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College freshman Taha Tariq’s journey to Penn began with an online Coursera course.

As a high school senior in Lahore, Pakistan, Tariq knew he wanted to come to the United States for college, but was never able to visit schools before applying.

“As an international student, you don’t get the opportunity to fly around visiting all of these campuses. You really have to rely on what is available online,” he said.

While researching Penn, Tariq discovered Modern Poetry, an online course taught by Professor Al Filreis on Coursera, a free platform for Massive Open Online Courses, commonly known as MOOCs. During the class, Filreis leads a virtual discussion from the Kelly Writers House on campus and online students complete quizzes and participate in discussion threads at their leisure.

As the Faculty Director at the Writers House, Filreis has turned his class, known as “ModPo,” into a veritable phenomenon. Conducted entirely online, Filreis teaches this course to more than 40,000 students at a time. New Coursera courses typically attract under 10,000, Filreis said.

It was through this class that Tariq discovered Penn and the Writers House. After participating in ModPo, Tariq decided to apply to Penn. “I really loved the setting and feel of ModPo and the Writers House,” he said. “In ModPo, I always felt like I could express myself and feel free to interpret things the way I wanted to. No one was going to force their opinion on me.”

“I didn’t expect that from a big university like Penn,” he added.

Much like other campus organizations and sports teams, every year the Writers House sends a list of roughly 20 significant students to the Admissions office. Tariq sent some of his own writing, including a magazine called “Pineapple” that he started with his friends in high school, to Jamie-Lee Josselyn, the associate director for recruitment at the Writers House. Out of the large pool of students who submitted their work, the Writers House handpicked Tariq to be among that list of recommended applicants.

Since coming to campus, Tariq has stayed involved with the Writers House. Currently, he participates in a new online publication called “Reader” focusing on digital storytelling and long-form journalism. He also works with The Body Electric, an open forum and workshop for creative writers.

Filreis is now Tariq’s advisor - and Tariq even took one of Filreis’ classes on campus last semester.

“Taha is special,” Filreis said. “Yeah, maybe it’s a little weird that he knew me through ModPo and now I’ve taught him in an actual classroom, but it’s 2014. Things like this happen all the time.”

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