‘Refreshingly transparent’

For the past few years, PennCAP has hosted ‘Faculty Fridays’ as a means to better connect first generation, lower-income students with the University’s professors. These efforts have continued virtually during COVID-19.

Students with Amy Gutmann on Zoom
Penn President Amy Gutmann meets with students virtually for an early March Faculty Friday event. 

It’s a special privilege when a student is able to form a bond with a faculty member at a university, but those interactions don’t always come easy. Too often, learners and educators alike can become caught in the bustle that is college. That’s why the team at PennCAP—which is short for University of Pennsylvania College Achievement Program—thought up an idea for “Faculty Fridays.” Fast-forward four years and the program is thriving, even amidst the hardships of COVID-19.

Faculty Fridays offer students involved with PennCAP, as well as Penn First Plus (P1P), unique opportunities to meet several times a semester with faculty members representing a variety of disciplines. Crafted to be informal, “fireside-type chats,” explains PennCAP Director Pamela Edwards, the series hopes to “demystify faculty and encourage students to see them as individuals who are there to support them and their academic journeys.” This academic year alone the program has featured—virtually—biology professor Mecky Pohlschröder and engineering professor Paulo Arratia, as well as Provost Wendell Pritchett and Penn President Amy Gutmann. The next event, slated for this week, features Angela Duckworth of the Department of Psychology.

“To have these professors, and especially our provost and president, accessible to students this year was really exciting,” says Jennifer Toadvine, head academic counselor at PennCAP. “We know a lot of our students missed out on some really unique opportunities with their college experience this year, so we set ourselves up to bring them something really special.”

In chatting with students in February, Pritchett spoke openly about his roots, growing up in Philadelphia. The son of two public school teachers, his family’s trajectory was completely transformed by the Fair Housing Act, which has contributed to his academic interest in urban history, specifically urban housing, race relations, and economic development. Pritchett, the James S. Riepe Presidential Professor of Law and Education, answered specific questions from students about his research, what his biggest challenges throughout the years have been, and gave sound advice on dealing with the trying times we’re all living through. In responding to a question from a student about what might be next for Pritchett, he laughed, noting, “Pretty much every job I’ve had over the last 20 years has been a surprise to me.”

Gutmann’s session with the students in March was just as personal, and inspiring. She discussed her academic research in political science and bioethics, and how it has contributed to her role as Penn’s leader; shared her advice with students who, like her, want to get involved in interdisciplinary studies; and noted her own bouts with “imposter syndrome”—speaking freely to those tuning in who share her background as a first generation and lower-income student.

“If you take one thing from our time together today, I want it to be this: You are not living the story of the stranger, of the person that has to fit in, you are central to Penn’s campus community. You are living the story of the stronger,” said Gutmann, who is also a professor of political science, philosophy, communication, and education at Penn. “You have overcome so many barriers, gone to such lengths to be here, and that’s an enormous asset. I speak from experience. I guarantee you, that is one of the greatest assets of your life and it’s going to be one of the greatest assets of your success in life.”

One of Faculty Fridays’ many perks, says Edwards, is how “refreshingly transparent” each discussion is. Faculty members typically choose a subject—usually their research—to present on to get the conversation going, and then students are free to ask questions. Always an intimate environment, it’s typical that no more than a dozen students attend any given event. The talks usually take place over lunch at PennCAP’s office on 40th Street, above the Ben & Jerry’s, but this year, because of COVID-19, the series has been held through Zoom, a convenient alternative for Ashwarya Devason, a sophomore Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences scholar majoring in biochemistry, physics, neurobiology, as well as gender, sexuality and women’s studies.

We’re just used to reading about them in articles, but now we get to actually have a conversation with them. Ashwarya Devason, a sophomore Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences scholar

An international, first generation, and lower-income student from Mauritius, an island off the southeast coast of Africa, Devason has been involved with PennCAP since she participated in the Pre-Freshman Program, an intensive four-week summer residential program preceding New Student Orientation. She’s since become a passionate PennCAP peer mentor, where she helps guide students with similar backgrounds as her through their first year of college. Having attended nearly every Faculty Friday event this academic year, Devason says the type of access she’s getting to the University’s acclaimed professors is exactly “the kind of education I came to Penn for.”

