“Miss Diane, forget movies, I only want to go to the theater,” one student told Diane Sandefur, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s TRiO Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) Program, on the drive back from an evening performance at People’s Light Theater in Malvern. For many veterans in the program, these trips to theaters and museums, supported by Pennsylvania Humanities Council, are wholly new experiences. They can be eye-opening and emotionally stirring, leading to conversations about culture, history and justice. This unique approach to putting veterans on track for college is often a catalyst for meaningful personal, and broader community, change.
University of Pennsylvania’s VUB program, which is supported by the US Department of Education, is an invaluable service for the region’s veterans, providing them with the academic skills and experiences necessary to excel in college. Towards this end they have been highly successful — 90% of a recently graduated class went on to enroll in postsecondary courses. Veterans in the program are often first generation college students and most are facing economic hardship. “The age range is from early 20s to mid-60s and to be eligible for VUB veterans must be from a disenfranchised background,” said Sandefur.
The curriculum is what you might expect from a traditional college preparatory program, including instruction in mathematics, science, foreign language and humanities. What makes Penn VUB special is the cultural experiences, mentorship and counseling services, along with the camaraderie and support of fellow veterans in the program.
Since 2015, Pennsylvania Humanities Council has worked with Penn VUB to expand the humanities curriculum and activities for veterans in the program, initially providing funding through the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Standing Together initiative. A recent PHC-sponsored trip included a visit to Wharton Escherick Museum and tickets to The Diary of Anne Frank at the People’s Light Theater. This critically acclaimed production tells Anne Frank’s harrowing story in a way that illuminates modern problems of polarization. People’s Light intended it to be “a ritual of remembrance, an act of defiance, and a source of solace and light.” For the veterans, the performance was captivating and spoke with clarity to their own concerns about discrimination. “Never in my life have I enjoyed a play,” recalled one student after the show. “It was beautiful.”
Veterans explore the decorative woodwork of The Wharton Escherick Museum.
Coupled with the play was a lively panel discussion on Jewish history and social justice that included Rabbi Arthur Waskow (The Shalom Center), Reverend Gregory Holston (Partnership for Working Families), and Reverend Mark Tyler (Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church). The veterans asked pointed questions to the panelists about issues they struggle with every day: racism, equity and justice. “The conversation about the slavery of the Jewish people, and the traditions and celebrations of their freedom, was intertwined with the struggles of the black population,” said Sandefur, who accompanied the group. VUB students read Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and later went on to further immerse themselves in Jewish culture by participating in the Annual Freedom Seder at the National Museum of American Jewish History. This event has its roots in the 1969 Freedom Seder that took place during the Civil Rights Movement and it is an opportunity to share an evening of food and stories of liberation at the community Passover table.
Many VUB students find such multifaceted engagement with the humanities uplifting and inspiring in the moment, but it also contributes to the veterans’ later success in postsecondary education and in their lives more broadly. Exposure to the region’s cultural assets opens up worlds of exploration, uncovers learning opportunities and reveals nascent interests. Within the supportive community of Penn VUB, veterans are able to heal past wounds, build confidence inside and outside the classroom and make meaningful changes in their lives and their communities. Students are challenged to think deeply about their experiences and express them in ways that strengthen skills in college-level writing and verbal communication. The veterans themselves are vocal advocates of VUB and the data supports their enthusiasm — after graduating, most participants had improved academic performance based on standardized testing.
Pennsylvania Humanities Council is proud to partner with Penn VUB to enhance a humanities curriculum that fosters both personal and academic growth for the region’s veterans. “PHC has afforded the VUB students with experiences that, for some, did not know existed,” said Diane Sandefur. “For other students, the experiences provided by PHC were previously thought to have been a far reach and something they could only dream of attending.”