Sunday, September 16, 2012

PENNCAP Pre-Freshman Program (Part II)

Many colleges in the United States provide pre-freshmen programs for their incoming freshmen students every year to assist them in their high school-to-college transitions. From academic-based programs to more social, community-developing ones, the several weeks that recent high school graduates spend bonding and learning on the campus of their new home for the next four years makes a tremendous difference on their first year at college. However, not every college offers such programs to their incoming class of students, nor does every student get the opportunity to participate in them (be it that they were turned away from a competitive applicant pool or that they could not find alternative options which did not conflict with pre-made summer plans). To add on, the availability of such pre-freshmen programs for students from low-income backgrounds, urban schools, first-generation statuses, and/or athletic recruitment are even less abundant.

This is ironic when such students are often those who need the additional assistance the most. Academically speaking, they are just as capable as their fellow classmates to succeed, but due to situations beyond their control, the process of adjusting to college life can be especially overwhelming and foreign for them. As one of these students – a first-generation Pinole Valley high school graduate coming from the lower income bracket – I knew that, despite all the excitement and jubilee I shared with my friends and family over my acceptance to such a prestigious and well-established academic institution, I was often haunted by doubts beyond typical college freshman jitters. I was doubtful of such things as whether or not I was ready to pursue a degree among scholars around the world who may have had more well-rounded and/or affluent upbringings than me; I was doubtful if I could afford what many a times felt like a dream too good to be true. I was doubtful if I could excel as I did throughout high school since Pinole Valley high was really just a microscopic speck of a community relative to the entire world. And sometimes, when I just couldn’t shake off this heavy weight of uncertainty, I found that I had to personally console my worries with such remarks as: “well, if it doesn’t work out in the end, at least there will always be community college…”

As someone who comes from the working class, the option to follow my parents’ footsteps after high school – to not pursue a college degree and work a minimum-wage job for the rest of my life – may not be unthinkable for me as it may be for some. I was familiar with hardship and familiar with the fact that survival did not heed to personal preferences. Caught in the webs of my own doubts, I frequented such alternatives, which, not surprisingly, only added to my closeted insecurities about starting my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania.

That is why I am so thankful to have been a part of PENNCAP (Pennsylvania College Achievement Program). For about four weeks I, and ninety-nine other incoming freshmen from all over the country and beyond, resided at the Harrison College House; took three college-level introductory courses in relation to our schools (College of Arts and Sciences, Wharton, Engineering, or Nursing); participated in coordinated social activities beyond the Penn campus; and was introduced to many helpful resources and faculty members that I would have probably missed out on had I started college without PENNCAP. Reflecting on this experience today – the last day of my summer vacation and the evening of my class’s convocation ceremony – I am happy to say that, though I cannot guarantee I will not fall victim to doubt throughout college, it will now take a most vulnerable time for me to do so.

As an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences (College for short) at Penn, I had the option to choose between two class schedules for PENNCAP. Pre-med College students took Biology for their third course and non-pre-med students – such as myself – took Psychology. Only Nursing students were exempt from a math class and every PENNCAP participant, regardless of school, had one writing seminar that shared the unifying and appropriate theme, relocation. Personally, my schedule consisted of Math, Psychology, and Writing.

Adjusting to this mock college schedule of sorts was difficult at first because I had never taken classes that didn't reconvene on a daily basis. In high school, I had a set series of back-to-back classes that was unchanged for the entire school year and it seems high school was the last time that was ever going to happen again. The first Monday of PENNCAP hit me by surprise because I had the most classes that day – math class, writing seminar, and a math recitation in the evening – and on top of that, there was always some sort of PENNCAP event wedged somewhere in there. This was an overwhelming start at first but I later discovered that, as the week went on, the majority of my workload remained in the first half of the week. By recognizing this pattern, I learned to be more aware of my class schedule and how to better my studying habits as a response. For instance, in the case of this PENNCAP schedule, I realized how important it was for me to preserve a lot of academic down-time on Sundays just so I could better transition into my denser Monday schedule.

Now that PENNCAP is behind me, it is easier for me to see just how fast time flew by – as if it had all been some distant summer memory. On the other hand, I also recall distinctly that there were times during the program when I felt the exact opposite – like one evening spent staying up until 3AM to finish the draft to our writing seminar research paper (the final paper was worth a significant portion of our class grade and I really wanted to push the limits of my writing capabilities even though it was only a pass/fail class). Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of my PENNCAP experience. The struggles that came along with it – adjusting to Penn and staying on top of all my classes – only added to the bigger picture of what PENNCAP, and ultimately Penn, aims to show us all along: success was not in the destination, but in the journey.

I have many fond memories of PENNCAP journey but to tell you everything in detail would not only make this reflection longer than it already is, but it would spoil the sweet surprise for all those high school seniors out there getting ready for college and looking forward to all the opportunities their future alma mater will offer them. As a result, I’ve condensed my PENNCAP memories to a list of four things I’ve enjoyed the most, largely because a great lesson was learn from each one.

