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Photo by chrisinphilly5448 // Public Domain

Every year, Locust Walk buzzes with excitement during the SAC Activities Fair, as students shout and wave flyers to attract eager freshmen to their organizations.

But some Penn students are never told about the SAC Activities Fair. They might not even know what Locust Walk is.

These students, numbering between 25 and 50 each year, are part of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program — a coordinated degree between Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the oldest art museum and art school in the country. The program somehow still remains a “well-kept secret,” said Anne Stassen, the dean of Student Affairs at PAFA.

The program allows students to pursue their artistic and academic ambitions at both schools. However, because LPS caters more to working professionals, many of the financial and social resources aren’t tailored to the college-aged BFA students — the average LPS undergraduate is 30 years old while the average BFA student is 22.

“We were really set up to serve adult students,” said Nora Lewis, vice dean of Professional and Liberal Education. “Students over 21, who presumably are working and doing other things, and even though they may take a full-time course load — essentially they’re kind of defined as a kind of different status,”

As a result, students struggle to pay steep tuition prices at both schools, and feel left out of the rest of Penn’s undergraduate community.

BFA students apply separately to LPS and PAFA, and if accepted to both, typically complete a degree within five or six years. They have to complete three of those years at PAFA, or four years if they want to receive a PAFA Certificate in addition to the BFA from Penn.

The program also requires 16 course units at LPS. Four of those courses have to be in Art History, but the rest can be any combination of liberal arts electives. Students must begin with a full year at PAFA before starting classes at Penn, but after that they are free to structure their classes as they wish, either enrolling in classes simultaneously, alternating years, or completing all their PAFA requirements before starting Penn at all.

Social challenges

Students may find it hard to integrate themselves socially at Penn as nontraditional students, especially if they are enrolled part-time, as 77 percent of BFA students are.

A typical PAFA course load is ten classes a semester, each class consisting of a three-hour studio once a week. Because of this schedule, students who take classes at both schools simultaneously usually only have time to take one or two Penn courses, typically in the evening. Students opt for this choice out of academic preference, or to complete the degree more quickly.

BFA student Maura Roncace is taking classes at both schools to complete her degree in four years, but finds the task a challenging one.

“PAFA really pushes you to focus on one thing at a time, because it’s such an intense traditional training method that, speaking as someone who’s done it and done it well, it’s really, really, really difficult to have all those things going on at once,” she said.

Madison Greiner is doing one year full-time at Penn after completing her first year at PAFA. She worried she would feel isolated if she came to Penn after completing her three years at PAFA, since she would be entering at an older age than her peers — but has found that being enrolled full-time presents its own set of challenges.

“I’m behind the freshman class that I came in with, so now I’m behind [at PAFA], and also at an odd spot [at Penn] as well. In a sense I’m kind of just a different type of student at both schools — I’m not the normal junior, senior, sophomore at any point in my undergraduate [career],” she said.

Some BFA students found it hard to meet other Penn students without living on campus, and several students expressed regret that they had not known about the SAC Activities Fair.

“If you’re not walking down Locust Walk on activity day and also if you’ve never even heard of activity day, also there’s PAFA kids who don’t know what Locust Walk is even though they take classes at Penn because they’re just so checked out of the Penn bubble,” said Freeman Schlesinger, who is in the second semester of his third year at PAFA.

Students that do manage to join extracurriculars, however, have been able to find a community at Penn. Roncace says the club swim team “took [her] in as a family”, and Greiner has been involved with Ultimate Frisbee, Habitat for Humanity, Cru and Alternate Spring Break.

“I think what you get for your money at a place like Penn is not just the classroom education which is good, but access to all these young smart people,” Schlesinger said. “And if you’re not finding those and hanging out with them then you’re not really part of the community, and you’re not getting what you’re paying for in your undergraduate education.”

Financial challenges

One of the greatest challenges BFA students confront is the limited financial aid offered to LPS students. LPS is unable to meet 100 percent of the full demonstrated financial need of its students, and although they offer a few institutional grants, financial aid packages typically include loans.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid application can only award aid for one school at a time, so students with financial need often can’t afford to attend Penn and PAFA at the same time, even if they want to. Student Financial Services explained in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that students enrolled simultaneously in both schools have “limited eligibility” for aid.

But many BFA students are concurrently enrolled at PAFA, which provides its own financial aid. Applying for aid at two different institutions — combined with state and federal regulations — can complicate the process at SFS when it comes to loan or Pell Grant eligibility.

“We presume that the type of students coming to [LPS] programs are bringing some resources from families or from employers or other things to their studies,” Lewis said.

As a result, students feel frustrated with financial aid process for non-traditional students and find themselves in what Roncace described as a “screwed up circle of nobody knowing the answers to anything,” or what Taylor Hickman, who is in her final year at Penn, called “the bane of my existence.”

A single LPS class is $3,326 including fees, and a student taking a full 4-course units for two semesters would pay $29,670 in a school year. However, a student taking a class outside of LPS would pay nearly twice that, at $6,640 per course unit. Students with financial need are thus restricted to the LPS evening classes, which can interfere with extracurriculars and efforts to assimilate into the Penn community, as well as academic interests.

