A shared passion for community engagement

May 14, 2024
Vicky Swanson, Hongyang Zhao, and Toby Johnson

(Left to right) Penn GSE’s Vicky Swanson, Hongyang Zhao, and Toby Johnson share how their how community engagements deepen their connection with West Philadelphia. (Photo by Scott Spitzer)

Penn GSE's heat map offers a graphic account of the hundreds of activities where faculty and students are at work on issues facing communities and schools across Philadelphia. It is a snapshot of Penn GSE’s commitment to community engagement.

“Commitment to community, in practical and tangible ways, is core to who we are,” GSE Dean Katharine Strunk says. “Our students inspire me constantly with their enormous energy and drive not only as scholars but as change agents focused on making a tremendous impact even before they graduate.”

At the forefront of that work since 2016, Caroline Watts, the founding director of the Office of School and Community Engagement, has been leveraging partnerships across Penn and beyond, connecting students, faculty, and resources to Philadelphia schools and community programs. “It is about redressing inequities to improve access and quality for kids in low-resource public schools and community organizations. It is about engaging in the complicated process of working together to make the city a better place,” she says.

Watts and her team work to identify ways to connect students to this kind of real-word experience. “What is wonderful about Penn GSE and the University,” Watts says, “is that for students who are curious and are looking for these experiences between Penn GSE and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, there are lots of opportunities to be actively engaged in the West Philadelphia. With Netter, we have synergies and complementary goals in wanting to serve the community and make Penn a productive and responsive partner.”

Three members of the Class of 2024 who are working with Watts and her team to do just that are Toby Johnson, Vicki Swanson, and Hongyang Zhao. Penn Today spoke to them about their path to Penn, their community engagement, and their plans for the future.

Read more about their experiences in Penn Today.