Growing up at 52nd Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia, Glen Casey did not believe he belonged at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. However, a team of teachers and mentors helped him to reframe his thinking, and after successfully navigating many obstacles, he is a senior urban studies major in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Casey’s journey to Penn began when his junior year at University City High School took him in a direction that he hadn’t expected: a summer program offered through Penn’s Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships that involves local teens in community research and practice.
“The Netter Center team first got to know Glen through our Leaders of Change program,” says Rita Hodges, the assistant director. “He immediately stood out as a rising star.”
In Leaders of Change, Casey started fine tuning his leadership skills. Along with peers and mentors from Penn and the Netter Center, he researched barriers to higher education and issues that minority students face during the college-application process.
“This was relevant not only to me,” Casey says, “but also to my peers who faced similar situations. This led to my doing research on other college-access problems and helped further shape my interests and sense of self. These experiences also helped me focus on my future because, in order to actually create change within yourself, you need intrinsic motivation and support.”
Casey says even then he still felt that there was no way that he could go to college. But the following year, 2012, he met Jeffrey Johnson, a senior at Penn’s Wharton School. As a part of an academically based community service course run by the Netter Center, Johnson worked as a teaching assistant and mentor in Casey’s high school. The two connected right away.
“He was from Atlanta, he looked like me and we shared similar experiences,” Casey says. “That emboldened me to believe that, if he could do it, then I could do it,” and all of a sudden the idea of going to the Ivy League university down the block became less impossible.
Casey completed his freshman year at Temple University and transferred to Penn as a sophomore in 2014.
Since then, he has been actively involved with the Netter Center.
As an instructor and mentor in the Center’s College Bridge program, which engages recent graduates from two West Philadelphia public high schools in a college preparatory “boot camp,” Casey helped develop the curriculum for “College 101,” a seminar that helps low-income students make a successful transition to college.
“Glen has utilized his personal experiences to serve as a mentor and role model for countless other students in West Philadelphia,” says Cory Bowman, the Center’s associate director, “particularly helping them to overcome barriers to college access.”
During the time Casey worked as a teaching assistant for the course “Urban Education,” he helped Sayre High School to implement its first advanced-placement government class. He was also a part of the team that developed and taught a curriculum designed to promote critical reading, writing and oratory skills among sophomores and juniors.
“Doing this work feels good because I can help shape the minds and attitudes of young people who will go out and do great things,” Casey says. “Two of my former students who graduated from Sayre came back during their summer off from college to work with students in the Bridge program. That’s a direct testimony as to why I do the work that I do.”
Lately, Casey has shifted his focus, returning to research and policy issues that impact minority and low-income students’ access to higher education.
Under the guidance of Laura Perna, executive director of Penn’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the James S. Riepe Professor in the Graduate School of Education, Casey worked on a research project about the Obama administration’s federal college promise campaign that required data collection on financial aid in the 50 states. He noticed, in many cases, students from under-resourced areas entering college are still trapped in poverty once on campus.
“They have to live day-to-day, in addition to books, transportation, etc.,” Casey says. “We need to re-conceptualize how we see financial aid. Students of color from low-income backgrounds benefit from financial support outside of traditional financial aid.”
This year, Casey received Penn’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Involvement Recognition Award.
“Throughout his journey,” Hodges says, “ Glen has shown perseverance in removing obstacles for himself, his peers and his successors. “His dedication to empowering low-income, minority students in the community to achieve success and to become leaders of change themselves strongly reflects Dr. King’s vision of social change and social justice.”
After his graduation in May, Casey plans to stay involved at Penn and in the West Philadelphia community, linking the University to its neighbors and helping young people from similar backgrounds access higher-education opportunities.