(This is the first in a series about University of Pennsylvania students who took their arguments in support of federal student financial aid to Washington this summer in a project organized by the Office of Student Registration and Financial Services.)
Kristin Thomas doesn't appear to be a rabble-rouser. In fact, the poised, well spoken May graduate of the University of Pennsylvania makes her case rather quietly.
What arouses her passion is the community service provided in West Philadelphia by staff and students in Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. And she wants lawmakers holding the fate of federal student financial aid to see what toll their actions or inactions can take.
“I wanted to put a face to the people they are affecting,” she says, “and, at the same time, show them the work we are doing in the community so that groups like the Netter Center can continue to afford our work.”
When a student at Penn, Thomas, who hails from New York City, was one of many who held federal work-study jobs with the Netter Center at schools, health centers and elsewhere in the University’s West Philadelphia neighborhood.
“One in four of Penn’s work studies is involved in community service,” says Joel Carstens, university director of financial aid.
This month, Thomas was among a group from Penn who traveled to Washington to discuss the rippling effects of sequestration and increasing student loan rates with the staffs of senators and representatives from the Philadelphia area.
“We wanted to give them a picture of the power of work-study students,” says Thomas, who majored in health and societies..
“After visiting these offices two years ago, I believed the legislators on Capitol Hill needed to hear from students directly,” says Michelle Brown-Nevers, associate vice president of student registration and financial services. “My team and I collaborated with the Netter Center and the Office of Government and Community Affairs.
“The Netter Center identified the students, OGCA identified the legislators with whom we met and Joel and I traveled with the students,” she explains. “It is very satisfying to meet and collaborate with our students; their enthusiasm and compelling stories were well received.”
“We met as a group with each senator’s and congressman’s staff for about 30-45 minutes,” Thomas says.
Thomas began her Netter Center involvement during her sophomore year with an academically based community service course called “Prevention of Tobacco Addiction.” Out in the community, they developed lesson plans about the hazards of smoking for third and fourth graders at Drew Elementary School.
“We made it fun with games and such,” she says.
Another class she enjoyed was the ABCS course “Stem Cell Science in Education.” As a student, she learned the science and ethics of stem cell research, but at University City High School, she and her classmates directly applied what they learned to the 15-member ninth-grade honors science class.
“It was a challenge,” she says, “because we had complete control of the lessons plans and used videos and worksheets to get the students to learn about diseases that can benefit from stem cell research, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”
This summer she is continuing her dedication to the Netter Center’s work as an Emerson Fellow, a one-year appointment she won through a competitive process.
“The Emerson Fellowship is relatively new,” she says. “It’s a malleable position, but its main goals are to ensure our programs are effective in the community, that the work means something and that we know who we are impacting.
“As a recent grad, it’s nice to liaise with the Penn students to see what we can improve and to show them there are lots of opportunities to get involved.”
One of those opportunities is the Summer Bridge program, in which 50-plus UCHS students focus on college-readiness skills such as time management and study statistics and psychology.
For her future, though, Thomas is thinking more globally.
A French minor while at Penn, she took advantage of the University’s travel-abroad programs, studying in France one summer and in India, Argentina and South Africa for a semester.
“It definitely piqued my interest in global health,” Thomas says.
She did a comparative study of what she saw in India, Argentina and South Africa, where she made site visits to learn about the food options, nutrition, culture and traditions of the people.
“In my final paper, I looked at each country and culture, but I learned how difficult it is to have a global solution to food justice,” she says.
In that vein, when her fellowship ends, she plans to focus on global health when she pursues a master’s degree in public health.