As someone who’s been exposed to several college tours and information sessions thanks to the ILC, I’ve come to anticipate a list of common features shared by nearly all college presentations. Among these include “we have an amazing faculty that’s extremely enthusiastic to help each and every one of you!”, and having heard this consistently, I ironically developed skepticism. They reminded me of my own high school experience and the great difficulty my fellow classmates sometimes had just to get a hold of a reliable adult on campus. These thoughts led me to fear that, when I become a Penn student, I’d just get swallowed by an ocean of confusion and strangers, regardless of what the cheerful college campus tour guide said last summer.

PENNCAP changed my outlook completely. Throughout the entire four weeks, PENNCAP planned events, mixers, and presentations for its participants so they could become better acquainted with all the resources Penn has to offer. While the quantity of these planned events was impressive, it is in looking back at my pre-freshman program experience now that I realize a greater value laid in its overall quality. It makes a difference when you and 20 other students are in a small presentation room in Van Pelt Library, meeting Dean DeTurck, the undergraduate Dean of Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences for the very first time. It makes a difference when you can personally go up to a representative from Student Health Services to be clarified on all the confusing details in getting the health care services you need to be officially enrolled in school. And it makes a difference to have the welcoming doors of the PENNCAP office always open to provide additional support for its participants from freshman year and onward.

This welcoming nature of Penn and its faculty is an authentic motif. At times, I am in awe of all the enthusiasm and honest philanthropy possessed by a majority of the staffers here. Such abundance of support was never common for many of my classmates back in high school, and had it not been for the pivotal people I've personally encountered throughout my life – those who saw something special within me long before I saw it within myself – I doubt I'd be as blessed as I am today. To have this kind of assistance and encouragement continue alongside my journey in higher education is very important to me and Penn's faculty and students come together in such a way that makes such motivation possible.

Angie Okhupe, Me and Sandra Nannozi
Some of the things I cherish most about my PENNCAP experience are the friendships I’ve developed along the way. The participants of PENNCAP occupied three floors of suite-style apartment dorms at the Harrison College high rise and we shared numerous classes and events with one another. From sitting next to each other in the dining halls to sitting beside each other to ride the tallest roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure theme park in New Jersey, a unique and lasting bond formed between most of us. Many of us didn't fully believe our Peer Counselors when they said the friendships we'd make at PENNCAP would become some of the strongest and most important bonds we'd form throughout our college years, but looking back on it now, they were completely right. On the first night after PENNCAP, when everyone had dispersed to their official freshman residences and I found a very silent and empty Riepe hallway all to myself, I realized just how much I truly missed everyone.

Lexi, Ayala and I after a rainy day
finish for a community service project.
The other participants at PENNCAP made Penn feel more like home, as if I had brought 99 friends from my hometown to college with me. Not only did I learn a lot about them and where they come from, I was also able to share a slice of my background with them as well. We were like a family, encouraging each other to reject doubt and strive. Many of us opened our ears to listen because we were quick to catch on that we were not alone in our frustrations and anxieties. Many of us were not used to being exposed to so many members of our age group who effortlessly understood our trials and our “nerdy” passions. After all, as Dr. Brian Peterson, author of High Learning: Maximizing your College Experience and the current Director of MAKUU (Penn’s Black Cultural Center) pointed out in that very book: “When you feel like your successes and well-being matters to your friends, you want to stick with it and win. Everyone will need encouragement. Don’t be afraid to give it, or receive it” (38). 

Our well being and successes did matter to the staff at PENNCAP and on levels of friendships, this was especially true with our Peer Counselors (PCs). PCs were appointed by the PENNCAP office through an application and interview process. They were current Penn students that had done PENNCAP before as incoming freshmen. PENNCAP was an important aspect to their Penn experience so they returned as early as their sophomore year to give back to an organization that had given them so much. Each PC – mine was Alyssa Nieves, a sophomore - was assigned to a group of about 10 students each and, in collaboration with their students' mutual PENNCAP counselor, acted as a student mentor.

I learned a lot from the PCs and personally, their assistance to me went beyond simple survival tips passed down from a veteran to a rookie. Their heart was truly invested in, not just making sure we have the most memorable experiences possible, but also in making sure we understood that they were there for us 100%. They understood our frustrations well and their past experiences made them an expert at pinpointing our interests throughout the PENNCAP experience. The PCs came in a breadth that worked perfectly for our diverse group; chances were there was at least one PC among the ten of them that shared at least one thing in common with us. Personally speaking, the friendships I made with the PCs were one of my favorite aspects of PENNCAP and, as a result, I have a strong desire to apply for the same position next summer.

Sunset on Locust Walk~Brillaint!
One of the greatest advantages of coming out as a participant of PENNCAP is getting to know the campus four weeks prior to the start of class. Penn is beautiful in August; the campus is very tranquil and picturesque during the summer – a major contrast to the crowds of students I see on a daily basis now that school is in session. Every morning of PENNCAP, it felt as if all one hundred of us woke up to a campus that was anxious for us to explore it. I spent a good deal of my independent time walking around various corners of campus, taking note of the facilities offered in certain buildings, where my fall classes where, where the best study spots were, and of course, all the shortcuts.

