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Even though 2009 College alumna Geneva Campbell was accepted to her dream law school last fall, she is spending her first months after graduation doing development and communications work at Philadelphia VIP, a hub of pro bono legal services for low-income Philadelphia residents.

She is able to do this through Philly Fellows, a fellowship program that connects recent graduates with nonprofit jobs. She applied on a “whim” and, while preparing for her interview, saw more clearly what kind of an experience the fellowship would be.

“To come from a low-income community in Philadelphia and to be able to have a tangible impact on people that I could relate to — it was an invaluable opportunity that I knew I wouldn’t have after law school,” Campbell said.

Interest in the Philly Fellows program has been increasing steadily over the years, as recent college graduates are seeking unique experiences before entering the job market or graduate school.

According to Director of Career Services Pat Rose, there has been a marked growth in interest in one-to-two-year service programs following graduation.

The three core reasons for this shift at Penn are the “challenging” economy, the appeal of continued giving back to students who have been heavily involved in community service and the desire for further knowledge of themselves and potential jobs.

“Regardless of the program, students like one and two-year opportunities,” Rose said, suggesting some students might be burnt out at the end of four years in college. “[During this time,] they want to have something meaningful to do that will also inform their career goals.”

Philly Fellows is one such opportunity. The nonprofit organization has become popular with Penn students ever since becoming a fellowship program in 2006.

As a one-year, full-time fellowship given to 20 “Fellows” from schools all over the Philadelphia area, it places participants in communications and development sectors of different nonprofit organizations while providing free housingand transportation stipends.

By allowing participants to start off with more responsibility than a normal entry-level job would entail, the program provides a more “comprehensive” view of the nonprofit sector, Philly Fellows Outreach Manager and 2007 College alumnus Jenn Rineer said.

The city also benefits because the program seeks to “add capacities to Philly’s nonprofit sector and keep talent in Philadelphia,” added Rineer, who was a Fellow in the 2007-2008 year. “Usually most people graduate and they leave.”

The number of applicants doubled between the 2008-2009 fellowship year and the current 2009-2010 year, from 119 to 257 — “exciting” news for Rineer.

Rose said Philly Fellows has become particularly popular at Penn partly because Career Services and the Civic House have “worked hard to get the word out” through e-mails and information sessions, and partly because of word-of-mouth from previous Fellows.

“Nonprofit is pretty close-knit … [It] gives you more clout and helps you with future opportunities,” Rineer said. “A lot of people stick around, and there’s a pretty strong alumni network.”

She also mentioned that on every end-of-year survey, each fellow is asked, “If you could go back a year, would you still choose to do Philly Fellows?”

The unanimous answer so far has been “yes.”

2009 College alumnus Alan Hsu began his fellowship as a marketing associate for the Eagles Youth Partnership almost two months ago.

The Eagles Youth Partnership is a nonprofit attached to the Philadelphia Eagles, providing health and education opportunities at games. Through its “Eye-mobile” and “Book-mobile,” about 25 kids receive eye exams during the Eagles’ season and in the off-season, they receive lessons on the importance of reading.

Hsu has been trying to increase awareness of the organization through social networking like Twitter and Facebook, he said. “I also work on … their web site [to] make a connection with Eagles Youth partners.”

Taking time off before applying to medical school, Hsu decided to apply to the fellowship after hearing about a similar New York fellowship program that a friend of his sister did, and attended an information session and searching the web site.

One thing that has struck him is “the amount of planning and work that has to be done in order to actually have the ability to go out there and change things in the nonprofit world and in the community,” he said. “We have to clear everything with the parents of the children, get media waivers for pictures, press releases — just so more people can learn about your message and organization.”

The “interplay” and collaborations between all the different nonprofits in Philadelphia has been eye-opening, Hsu said, mentioning that while the art nonprofits have been under pressure a lot from the state budget, others have been helping out.

Jonathan Wall, another 2009 College alumnus, also debated what to do during his year off before law school, but eventually applied after hearing of a friend’s experiences as a Fellow and Career Services promotions.

Corresponding with his interests in law, his fellowship is at the Juvenile Law Center, “a nonprofit legal advocacy firm that works on behalf of youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems,” Wall explained in an e-mail.

“My major project is to design and implement several pilot programs for at-risk youth,” Wall wrote. One such program that he has been developing is “Youth Fostering Change,” which provides a curriculum to foster care children to teach them to self-advocate.

Living with the five other Fellows ­— Hsu is one of them — has been “great,” Wall wrote.

“It’s definitely interesting to meet so many people from tiny liberal arts schools like Swarthmore – they definitely have a different perspective on things compared to Penn and its pre-professional mania,” Wall wrote. However, “my house is definitely the type-A house; we have a former Vassar class president, a Fulbright scholar, a future law student (me), and a future med student (Alan). We also have a chore wheel.”

His take-home message so far has been “to just slow down and enjoy the present.”

“As someone who tends to live very far in the future, it’s interesting to see how easily some people take life one day at a time and still manage to do remarkable work,” he explained. “I think Philly Fellows has been a great lesson in how to chill out while still making a difference.”

For Campbell, Philly Fellows illustrates what it really means to make a difference.

“I’m used to being the one asking for services, asking for help,” she explained. “Offering services has given me the opposite perspective … to help me understand the workings of city government.”

After seeing big issues like mortgage foreclosure and custody battles tackled, she said she has seen “reasons why people are forced to live the way they do,” but she has found hope in people who strive to change these situations.

Apart from her work goals, she said she hopes to leave with a more “well-rounded, objective” viewpoint on the field of law by also seeing it from a public interest perspective, rather than just the corporate law track some people can get “stuck on.”

She added that Philly Fellows is also a unique opportunity because of all its networking possibilities.

“Regardless of whether or not you have plans after this year is over, Philly Fellows is not leaving you high and dry,” Campbell said. “It wants to get students to stay in the city and work here and offer their knowledge to Philadelphia to make the city just a little bit better.”

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