When Stefanie Jacobs (’19) toured Strath Haven High School with her fellow students in the Philadelphia Center (TPC) program, she noticed that something felt off. Jacobs recalled meeting with the vice principal and two members of the student congress. “When we spoke with them, it felt disingenuous and almost like there was an agenda,” Jacobs said. “It was kind of like talking with salesmen or politicians.” The vice principal and students bragged about the school’s diversity, but Jacobs saw hardly any students or teachers of color when she peeked into the classrooms she passed. When her professor asked the vice principal about this, the vice principal indicated that students of color were mostly on the other side of the building where the lower-level classes were held. For all their claims of inclusion, Strath Haven remained an environment of division. A few months later, Strath Haven would be in the news for a number of racist incidents in the school and the surrounding community.
This experience reinforced many of the ideas that Jacobs had been learning about over that semester in Philadelphia. She had chosen to participate in TPC not only for the professional experience, but also because she wanted to be challenged by living in a more racially and culturally diverse community than Hope College. “Hope is highly homogeneous,” she said. “I wanted to go to TPC to experience what it’s like being in the minority and be challenged by people who look and think differently than I do.” She wasn’t disappointed. In her seminar “Race: Cultural and Political Issues,” she discussed ideas of immigration, intersectionality, white supremacy and mass incarceration with eight students who brought a wide variety of perspectives. “I have learned about some of these topics before in previous classes, so most of what I learned wasn’t completely new,” she explained. “But our class discussions and city activities added a deeper dimension and understanding.” One of these activities was a trip to the National Constitution Center. After watching the museum’s video titled “Freedom Rising,” the class sat down to discuss their thoughts on the way it portrayed American history.
Jacobs was bothered by the way it had depicted slavery. “It was very sanitized and never acknowledged the brutality that enslaved people faced over multiple generations,” she said. Jacobs’ internship also helped expand her education in Philadelphia. Working at an arts nonprofit called The Clay Studio, she helped draft grants and research potential funders. In the process, she got an up-close look at the organization’s strategy for community engagement. Jacobs admired how their approach “was completely centered on that community and what those members want and need from the organization.” “One of the reasons why people attend liberal arts schools is to have their beliefs and perspectives challenged. I never got this in the classroom,” said Jacobs. In Philadelphia’s diverse city community, she was able to move beyond the limitations of her small college community and experience this kind of challenge. Now in her final semester, Jacobs looks back on TPC as a formative part of her education. “It was the most important thing I did at Hope and has prepared me to transition into living independently after I graduate.”