it isn't just about volunteering. Many students typically don't go into West Philly until junior or senior year - what are you waiting for? West Philadelphia (along with the rest of the city) is an eclectic and terribly underrated place, full of charming coffee shops, old jazz clubs, tons of parks and street art and a beautiful mix of cultures. The more you appreciate where you live and the more comfortable you are with your community, the more you care about its condition.

It also extends to small things, like greeting your neighbors down the street. It's simple: Be courteous. Don't be that d-bag at parties who yells racist things or drunken nonsense to people passing by from the porch. Just don't. It's really not cool.

Take stock of what is going on; understand where you are, and really think about the economic, environmental and social implications of everything you do. Knowing the history and comprehending the interaction of different forces and their effects on others - building sympathy essentially - is a big step closer to bridging understanding and building positive relations. You may feel isolated from these things, but your actions - as well as your inactions - have a serious impact.

Heidi Khaled is a third-year graduate student from Huntington Beach, Calif. Her e-mail address is

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