‘Immediate impact’

How the 34th Africana Studies Summer Institute prepared incoming freshmen for a virtual semester.

Student with "What's one thing we wish we were told as freshman" in text across a Zoom screen
Niko Simpkins (above) and Camille Charles (top right) were among those featured in the Institute’s final video presentation. 

What’s one thing you wish you were told as a freshman? This was the question posed to Penn students in the final video presentation of the 2020 Africana Studies Summer Institute, a pre-freshman program hosted by the Center for Africana Studies.

The answers were as diverse as the student body: “It’s okay if you don’t know what your major is; you’ll figure it out.” “Get your work done during the daytime.” “It’s okay to struggle; it’s okay to fail.” “It’s okay to be different. There’s a thousand ways to go. Find a way that works for you.” “Prioritize healthy relationships that will help you continue to grow.” This tone of self-acceptance persisted throughout the Institute, which has as its goal to facilitate connections in introducing students to the Penn experience.

Camille Charles, professor of sociology and Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, has been involved with the Institute for more than 20 years and has directed it for 13. Her work results in an “immediate impact,” Charles says, “being part of students’ very first Penn academic experience and helping them to create community but also to create a space, or a language for talking about race.” Now in its 34th year, the Institute went virtual for the first time, serving 77 pre-freshmen, 14 of whom were internationally based.

“A program like this must persist,” says Kiana Murphy, a co-lead graduate fellow and Ph.D. candidate in the English Department. In order to translate the Institute experience to a virtual environment, organizers added peer mentors, a second tier of helpers between students and the graduate fellows. “The peer mentors were great in terms of being cheerleaders and giving pre-freshmen pointers about how to handle class participation,” says Charles. “We had to do our best to accommodate students from Asia to East Africa. There are limits on what we could do to adjust the course time, so there were students who were up in the night or early in the morning.”

“We filled faster than we’ve ever filled; we had a more diverse cohort than we’ve ever had, and that diversity in fact is because we were virtual this year. It allowed participation for students who normally would not be able to get here,” Charles says. “We come from lots of different places, backgrounds, experiences; we have different interests, and yet there is a lot that we share in common.”

The Institute is a seven-day program modeled after midterms week. Students register on a first-come, first-served basis for such mini-courses as Young, Gifted, and Diverse taught by Charles, A Borderless Caribbean?: The Creole Geographies of Dominica’s Popular Music taught by Timothy Rommen, Africa Through Literature taught by David Amposah, and Black Cool: The Genealogy of an Idea taught by Margo Natalie Crawford, who also directs the Center for Africana Studies. There are six courses with six faculty members teaching as many as 80 pre-freshmen.

The academic immersion is intentional and is balanced by social activities, says Murphy. “After going through an intensive, early-morning-to-late-night schedule for about a week, we can kind of see how students are coming together. We can see that they are creating their own communities once we set these structures up for them,” she says.

This structure is pivotal for freshmen, says Rommen. “It’s amazing for the students because they’re coming in before their first semester and getting a chance to develop their own community before they arrive. It winds up being really important for them throughout their career.”

“This program is set up to help students of color—although it’s open to all students—flourish while they’re at Penn,” says Ian Peebles, a co-lead graduate fellow. Studies show that nationally graduation rates for Black and brown students are lower than those of their peers, he says, and it’s not because the intellect isn’t there. Peebles is currently a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. As a Black undergraduate, “there were many times when I felt isolated and wanted to leave my university,” he says. “Not because academically I couldn’t hang, but because I felt unable to connect.”

Peebles eventually found his community within Black and Korean student groups, which “gave me the essential social environment that you need,” he says. “The reason that I do this program is that I want to pay that forward and make sure the students have that social environment. You need community. That’s why I continue to be involved in the Institute. I want them to feel welcome. I want them to know they can find a home on Penn’s campus.”

As part of their campus introduction, students are introduced to resource centers like Student Financial Services and Penn First Plus. Student Financial Services provided guidance on the overall process of financial aid, “which at times can be complicated, confusing and extensive,” says Erick Herrera, deputy director of financial aid. “What our office wanted to do was to reduce the level of anxiety that this process might add to students’ college experience.” His office organized a series of presentations and held one-on-one meetings with students and financial aid counselors, as each student’s financial circumstance is different, Herrera says.

Penn First Plus worked with Accounts Payable, Student Registration and Financial Services, and Student Intervention Services to provide students with funding, says Marc Lo, executive director. “We also worked to try to get laptops shipped to students in need, a particular challenge for some incoming international students,” he says.

