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President's Message - Student Service and the Penn Compact

April 2008

Dear Faculty and Staff Colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure to report that more than 300 Penn students put their spring break energy to great use by volunteering in service and social justice learning projects across the nation and the globe. Talking with some of these students before their trips and upon their return and viewing a photographic exhibit of their experiences reinforced my pride in our students’ exceptional commitment to making an impact on the world beyond our campus. Their accounts of working together to put knowledge into constructive action furnish a vivid reminder of the core values that drive everything we do at Penn.

For example, Penn had more than 175 people -- one of the largest contingents from any school -- on the ground helping New Orleans residents recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Our Fox Leadership in New Orleans Louisiana (FLINOLA) program placed 80 of the students on rebuilding projects organized by Habitat for Humanity and Operation Helping Hands and helped advise other Penn groups headed to the region. Twenty students in Professor John DiIulio's Leadership and Democracy seminar met with and interviewed local leaders involved in the post Katrina recovery process. Still others worked on projects organized by the School of Design, the Newman Center, the Campus Crusade for Christ, CommuniTech, Civic House’s Alternate Spring Break program, Hillel, and the Muslim Students Association.

The images of devastation that still prevails two and a half years after the hurricane send two strong messages: The rebuilding process is incredibly complex; and bringing about positive change under such dire circumstances requires a significant investment of energy and time. In the Gulf, as in post-tsunami Indonesia, we are proving that Penn does not subscribe to a one-shot mentality for disaster support.

On the contrary, more than half of our schools today are leading the way in helping to rebuild the region. For example, our Penn Institute for Urban Research and Penn Design are working with the Rockefeller Foundation to train professionals in large-scale redevelopment of housing, which is desperately needed. Our schools of Social Policy and Practice, Dental Medicine, Engineering and Applied Science, and Nursing are working on a University-wide “Penn in the Gulf” collaborative effort to help Hancock County, Mississippi rebuild complete systems -- from social services to primary health care to water supply. Our aim is to create a disaster-relief model that can be replicated by other colleges and universities.

Nearly 100 students participated in Alternate Spring Break projects in five other cities. They repaired and rebuilt houses with Habitat for Humanity in Lynchburg, VA, Statesville, NC and Johns Island, SC. They rehabilitated trash-strewn beaches in the Florida Everglades, worked in soup kitchens in Cincinnati, and donned clown costumes to bring cheer to residents in rural Hillsboro, WV.

Peter Krumbhaar (C’10) joined an environmentally-focused group in Florida’s Everglades National Park who painted ranger cabins and loaded detritus that was choking a turtle nesting area into trucks that transported the waste to a landfill. “We accomplished a great amount of work, and we strengthened the Penn community by getting to know other Penn people who are interested in these issues,” he observed. Students headed for a Hillel-sponsored community improvement project in Honduras found that their actions spoke louder than the language barrier they had feared. Kavita Vinekar (C ’09) wants to work on urban issues in Philadelphia after having gained in Cincinnati a deeper insight into the complexities of poverty.

Some students used their break to dig more deeply into issues around social justice. Black and Jewish students together toured landmark sites in the civil rights movement in Georgia and Alabama under the auspices of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, Hillel, and the African American Cultural Center. They met with veterans of the 1960s struggles, held dialogues with people who are working on behalf of social justice today, and will extend the discussions here at Penn. Another group explored the turbulent cultural history of Jews in Poland and Prague under the auspices of the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. The acronym for the Hillel/Muslim Students Association New Orleans trip was MAJIC, (pronounced “magic”) for “Muslim and Jewish Students in Cohoots.” That says it all.

The Penn Compact is about leveraging our Penn community’s passion and academic power to have the greatest impact on individuals, communities, and on the world. That means tackling the biggest and toughest issues. Our students who did their part to confront some of these challenges this past spring break have returned to campus vastly richer in understanding. They have much to teach us about putting our Penn Compact into action.

Amy Gutmann