“It’s just such a good opportunity because when else would you get to sit down with these people and talk to them and ask them questions about their research, about their career,” Devason says. “We’re just used to reading about them in articles, but now we get to actually have a conversation with them.”

Devason adds how she’s especially grateful to hear from professors who “look like they have everything figured out,” but have been so open in sharing how they went through their own struggles, too. “It’s definitely very inspiring,” she says.

It was a few years ago when Kaiyla Banks first met Daniel Gillion, the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science, at a Faculty Friday event. She took a sincere interest in his talk, especially in how his work meshes political science with protests and social movements, and afterward, says she “cold emailed” him. It was just the beginning of what would become a rewarding relationship, as Banks, now a senior political science major, has served as Gillion’s research assistant, playing an integral role in the publication of one of his recent books.

Kaiyla and Daniel Gillion pose for a photo outside on campus
Professor Daniel Gillion and Kaiyla Banks met for the first time a few years ago at a Faculty Friday event. Now a senior, Banks serves as a research assistant for Gillion, who she says has been her “most influential mentor.”

“Dr. Gillion has been the biggest, most influential mentor I had ever met, and I didn’t foresee him being in my experience at Penn,” Banks says. “He was one of my recommenders for graduate school, literally my biggest advocate in everything I do, and is now my adviser for my thesis. It was because of the Faculty Fridays space where I could see him past the really intimidating stature of professors at Penn and understand him as a person that I could develop a relationship with that formed into what it is today.”

Gillion, in discussing Faculty Fridays, says it was a “no brainer” to get involved when he was asked, noting how important it is that faculty share their experiences with students. A self-described straight-shooter, Gillion says he was “very real” with PennCAP students, “kicking it” over pizza and trying to “break down the façade that I am this Ivy League, notorious scholar—no, in reality I am just Daniel who also struggled.” Gillion, who grew up poor alongside seven brothers and sisters, says he wouldn’t have made it to where he is today without a strong support group, and thus has made it his mission to be “part of that support group for the next generation.”

Faculty Fridays, in Gillion’s perspective, allow faculty to close the gap that exists with students outside of the classroom, particularly necessary during a time as emotionally raw as now. And for students, he says, these events contribute significantly to the holistic education that Penn offers.

The series doesn’t only open opportunities for mentorships or adviser opportunities, either. Banks and Devason note Faculty Fridays’ ability to promote engagement within the PennCAP and P1P communities themselves.

“To have discussions around topics that you want to hear more about allows you to meet more students that may have similar interests to you,” says Banks, who also serves as a PennCAP peer mentor. “It keeps you connected with PennCAP, which I think is important. One of our main goals is, although we really focus on freshmen in their first year, that’s not all we do, we always want to make sure that regardless of the year somebody is at Penn they still have a community at PennCAP and still know that they can come in at any time. I think Faculty Fridays really show that it doesn’t matter what year you are, you can always come back to PennCAP and find something for you.”

It’s important for students to really be able to see faculty as their advocates. It makes a difference in their experience, their horizons can be expanded by the relationships that they build. Pamela Edwards, PennCAP director

PennCAP, which has existed on campus since the late 1970s, prides itself on its service of providing proactive outreach and support to first generation, lower-income students throughout their tenure at Penn. “Maximizing the opportunities available to them,” says Edwards, is the goal. “We see PennCAP also as their home away from home, their community,” she adds.

Looking ahead for Faculty Fridays, Edwards and Toadvine hope to continue securing a steady lineup of faculty from all different areas to participate every semester. Edwards says that she wants the program to get to the point where students are “really beating the door down to have more.”

“We really just want our students to feel more comfortable engaging, because faculty can be critical in the experience that students have in college,” Edwards says. “It’s important for students to really be able to see faculty as their advocates. It makes a difference in their experience, their horizons can be expanded by the relationships that they build.”

If you are a Penn faculty member interested in getting involved with Faculty Fridays, email Pamela Edwards at pedwards@upenn.edu or Jennifer Toadvine at toadvine@upenn.edu.