In many regards, University of Pennsylvania sophomore Michael Keramidas is a typical college student, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, with a quick smile and a buzz cut. He was No. 1 in his high school class and applied to 15 colleges.
In high school, he participated in dozens of activities, including mock trial, student council, speech league, quiz team and more. He worked in the district office of his long-time state representative. During high school summers, Keramidas attended leadership camps, most recently at Cornell University.
At Penn, he joined the International Affairs Association, competed in the Model United Nations, worked with Penn Dems to educate voters about the new voter-ID law and in the fall will begin volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
In other ways, he’s not so typical.
Keramidas is not from California, Florida or a faraway country. His hometown is in Central Pennsylvania, a five-hour train ride west of Philadelphia. His dad owns a Greek restaurant there, and his mom waits tables. Penn wasn’t even on his radar until he attended a college fair.
“Dad is a small-business owner,” Keramidas said. “He and Mom can’t support the sticker price here” at Penn.
However, thanks to the no-loan financial-aid packages that Penn provides to students like Keramidas, he and his family don’t have to pay the sticker price. Of all the schools he applied to, he said, “Penn ended up being the cheapest.”
In a news release last February, Penn President Amy Gutmann explained why that might be.
"We want to enable students to make career and life decisions based on their interests, talents, and passion — not on whether they’ll make enough money to pay off their student debt,” she said. “Especially in these challenging economic times, we want prospective students and their families to know that Penn is affordable.”
There are indeed no loans in Keramidas’ aid package. Since 2009, Penn has substituted grants for loans for aid-eligible undergraduates in the College, School of Nursing, School of Engineering and Applied Science and Wharton School.
And the University continues to increase the amount set aside for these students. In February, Penn trustees authorized a financial-aid budget of $181 million for 2012-13, a 129 percent increase since Gutmann took office in 2004.
Much of this is possible due to the generosity of donors to the University’s Making History campaign, which includes a $350 million goal for undergraduate student aid and another $323 million for graduate and professional student aid. Today nearly 45 percent of undergraduates, including Keramidas, receive direct grant support from Penn.
His education has been made possible by financial aid from the Joseph S. Doyle family, Trevor B. Price and Megan L. Sheetz as well as the Jesse R. Wike Memorial Scholarship through the generosity of Penelope Wike.
Keramidas was so grateful that he wrote to Gutmann.
“She seems like such a caring person, not above you, but one of you,” he said. “She’s doing such a fantastic job; I wanted to thank her.”
In part, he wrote:
I come from a very small city . . . where many of the people are not well off, including myself. I always had to work hard so that one day I could leave and go to a great university. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I'd be able to go to Penn. Because of the generous financial aid Penn offered me, I now have had the opportunity to study here, learn so many new things and meet many great people.
Thank you for making college affordable for me and thousands of other students like myself.
“I’m very happy where I am,” he said. “I definitely see it’s where I should be. It has a perfect balance.”
Was he looking for a big city experience?
“When I visited big cities before, I always like them. That’s another reason I went here.”
Keramidas sees graduate school in his future, studying political science and economics. In fact, this summer he was on campus participating in a Penn Undergraduate Research Mentorship with economist Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde.
“Basically, I've been doing research for him in global economic history -- global energy consumption, production, prices, etc.,” Keramidas said. “The second part has been gathering data on climate change to see the effects that the rise in industrialization has had on the world. It's really interesting and taught me a lot about energy in history and what it's like to do research.”
He also shared his love of Penn through a summer job with the admissions office, where he led daily tours for prospective students and their families.