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This fall, Penn in Washington will be completely online.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Penn in Washington — the University's semester-long experience in the nation's capital — will proceed entirely online this fall.

Penn in Washington typically features a cohort of 25 Penn undergraduate students, who take four credits in specified courses alongside an internship of the student's choice in Washington, D.C. Now, because of public health concerns raised by the coronavirus pandemic, students in the program will take these same courses virtually while pursuing a remote internship.

In the fall, Penn in Washington students may also be able to participate in an internship program run by Penn alumni who have relevant experience in the public policy arena — something new to this year's program. 

To grant students more flexibility in their academic scheduling, some classes in the remodeled program will be asynchronous so that students will be able to intern within a more convenient schedule. 

Rising College senior and fall 2020 Penn in Washington participant Dennis Ronel said virtual instruction will also allow him more time to work on his thesis during the program, given the increased flexibility.

“At the same time, not being in the same space as a cohort could be a huge detriment to the experience, but we are all experiencing the pandemic together,” Ronel said. 

Factors such as the prohibitive cost of safe housing, the program's lack of control over employers' safety precautions for student interns, as well as difficulties with contact tracing were important factors in the decision to hold the program online, Penn in Washington Executive Director Deirdre Martinez said.

“A campus can control a lot of things,” Martinez said. “We can’t. We’re in Washington.”

Martinez also said the classroom spaces available for the program are not large enough for students to “remain socially distanced” in the fall. 

“All in all, these are challenges we wish we didn’t have," Martinez said. "Right now, it feels hard to look at the positives, but that doesn’t mean that there are none."

Martinez said the virtual nature of Penn in Washington in the fall semester may allow students to hear directly from experts in the field who they otherwise might not have been able to learn from under normal circumstances. In this program, students take courses that are heavily guest-speaker oriented, due to their focus on the real-world implications of studying politics and public policy. 

“There are very senior people, like senators or former ambassadors, who would love to come speak to these students, but the distance and circumstances makes that hard," Martinez said. "This makes it easier for students to get the chance to interact with these people doing interesting, relevant things in the field. You can now Zoom guest speakers from all around the world."

Rising college junior Eva Gonzalez, who participated in the program this spring, said she hopes the shift to an online experience will not inhibit students’ ability to meaningfully engage with the program. 

“I wrote about the Penn In Washington program when I was applying to Penn, so I knew for sure I wanted to do it from the beginning,” Gonzalez said. “Despite being sent home [due to coronavirus,] the program met all of my expectations, if not exceeded them. It’d be a shame for students to miss out, especially since we still don’t know what Penn’s on-campus experience will look like as of now.”