Sunday, August 5, 2012

The PENNCAP Pre-Freshman Program (Part 1)

Note: I am currently an incoming freshman to the class of 2016 in the University of Pennsylvania. I've had the honor of representing Pinole Valley High School as a participant of the Ivy League Connection in both my sophomore year ("Freedom and Justice" at Cornell University, 2010) and my junior year ("Studies in Grand Strategy" at Yale University, 2011). This summer, I am taking part in Penn's Pre-Freshmen Program, PENNCAP (Pennsylvania College Achievement Program) One of it's many purposes includes preparing incoming students from low-income or first-generation backgrounds for their college years ahead - much like the ILC in it's continued mission of providing WCCUSD high school students with the opportunity to experience out-of state college life by studying at such institutions during a summer.
While it isn't always sunny in Philly during the summer seasons, one can often spot a rainbow shortly after the rain, and the view from the Harrison Residential Rooftop Lounge is one of the best spot to be for it.
Looking down at a part of Penn's campus from the Harrison High Rise.
A lesser-known side to the thrill of college acceptance is the summer incoming-freshmen spend getting ready for college. After all the “congratulations” and warm wishes, it’s almost as if the party’s finally died down, the guests have all left, and the celebrated host of the party is left awkwardly surveying the aftermath of what appears to be a pretty daunting task ahead.

Starting the year off on a good note can make all the difference in your first year – perhaps even your entire time – at college. The better prepared and more informed you are of what is to come not only saves a tremendous amount of time in trial-and-error lessons, but also serves as a great advantage. Like preparing notes the night before class or packing a day before travel, the more thought you put into ensuring your first few days in college runs as smoothly as possible, the less likely you will find yourself scrambling to get settled in and balancing your demanding schedule at the same time.

Throughout this stressful season, many students turn to their supportive parents or older college friends for advice, asking anything from, “How do I go about setting up my own bank account?” to “what do I need to buy for my dorm?” In time, things will start to come together and once you’ve made it on campus, you’re largely set.

But what of those first-generation students? What of those students who have parents who are just as confused – if not more so – than they are? What of those incredibly busy student athletes who have to balance both their athletic and academic expectations throughout their four years?

At the University of Pennsylvania, a Pre-Freshman Program known as PENNCAP offers similar type students an opportunity to transition as smoothly as possible to the college lifestyle. Participants are selected by the staff in May to essentially start college about four weeks in advance. While there is an academic component at the center of it – every student will be taking three college-level introductory courses with actual Penn faculty – this program includes social events to help students familiarize themselves with West Philadelphia, and it also exposes them to some of the most beneficial resources around campus. Students ultimately develop their own schedules according to the dining plan, course schedules, and planned social events already set by PENNCAP, and it is in their best interest to explore which studying style fits best along the way.

As an upcoming freshman that’s currently finishing up my first week with PENNCAP, it didn’t take long for me to immediately see some of the lasting benefits this opportunity has already given me. Though they may not be very obvious at first, I know they will be become the rare gift I’ll treasure throughout my next four years at Penn.

When school begins this September 5th, Nursing students and Division I Athletes will suddenly become rare species on campus, but I will have already made connections with some of them prior to the beginning of class. The much-anticipated Move-in Day for all freshmen will definitely be less stressful and confusing for me, thanks to the prior exposure I’ve had of both the campus and the surrounding areas. Having the chance to meet faculty members at mixers, sit in on classes taught by Penn professors, and chat with current Penn students, has definitely made me more comfortable in a new environment that I sometimes still feel is almost too intimidating to fully absorb.
Fellow PENNCAP students prepare for one of our first events: a trolley tour of the surrounding Penn area.
Independence Hall
Philadelphia Chinatown
One of the many beautiful murals in Philadelphia.
I love that there are so many museums and exhibits around me. The best part? Penn students get discounts!
But as I found myself getting through PENNCAP day by day with the same optimism and determination to do better than yesterday, I could feel my own rhythm connecting to that of Penn. I could feel myself becoming more confident by the sheer knowledge that I was now familiar with my surroundings and thus, gravitated myself to the next level of making my presence known. “This is your one shot,” Professor Robert Ghrist (he will be one of my professors this upcoming Fall) reminded all of us at the Plenary Session, “Academic Finesse”, and I find myself repeating it in my head everyday like a mantra because it’s truly how I see my next four years.

