Learning Outside of the Classroom

This semester, I’m taking URBS 178 (Faculty-Student Collaborative Action Seminar in Urban University-Community Relations: Penn and West Philadelphia as a Case Study in Progress). Despite its long name, the mission of the course is fairly simple: to allow students to learn about Penn and its relationship with the West Philadelphia community and to then engage with this material through service and research.

The class is divided into three main parts. The first part is the seminar; our class of 15 students meets for three hours on Wednesdays to discuss Penn’s relationship with West Philadelphia throughout its history. Dr. Harkavy, who is incredibly well respected both at Penn and in the academic world (many of our readings cite him and his pioneering work), leads the seminar. He has been teaching the course every semester since the 1980s, and he has been one of the most engaging and knowledgeable professors I’ve had at Penn to date. Having such a small class means that we are all able to sit around a conference table together and have meaningful discussions about the course material. The seminar involves readings, guest lecturers, and even a trolley tour around West Philadelphia.

For the second part of the course, each Penn student is assigned to a high school senior at a local high school. We go to their school and help them with college applications for an hour each w-eek and essentially just serve as their mentors.

The last part of the course is the problem solving learning (PSL) paper. This is a research paper that we write over the course of the semester in which we try to solve a specific problem that we’ve noticed through our discussions in seminar and our time at the school. Some past papers from the course have led to the creation of new ABCS courses, new initiatives in local schools, and even new civic engagement opportunities at Penn (like the Swipe Out Hunger campaign).

URBS 178 has been one of my favorite courses at Penn. I know that the work that I’m doing is relevant and purposeful, while giving me a better view of my current position as a Penn student. Especially with the PSL, I’ve been shown that if I see a problem, I have the power to actually make a change. The course also allows the students to contribute to the syllabus and make changes as the course progresses, which has enabled me to directly contribute to what I’m studying. ABCS courses are fairly unique to Penn, and I can say that without a doubt, taking one has shaped my college experience and larger perspective for the better.

-Rachel W, C'20