When College sophomore Allyson Even decided on Penn as her top school, she wasn’t sold by the University’s academics, extracurriculars or campus life.
Instead, what made her come to love Penn was something else — West Philadelphia.
As the University has worked to revitalize the West Philadelphia community over the past few decades, stories like Even’s have not been hard to come by in the admissions process.
From the time he graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1987, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said more students have been drawn to the campus because of its “unique urban location.”
“Penn isn’t simply trying to coexist with West Philadelphia — we’re trying to form mutually beneficial partnerships that will last a long time,” he said. “That’s a message we try to get across to [prospective] students.”
A few admissions-related practices highlight how the University has used West Philadelphia as a selling point for high-school students.
In the Kite and Key Society’s campus tour manual, for example, student guides are asked to discuss community engagement opportunities in West Philadelphia with their groups. Furda added that the Admissions Office is currently working on adding a spread to its Viewbook — a publication that gives prospective students information about academics and campus life — on West Philadelphia.
Thirty years ago, “you’d walk down to … Center City and see a bunch of ‘for sale’ signs,” Furda said. “The community has seen profound changes since then, and we’re trying to show those changes [in admissions].”
Even — who wants to pursue urban education after she graduates — said she saw Penn as a school that “made it so easy for me to get out of the bubble and immerse myself in the community.” She added that it is a “great idea” for the Admissions Office to use West Philadelphia to its advantage, as it may help break some of the misconceptions about the area.
Like Even, College senior Arjun Prabhu said West Philadelphia was a major reason why he decided to apply. For Prabhu, being in an urban setting was a “make or break deal,” and he viewed Penn as a place that “definitely fit that description.”
“You want students at a place like Penn to really embrace the community, so I think the Admissions Office is smart to do this,” he added.
For some, though, West Philadelphia’s reputation as a dangerous area continues to be a potential roadblock in choosing to attend.
College senior Shani Weerakoon said his parents were “definitely concerned about me coming to school here,” as they weren’t particularly familiar with the campus.
For Wharton freshman Celia Lewis, West Philadelphia didn’t play much of a role in why she chose to apply. Lewis — who visited campus just once before deciding to attend — said Wharton’s undergraduate business program was her main draw to the school.
“In my one day here, it was tough to get a sense of the community’s identity,” Lewis said. “I didn’t really know about West Philadelphia before coming to Penn.”
Michael Goran, a 1976 College graduate and founder of IvySelect College Consulting, said the increase in applications that Penn has seen over the years may be partly due to West Philadelphia’s revitalization.
However, he added that “if the student isn’t drawn to an urban setting, then no amount of cleaning up will make a difference.”
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck — who earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from the School of Arts and Sciences in 1978 and 1980, respectively — said he has noticed West Philadelphia become a much more desirable destination for students and faculty.
“Penn has managed to change the community in a way that’s preserved its character, and that’s been very powerful,” DeTurck said. “It’s now a place where students want to come.”
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