Living at Harrison College house was also a very significant learning experience for all of us. Not only were we accountable for our own personal spaces, we all learned to develop a respect for sharing space. I shared a suite with three other girls – two of them were students from the College (both pre-med) and one of them was a Nursing student. Each of us had a room to ourselves but the bathroom, the kitchen, and the lounge was shared among the four of us. Ensuring a harmonious living experience is vital beyond coming home to a non-hostile environment; it also removes you from worrying over one more additional thing (the last thing any college student wants with all the work that they are faced with). And while my roommates may not be the friends I turn to on a daily basis outside of our dorm, they share a different relationship with me that is just as important. Sharing space fostered a sister-sister relationship among us and, while we've only lived with each other for four weeks, we are as open to one another as if we've been living for four months.
Outside Harrison College House
Another aspect of Penn life that PENNCAP introduced us to were the use of our Penn cards. Serving as both a student ID card and a key to many of Penn's facilities, this card is the heart of our Penn experience. We purchase meals and pay for printing with this card. We get discounts to museums and access to online databases with this card. There are so many features embedded in this simple, but very important, Penn card that familiarizing ourselves with most of its functions proved to be major advantage for our college transition.

The world is your classroom; there are things you can never learn in a desk and on a chalkboard. One needs to have experiences and constantly ask questions, to always have an open-mind, a fearlessness about failure, and an optimism to keep moving forward when the going gets tough. I acquired a lot of advice throughout my four weeks with PENNCAP and some of them are as follows (may some of these influence you to approach college differently as they have for me):
  1. Learn how to balance fun and work; it's unhealthy to have too much of either.

  2. Be an individual; don't be pressured to take a class just because “everyone” is taking it. These four years are of your own original composition.

  3. Shed common high school habits (ex: procrastination, “doing just enough to get by” mentality, never participating in class, cramming the night before, etc.)

  4. Never be afraid to seek help.

  5. Make as many friends as possible, but always surround yourself with a group that will motivate you as much as you motivate them.

  6. Don't doubt your place in college; you're not there by mistake. You're here because you already possess the potential to succeed.

  7. Intelligence is subjective so stop measuring your compatibilities relative to that of another individual.

  8. “Thrive not survive.” (Professor R. Ghrist)

  9. Being “smart” isn't enough without wisdom.

  10. Keep an eye out for your friends; college is a stressful environment and it can occasionally break down even the best of us.

  11. Your time is valuable, so are your limited, four years of undergraduate studies in college.

  12. Never keep problems to yourself; make sure you always have someone to talk to.

  13. Work smarter, not harder.

  14. Don't obsess over grading, obsess over learning.

  15. Live in the moment and be “engaged” (Penn's President A. Gutman)

  16. Don't forget where you come from.

  17. Discover what it is that makes you “sparkle.” What makes you special? (Ms. F. Hamilton, PENNCAP counselor)

Ms. Edwards and I after PENNCAP’s
Closing Ceremony
First and foremost, I want to thank all the staff at PENNCAP for overlooking this wonderful pre-freshman program and for giving the priceless gift of self-confidence and support to one hundred blessed incoming freshmen to Penn every year.

Thank you to Ms. Pamela Edwards, the Director of PENNCAP, for supporting me and for giving me and the ILC permission to document my PENNCAP experience in the form of two reflection blogs.

Thank you to Ms. Faith Hamilton, my PENNCAP counselor, for being so welcoming and open to all our needs and concerns.

Me and Alyssa Nieves, my PC!
Thank you to all the PCs and RMs (Room Managers) for watching over us and ensuring that we had the best time possible. Specifically, thank you to Alyssa Nieves, Kathleen Rogers, Kevin Alcedo, Kerubo Mokaya, Nicholas Mushaike, Joanna Shen, Mike Choi, Emmanuel Martinez, and Jamie Gwynn. It was an immense honor to represent PENNCAP 2012 as two of the speakers giving speeches for closing ceremony.

Delivering my closing ceremony speech.
(Photo Credit to PENNCAP)
A special thanks to all my fellow PENNCAP peers for being such a welcoming bunch and for making Penn feel like home. You guys remind me not to stress out so much and to have some fun once in a while. Thank you for picking me for “PENNCAP Queen” during our pseudo-prom event on our last night together as PFPers.

Last but not least, thank you WCCUSD School Board President, Mr. Charles Ramsey, for introducing this program to me shortly after I was accepted to Penn. Even though I am no longer a participant of the ILC, I deeply appreciate the continued support you provide me and fellow ILC alumni beyond our high school “ambassador” work. You have inspired to inspire others and I hope more students within our school district will continue to aspire higher and possibly pursue higher education within the Ivy Leagues.
Onward! The journey ahead isn’t going to be easy,
but I am so close there’s just no giving up now.

1 comment:

Angelah O. said...

Dyna, this is one amazing blog... I truly agree with all that you said about PennCAP. Through the program, we have managed to transition smoothly into college life and I second you in thanking the PFP staff and our amazing PCs