Diane Byukusenge is one of these international students. From her family home in Kigali, Rwanda, she logged in on her phone and typed assignments on her brother’s laptop until hers came through, Byukusenge says. A freshman in the School of Nursing, Byukusenge recently completed a gap year interning in a hospital and loved the way nurses were involved in the day-to-day lives of their patients, she says. “I grew up in a rural village where the health care facilities were limited, so I knew I wanted to work in the health care industry,” Byukusenge says. “Every year, Penn sent some of its students to our high school, and that shaped my decision” to attend, she says. “Also, they have a really good nursing school.”

Byukusenge enrolled in the Institute “to get how life at Penn is,” she says. “It definitely prepared me for classes. The workload was a lot. It’s hard. It’s not just about the time zone difference. Studying all night is definitely something,” Byukusenge says, but “the professors were also relatable, and the material we were studying was something you could really use in real life.”

Byukusenge was particularly struck by Charles’ Young, Gifted, and Diverse class, where Charles had students write a review of the Netflix series “Dear White People” and shared her research of Black students at elite colleges. “She talked about imposter syndrome, the way you feel that you don’t belong,” Byukusenge says. “She talked about how everyone feels that, and it really helped me because I know I’m not the only one. She said, ‘You definitely deserve to be here.’”

There’s a perception that “you make it to an Ivy League institution and the rest is gravy, but that’s not true,” Charles says. During the Institute, faculty engage with students, not only sharing their expertise but allowing them to become comfortable enough to share their assumptions and biases, says Murphy. “We’re not trying to get to a destination but are bringing what we all know together to have a more dynamic conversation.”

Jamie Moni is a bioengineering major who participated from his home in Hillsborough, New Jersey. The Institute was one of the first programs he sought out after enrolling at Penn, Moni says. “My parents were really happy that there’s a program like this at Penn, especially because there’s not a lot of Black people in my town. Most of the African Americans that I interact with on a daily basis are my family,” Moni says, whose ancestry is from Cameroon. “It’s been interesting, to say the least.”

Moni has a close relationship with his peer mentor, Niko Simpkins, who “has been really one of the best things that I took out of the Africana Institute. A fellow engineering major, Simpkins gives Moni study tips and introduced him to the National Society of Black Engineers as well as STEM-specific workshops.

A junior from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Simpkins thrives on creating “little connections to show camaraderie.” Earlier this fall, Simpkins arranged an NBA finals watch party, sending food to his three mentees through DoorDash. “Having somebody pay for a meal is always something that makes me feels good,” Simpkins says.

Man in Spiderman costume wound tight with crepe mache
Niko Simpkins acted as the “piñata” for the birthday party of his graduate fellow’s son. The graduate fellow, Ian Peebles, marked his third year working with the Institute, motivated to help students create a home at Penn, he says.

The peer mentor and graduate fellow roles are year-long commitments, Simpkins says. “We make sure nobody slips through the cracks.” Peebles served as Simpkins’ freshman year graduate fellow and “would always find time to talk with me and help whenever he could, from helping me pack up my dorm to helping me destress off-campus as the piñata at his son’s birthday party.”

Institute classmates played an important role in the success of Simpkins’ first-year transition, he says. “I had one friend who would check in on me and make sure that I was doing something social and not overworking. He still does.” Simpkins says. As a mechanical engineering major, Simpkins was often studying. “So that definitely helped, having that support system.”

The Institute, Simpkins says, is “one of the most genius things about Penn. It set the tone for my experience. Not only does it connect you to people who will have your back, but it became my connection to different resources on campus.”

Elaine Rodriguez, a sophomore from New Brunswick, New Jersey enrolled in the School of Arts & Sciences, served as co-lead peer mentor for the program. “Despite being online, the students really enjoyed the summer institute which makes all the behind-the-scenes work worthwhile,” she says. “The benefit was being able to interact with students in the midst of the pandemic and being able to see their resilience and spirit even through zoom.”

The Institute “helped me learn how to connect with others through Zoom, both teachers and students,” says Taussia Boadi, a freshman from Westchester, New York, who plans to major in sociology. Her final high school semester was dominated by the pandemic rather than academics. “I felt unequipped to handle collegiate-level academics,” she says. “COVID-19 and the quarantine affected my work ethic. Without the Africana Studies Program, I definitely would not have been able to discover and rediscover tools that helped me work efficiently.”

The virtual experience strengthened the Institute because it helped faculty and graduate fellows think about issues ahead of time and connect students to resources such as the Weingarten Learning Resources Center and Counseling & Psychological Services, Murphy says. In a virtual world, “we’re entering students’ home space in a way that we haven’t before,” she says. “Some students can’t control their learning environments, have different access to technology, and other distractions. Being able to transfer this program virtually really challenged me and the staff to think about accessibility. How long are your classes? How are people doing with Zoom fatigue? Do students have access to required course materials and technology? Inherently, your class should be supporting a diverse group of students.”

“The global pandemic alongside social and political uprisings have exposed the different levels of precarity our students face,” says Murphy. “There’s definitely a lot to learn in this new virtual world we’re in.”