Next spring the Tri-Co consortium—Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr Colleges—will launch a pilot program in which a self-selected group of students will take two courses and participate in co- and extra-curricular activities in Philadelphia.
The idea was initially conceived by the three college presidents who met and started brainstorming about ways to build more connections to the city. After all, the colleges in the Tri-College consortium are among the few selective small liberal arts colleges with such accessibility to a major city.
“We do a lot with the city but it was thought that we should be more intentional about it,” Frances Rose Blase, Provost of Haverford College, said.
Blase added that Philly offers opportunities in many areas, from the arts to business, innovation, history, and politics, but also struggles with a number of challenging issues such as poverty, immigration, and healthcare that students will be able to engage with more directly.
“We were thinking ‘what is the best way to be intentional about this relationship to the city so students and faculty could engage on multiple levels: on an intellectual level, on a co-curricular and on an extracurricular level,” she said. “That is how this started. We thought what if we offered a semester in the city where students could take courses about urban issues and the urban environment would be right there?”
Since its inception, the three provosts have worked diligently to make this semester a reality. In the fall of 2017, they hired Calista Cleary to complete a feasibility study for a full immersive residential semester in Philadelphia. After sending out interest surveys—which revealed that 67% of Bryn Mawr students would be interested, 33% of Haverford students would be interested, and 70% of Swarthmore students would be interested (although this number was tempered by a low response rate)— the colleges decided to go forward with the program. Yet, this spring will be a pilot program: there is no residential aspect and students will only take two courses, instead of a full course load, in the city.
“We want to give this program every chance of succeeding, and we are starting out more modestly,” Blase said. She added that, in order to make the program residential, they will have to take into account several other logistical issues, such as how to provide housing, meals, health and counseling services, transportation as well as think about the logistics for students involved in extracurricular activities. Nevertheless, she said, a residential program is still a future goal.
Some students said that they are excited about the non-residential aspect of the program.
“I remember filling out the survey last year but I wasn’t very interested in it if I had to live in Philly and leave the college campus because I wanted to live with my friends,” Olivia Wong ‘21 said.
Others, however, are concerned that the non-residential program may lend itself to a problematic relationship with Philadelphia.
“As a pilot program, I think that it makes sense that it’s non-residential but I hope that it can grow,” said MacKenzie Somers ‘20. “My biggest concern is that the program could tend toward an attitude of voyeurism, of detached professors and students using parts of Philadelphia as textbook examples of poverty and its impact on communities, or bending those spaces into projects for our rescue.”
Though the program is non-residential for the time being, the scaled-down version is still impressive in scope. 21 students will study at the Friends Center in Philadelphia—just two blocks from City Hall—on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to take a foundational course titled “Philadelphia Inventing a City,” taught by Haverford professor Thomas Devaney. One of those afternoons, students will stay in the city to take one of two elective courses: “Narrativity in Hip Hop,” an English class taught by Bryn Mawr professor Mecca Sullivan, and/or “Politics of the Creative Class in the American City,” a political science class taught by Haverford professor Steve McGovern. The unique structure will allow students to stay in the city and, if they choose to, volunteer one of the afternoons.
“The foundation course is designed to get students out and about in the city going to a bunch of organizations and sites,” Cleary said. However, the electives will also include extra and co-curricular elements. For instance, students in “Narrativity in Hip Hop” will engage directly with local rappers and musicians. While the pilot program offers no natural science courses, there are already plans for an environmental science class next year. On top of that, Cleary envisions monthly theme-based activities for the entire cohort to participate in together.
“In February, I’m interested in looking at the African American city so taking students the Mother Bethel AME church which is the longest held piece of property by African Americans in the country. I would love to pair it with New Freedom Airs production which is an African American theater company. March I’m thinking about looking at Philly as an immigrant city: going for a tour of South Philly and also perhaps a food tour as well. April I would love to look at the art scene: go to the Magic Gardens and take the guided Mural Mile tour. I also want to have an optional monthly activity that is student directed according to their interests,” she said.
Students are excited about the program. There were around 20 students who showed up for Haverford’s Tri-Co information session on Oct. 4.
“This summer I had an internship in Philly where I commuted there every single day. I got to know Philly more as a city and as a community. I really want to go to the city more often and get out of the Haverbubble. This program is a great way to do this,” Wong said.
Somers echoed that sentiment.“I’m thrilled that Haverford is linking up with Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore to further emerge from our stable suburban bubble,” Somers said. She is also excited about the possibility of the program collaborating with other Haverford programs. “I hope that it can build on and collaborate with existing programs like PACC, Haverford House, and 8th Dimension to encourage students to engage with the communities around us and learn from the vast resources in the city.”
Students interested in participating in the program must attend the final mandatory information session at Swarthmore on Thursday, Oct. 25.