Mentors make the Penn difference.
By Amy Gutmann
Tangen Hall, now rising at the corner of 40th and Sansom streets on the northwest corner of Penn’s campus, is a significant new academic addition. This building exemplifies our commitment to fostering uniquely individualized interactions between Penn students and faculty. A first-of-its-kind center, Tangen Hall will feature incubator spaces, dedicated workshops for student-led ventures, and a fully equipped test kitchen for food-related projects. With 68,000 square feet of available space, it will be one of the largest hubs of its kind on any college campus.
A critical focal point in Tangen will be Venture Lab, Penn’s one-stop home for student innovation and an incubator to guide commercialization of student ideas. The growing need for just such a center on campus is striking. In recent years, Penn and Wharton graduates have created more than 500 venture-backed companies. These ventures include such household names as eyewear disruptor Warby Parker; Jet.com, the consumer goods delivery company; and Flatiron Health, the healthcare technology and services company focused on accelerating cancer research and improving patient care that was acquired last year by the pharmaceutical firm Roche for $2 billion.
Differing greatly in mission and markets, these student-initiated ventures all share a common thread: personal faculty guidance, not just formal instruction, proved invaluable to their creation. Wharton Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Karl Ulrich, who will head Venture Lab, describes Penn’s unique strengths in fostering student innovation: by bringing together “a diverse set of problem solvers” at Penn, “students can take chances, they can explore, they can experiment,” and ultimately, turn good ideas into great outcomes.
As plans for Tangen Hall have taken shape and the building has begun to rise, I have been thinking a great deal about the secret sauce of Penn faculty mentors. Mentorship is, after all, an educational tradition embedded deeply in human experience, going back at least 2,800 years to one of the foundational works in world literature, Homer’s Odyssey. A college-age student is near the center of that story: Telemachus, son of Odysseus, who concludes his teen years at a time when his father is missing, his family is besieged, and he is struggling to understand his place. But he finds aid. Wisdom, personified in the goddess Athena, takes the form of Telemachus’ private tutor to advise his pupil to embark on a journey of discovery. On this voyage, Telemachus comes of age, learning by himself—but with his tutor’s expert guidance—the capacity to effect change in the world. This voyage into adulthood is guided by someone with a role deemed so critical that we honor that contribution down to this very day. His teacher’s name was Mentor.
As every one of us knows from personal experience, while a mentor is a teacher, not all teachers are mentors. Something very special must be in play. A mentor is someone who shares knowledge and imparts understanding—sometimes even wisdom—with those less experienced. In doing so, the mentor sends the mentee on a journey of discovery, guiding but not steering it. All of us who have served as mentors take satisfaction in our students’ growing capacity and eagerness to steer for themselves.
For reasons both historical and philosophical, mentorship abounds at Penn, and not just in formal programs like Venture Lab, where Penn colleagues will help guide future generations of successful Penn student entrepreneurs. I am constantly impressed by the dedicated and expert faculty-student mentorship I encounter in every corner of Penn’s campus. Three years ago, we were thrilled to welcome Beth Simmons, a renowned international relations scholar, to Penn as the Andrea Mitchell University Professor of Law, Political Science, and Business Ethics. She no sooner settled in than she stood out, not only as a great teacher but as an exceptionally supportive mentor. Students from political science to law to business to architecture regularly visit her office. Simmons assembled a research team on the theme of “Borders and Boundaries in International Politics” and invited post-docs in political science and in anthropology to join the effort. She opened her new course on this subject to undergraduates, graduates, MBA, and law students alike. For an even closer look at these issues, she taught a Law School class on the armed conflict and peace agreement in Colombia, and she arranged to guide a dozen students to that country for a week-long visit talking to those who experienced the conflict first-hand.
The one-on-one bonds forged between faculty and students define the Penn experience and the Penn difference. Yet the essential role faculty play in the lives of our students extends beyond the classroom and lab also to shape the present and future of the University itself. Every initiative and endeavor of importance we undertake at Penn to improve student living and learning, we undertake with faculty leaders. Who better to knit together and further strengthen the wonderfully diverse threads of the Penn community than the very leaders and scholars who so powerfully influence the course of our students’ lives?
Two perfect examples are the inaugural faculty co-directors of our important new initiative, Penn First Plus: Camille Charles and Robert Ghrist. By consolidating and expanding resources for our first-generation and low-income students, Penn First Plus is a game-changing program, to be centrally located in College Hall, that maximizes the student experience and their success. Camille Charles is the Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences and teaches in the departments of Sociology and Africana Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences. Rob Ghrist is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor of mathematics in Arts and Sciences and professor of electrical and systems engineering in Penn Engineering. Camille and Rob combine forces across the humanities, social sciences, and STEM. All the while they bring vast student mentoring experience to bear while helping lead Penn First Plus. Their strategic vision and acumen in connecting students and faculty with new programs is absolutely key to what makes Penn so special for our students.
A quarter century ago, recognizing the uniquely important role mentors play in the educational process, the Council of Graduate Schools set out a list of the mentor’s multiple roles. Mentors are advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, who offer emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, uniquely suited to give specific feedback on performance; sponsors, who aid in obtaining opportunities; and most of all they are models of the kind of person their mentees—and many of us—may hope to become.
That’s a tall order for anyone to fill. That great mentorship and exceptional mentors so define a Penn education is both an epic feat and an everyday fact for our University. The resulting odysseys of discovery and invention our students successfully undertake give us all ample reason to be so proudly Penn.