PENNCAP is giving me a preview of academic life at Penn and so far, I find all of them incredibly helpful. Because I am in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), I was enrolled in a class schedule that included Math, Writing, and Psychology courses (students of the College were also given the option to take Biology instead of Psychology if they had an interest to pursue a Pre-Health plan at Penn). Wharton students were enrolled in Math, Management & Communication, Writing, and Economics courses, and Nursing students were enrolled in Writing, Nursing Science, and Clinical Experience courses. Though the courses are challenging (every class will be graded though not transferred into our actual transcripts) the main objective is to prepare us for what is to come in our respective colleges within Penn.

Additionally, these classes mean so much more beyond their academic benefits. Thanks to PENNCAP, we are able to familiarize ourselves to the college classroom environment as well as practice approaching our Professors correctly – a very important, but tough, skill to master – all before school’s officially begun. We’re learning how to manage our time well, learning to make sacrifices where we see fit and learning that there truly is no one there to shadow you anymore with reminders and deadlines. Subconsciously, we’re learning to become adults but all while defining what it personally means for us along the way.

College is not high school, and one advice incoming-freshmen and freshmen should know and accept immediately is that, even though everything seems a lot harder than high school, you were admitted into your college because you possess the ability to excel there. This might mean you have to work harder than others, or it might mean you have to replace a lot of bad habits with new ones, but the point is, college is supposed to be challenging and being knocked down more times than you’re used to will only better you if you choose to learn from them every time it happens. Never doubt that you were somehow misplaced into the institution you worked so hard to get yourself in.

I admit that my first two days of PENNCAP classes was quite intimidating. I was still getting used to my environment, still double-checking my directions, and still solidifying my growing friendships. The uncertainty of what was to come and my tendency to put pressure on myself invited doubt. But thanks to the advice and support I’ve received from the PENNCAP staff – who always have their arms stretched out to us and our interests in mind – I was able to turn this natural discomfort into a source of personal strength.

One of my favorite aspects of PENNCAP thus far is being able to come so close to observe the true nature of Penn people. In addition to the warm and friendly PENNCAP staff, I’ve had the chance to meet librarians, advisors, professors, and more – all without the pressure typically embedded in the stressful Fall season. In the summer, there are less people and this offers a golden opportunity to get a head-start in networking. It helps too that Penn people, in general, care. Nearly every Penn faculty I’ve met so far has their heart already reserved for the interest of others and such support, I’ve realized, makes all the difference in one’s college experience. As Ms. Doris Cochran-Fikes, who helped welcome us on the first day with such memorable advice as to simply smile as often as possible, puts it: “Feel the love.”

Many of my friends, who are also starting college in the fall, have complained about how difficult it is to get in touch with their advisors. They seek assistance in their transition, but they seldom get enough attention by the time school begins. At Penn, help is always there as long as you’re willing to reach out and ask. College is not about having someone hold your hand throughout your four year; it’s about having someone take you under their wing until you’re ready to fly on your own.

I am so glad to be under PENNCAP’s “wings”. It’s straightening me out in time for college and getting me in touch with all the things that matter most to me. I was able to see both my Pre-Major Advisor and Peer Counselor – Dr. Molly McGlone and Melanie Young – for the first time in person. I’m learning how to make the most of my library resources and locate the various academic departments on campus. The wonderful PENNCAP Peer Counselors and Residential Managers are all great sources of advice, especially if they are pursuing a major similar to your interests. “Academic Finesse”, a Plenary Session, reminded us the importance of classroom etiquette and provided us with tips to making the most of our college experience. The other 99 PENNCAP students come from as far as Hawaii to as close as Philadelphia itself, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being in their inspiring presence (it’s especially so when it comes to the Nursing students and Athletes because it will be hard to see them once school begins on September 5th).

There’s still about three more weeks left of PENNCAP, so there’s still so much more to learn. Despite the pressure that will definitely kick in nearing my exams and papers, I’m taking each day with 100% effort.

I can already feel Quaker pride sinking in and I am starting to develop a list of communities I’d like to get more involved with for my first year at Penn (I attended a small open house night for the Kelly Writers House at Penn and I’m already very much interested in knowing more about this “club house” for writers and literary-enthusiasts).
For one our weekend events, PENNCAP Peer Counselors arranged an evening trip to South Street.

On the first day of PENNCAP, someone by the name of Reverend William Gibson came before all of us – and some of our parents who were invited to join in on opening session – to introduce the sort of adventure we are to embark on in the next four years. As a first-generation, incoming freshman (c/o 2016) from the small town of Pinole, CA, I am absolutely thrilled to begin my “great…grand…good….and grace-filled” adventure that is the University of Pennsylvania.

Hurrah for the Red and Blue!
Greetings from the Philadelphia Museum of Art!