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Civic House Credit: Shannon Jensen

Change may be on the way for Penn’s Civic Scholars program, which lies at the intersection of academics and community service.

The Civic Scholars program, which requires students to participate in community service, maintain a 3.3 GPA and complete a capstone project. Among other requirements, it has been working on creating an advisory board to provide student feedback to the program. College sophomore Syra Ortiz-Blanes, who is among those spearheading the initiative, is excited for the changes to come.

“It’s something that will happen sometime next semester. We’ll work on what we have and build upon it,” she said. “Now, we’re a collective community and we try to change the format of the proseminar, change the retreat; there’s a lot of potential for growth.”

Ortiz-Blanes, a native of Puerto Rico, is interested in educational reform and women’s rights. She has been involved in community service since high school and has worked in public schools for four years. The Civic Scholars program enabled Ortiz-Blanes to continue pursuing her interest on Penn’s campus.

“The program exposed me to a lot of opportunities early on,” Ortiz-Blanes said. “I love doing community service. If I wasn’t required to do so, it might be harder to be as committed to it. But Civic Scholars constantly remind me, doing things you love is really great.”

All Civic Scholars are required to participate in PennCORP, a pre-orientation program focusing on giving back to the Philadelphia community.

College sophomore Senait Bekele found it to be a great start to the program. “My most memorable experience would be, in the beginning, coming to Penn and seeing how nice the Penn area is. It’s hard to fully understand the issues that are in the community,” Bekele said, adding that it helped her, “understand the privilege that we’re not aware of.”

Civic Scholars are also required to take five mandatory courses, including two Academically Based Community Service courses. Students have different opinions about the structure.

College senior Rachel Hirshorn has been in the program for four years. She found that the required courses provided a platform to interact with different faculty members at Penn. “There are amazing opportunities not many Penn students are aware of,” she said. This semester, she went to a local high school every week as part of an ABCS course and taught them about bioethics.

Civic Scholars also must complete a capstone project at the end of their senior year — the Civic Scholars seniors presented their capstone posters on April 1. Hirshorn’s project focused on health care.

“It is really gratifying to complete something like that even if you didn’t get credit or didn’t get anything for it. It is really rewarding to design something and see it through from start to ending,” Hirshorn said.

For program Director David Grossman, the biggest challenge for students is to find a balance. “One programmatic challenge we have — that I know we share with other initiatives on campus — is how busy Penn students are, and the implications that has for effecting balance in their lives,” Grossman said. “Because Civic Scholars is something students take on in addition to their regular course-load, we are mindful to incorporate messages about healthy balance and the importance of self-care.”

Bekele feels that balance is an issue that could be improved upon, mentioning that three Civic Scholars of the approximately fourteen initial students in her year have withdrawn from the program.

“One of the issues is that students feel they have to go outside their major to fulfill the requirement, so maybe they can broaden the requirement and somehow include classes within other schools outside of the college,” Bekele said.

Grossman said that the program does its best to work with individual students.

“We retain the great majority of students who enter the program,” Grossman said. “Those few who do leave the program have varied reasons. Each year, we strive to be transparent about the expectations for participating in the program as a way to help all Civic Scholars manage this opportunity.”

Overall, students in the program have positive reviews.

“Each year feels very different. Everybody does service in their own way. It was a great learning experience,” Hirshorn said.

“It gives you a forum to talk about things that are really important and different,” Ortiz-Blanes added.

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