Claire Kowalewski Marsh is taking Japanese classes this semester so that she can meet the language proficiency requirement to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. Because all of the LPS language classes are in the evening, they conflict with her other classes and she is forced to pay extra to take classes in the College of Arts and Sciences during the daytime.

The meager financial aid offered to LPS students coupled with the $34,608 price tag for a year at PAFA, in addition to housing and food, leaves many BFA students with outstanding bills. And although PAFA issues both need and merit-based scholarships, Roncace, Greiner and Hickman all reported taking out between $10,000 to $30,000 per year in loans to make up the difference.

Roncace, Greiner, Hickman and Kowalewski Marsh work multiple jobs to help pay for tuition, which also interferes with their time to commit to campus activities.

While LPS offers a few scholarships for part-time students, they often have specific criteria that make many BFA students ineligible. Greiner and Roncace both recall only one scholarship that they were eligible to apply for, and neither one received it. Despite Roncace’s many appeals to SFS and her demonstrated need — she comes from a single-parent household and has two other siblings enrolled in college — she said she hasn’t received any aid. And Greiner said the financial burden has put a strain on her otherwise positive academic experience.

“I think looking back if I were to be a senior in high school again, I’m not so confident that I would choose to do the program,” Greiner said. “Although I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve had a chance to do here, I think that the financial burden is just so heavy that it’s really hindered my opportunity to enjoy being here.”

Greiner also pointed out that students do not receive their financial aid eligibility from LPS until they are enrolled for classes at Penn. But since students have to complete a year at PAFA before starting classes at Penn, students don’t know how much they will have to pay overall until they have already started the program.

Lewis acknowledged the unique circumstances of the BFA students, and says that LPS is working to communicate better with SFS.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is better sharing of data, from LPS to SFS and back, so that we can better understand our population in this way and better serve them,” Lewis said. “They have different needs, they have different eligibility, and so I think SFS has worked really hard to try and get advisors who kind of understand the programs, who have direction connections to our advising staff.”

The small size of the BFA program means that not all University staff or administrators are familiar with the program, or even know that it exists, which can leave students feeling overlooked.

“They’re screwing us over,” Roncace said. “We’re so small that even if we make a lot of noise, in the whole perspective of what’s going on at Penn, it’s nothing that is going to really cause any ripples.”

Personal challenges

Unfamiliarity with the program can occasionally result in other consequences too. In Sept. 2015 while she was taking classes at LPS part-time, Roncace recalls calling Counseling and Psychological Services to set up an appointment, and told them she was struggling with depression.

“I was expressing that this is not safe for me to not be talking to someone, this is a serious issue, and ... they just turned me away,” Roncace said.

Several weeks later she was hospitalized for major depressive disorder. CAPS does offer services to part-time LPS students, which is why Stassen, Lewis and Koller hypothesized that whoever spoke to her on the phone was simply not familiar with the program.

“Because we say it’s a well-kept secret, I’m not sure everybody always knows who they are,” Stassen said. “My understanding is that they may have misunderstood her and thought that she was a student at PAFA and not a student at Penn.”

Lewis agreed, speculating that various offices on campus may not understand that some students from PAFA are also Penn students. She maintained that a Penn office would never turn away a student in need.

“That’s not to say that it doesn’t ever happen by mistake, but I think it would be the exception to the rule,” she said.

Bill Alexander, the director of CAPS, affirmed in an email statement that all students, including part-time LPS students, can access CAPS.

“We have no record of the individual LPS student you referenced calling CAPS, but it’s possible that she did not leave her name,” he said in the email. “We are very sorry if the student called and received incorrect information from whomever answered the phone. We urge any Penn student in need to reach out to CAPS by phone, online, or in person by walking into our office.”

The contrast between the small size of PAFA and the much larger student population of Penn can also leave students overwhelmed.

“They’re going from a small school where they come into our office and literally we know the names of every single student who walks in here,” Stassen said. “And then they go to a big university and it’s not a knock on the university, it’s just you can’t have that same relationship with an institution that’s that big.”

Jen Kollar, an academic advisor for undergraduate programs at LPS who advises BFA students, is herself a graduate of the BFA program. She admitted that it can be frustrating and confusing transitioning from an institution like PAFA with a total of 300 undergraduate and graduate students to one with over 24,000.

“Penn is a big place, you get overwhelmed with information,” Kollar said. “I beg students to come in before classes start, let’s look at your schedule ... It works best if every semester students review with me.”

Despite the challenges, students were still grateful for the academic opportunities at Penn that they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to without the joint degree.

“If I hadn’t taken Penn ... I would just want to be in my studio painting. And that’s a good goal, but I feel like it’s not really related to what’s happening right now in the world,” Kowalewski said. “I think that because of this program, I really want to do more than that.”

Even despite the social and financial challenges that students face, most maintain enthusiasm for their chosen path.

“Some people think that studying art is a privilege,” Stassen said. “But we sort of see it, as something that those who are driven to pursue it, it’s a passion of theirs, and so they can’t not do it.”

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