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Ursinus Gives Students “The Philadelphia Experience”

Semester-long residential, experiential learning program turns Philly into a living classroom.

The birthplace of the United States is ripe with history and culture for residents and visitors alike, and it will now serve as a living classroom for a group of Ursinus College students embarking on a new experiential learning initiative.

“The Philadelphia Experience” places 15 Ursinus undergraduate students in Center City, where they will reside for the entirety of the fall 2016 semester while taking courses taught by Ursinus faculty and serving internships with city-based companies and non-profit institutions.

“We are thrilled to provide our students with the opportunity to learn in Philadelphia, a world-class city and the birthplace of American democracy,” Ursinus College President Brock Blomberg says. “Ursinus emphasizes experiential learning and liberal arts education with a purpose. The Philadelphia Experience — or Philly X — immerses our students in a diverse, thriving, urban environment and enables them to critically examine and help resolve the issues facing our communities and our world.”

Three Ursinus seniors, 10 juniors, and two sophomores comprise the inaugural cohort of students for this program. This semester, the students take up to three Ursinus courses while studying in Philadelphia: “Memoir Writing” with Michelle Keita, an associate professor of English at Ursinus; “Race and Ethnicity in Philadelphia” with Roger Florka, an associate professor of philosophy at Ursinus; and “Introduction to Theater” with Domenick Scudera, a professor of theater at Ursinus.  

The students will also take a course together titled “Philly 101,” which includes a study of the founding U.S. documents authored in Philadelphia, Steve Lopez’s novel Third and Indiana, which is set in Philadelphia, as well as poetry and other texts.

Each course satisfies requirements of the Ursinus College core curriculum, and the students may customize their experience by pairing courses with research projects, internships, or civic engagement initiatives. Students live in student housing on the campus of Drexel University, and the academic coursework will include classes taught in some of Philadelphia’s well-known locations.

“What makes the Philadelphia Experience truly unique is that we’re taking coursework out of the traditional classroom and turning the city itself into a living classroom in which students will draw upon the experience of its people and the historic context of its places to create an immersive and dynamic learning experience,” says Kelly Sorensen, interim associate dean at Ursinus College.

For example, students in Scudera’s theater course will see and discuss 12 plays in the city during the semester, and Keita’s memoir writing course asks students to create a portrait of Philadelphia locations or people they find meaningful and symbolic of the city.

Students are interning at locations like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Broad Street Ministry, Resource Real Estate, ReelBlack, the Mural Arts program, the Philadelphia location of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and STRIVE.

“What is exciting to me about Philly X is hands-on learning,” says Mara Koren, a senior English major at Ursinus. “I’m taking Dr. Keita’s memoir writing class, where we’ll travel around the city and write and learn about it. I’m doing an internship at Broad Street Ministry, a nonprofit organization that offers services to people in need. Since I’m a senior this year, ‘real life’ is looming before me. Living in Philly means many more opportunities to go to readings, view art, and become more engaged with a community.”

Emma Olshan, a senior art history major, adds, “I think the program is a good opportunity for students who may not be able to study abroad. Since it will take place in a large city it will provide a similar cultural experience, as well as preparation for living even more independently.” –by Ed Moorhouse