For Kathy Urban, a high-quality education means putting students first

As Director of Undergraduate Programs at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) at Penn, Kathy Urban has worked with students from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds. She is the contact for prospective veterans who are interested in LPS undergraduate programs. She also supervises the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, a unique program designed for Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts students who want to complete a bachelor’s degree along with their art education. And in her leadership of first the LPS Bachelor of Arts degree and now the Penn LPS Online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree, she has worked with adult students at every stage of life.

“We have working adult students, many of whom have been out of high school for between 5 and 30 years. We also have students who are high achievers early in their careers who are performance artists, athletes, and several students who are potential future Olympians.” says Urban. “Interestingly, we have two students from different countries who are world class fencers!”

As summer comes to a close, Urban says she’s seeing a “natural momentum” of adults considering online courses for fall 1 (beginning in September) or fall 2 (beginning in October. “We’re seeing people who all have the same kind of drive, whether they’re an athlete or an artist or pursuing another profession,” she adds. “The common thread that brings together all these different students with disparate academic and professional backgrounds is their focus on excellence.” Urban’s role, as the program director as well as an advisor and contact for prospective students, is to help them reach that goal.

Understanding what adult students need

“Adult students are not all necessarily looking for their bachelor's degree to create the trajectory of the rest of their life,” Urban explains. Adult students seeking to complete their Bachelor’s degree are driven to take action for a variety of reasons, says Urban. Some are looking to complete an education they started long ago and their life circumstances finally offer the bandwidth to finish. Others have reached the pinnacle of their profession and have been able to progress without a degree, but are returning to complete a personal goal. Still others may be pursuing a degree that aligns with a desired career pivot. When the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degree was in development, Urban knew that it would need to be customizable to suit individual student career trajectories or interests. “We have received an overwhelming response to many of our concentrations, but interest in the individualized studies concentration is beginning to spike now as well,” Urban explains. “BAAS students can create their own concentration using four-course course blocks if they don't see a combination of courses that speak to them in our concentrations. A student working in a particular industry can opt to take the professional writing certificate, the neuroscience certificate, and the positive psychology certificate—or some other combination.” Urban recently worked with an environmental activist in the BAAS program who proposed an Individualized Studies concentration combining climate change, organizational anthropology, and professional writing courses. Two other students simultaneously proposed Individualized Studies concentrations involving cinema studies, global studies, and digital culture.”

The Individual Studies concentration is particularly well-suited to applicants who are transferring in college credits from another institution, which is often the case with the prospective students who seek Urban’s advice. “Many students are surprised to find that credits they completed at several institutions across many years may result in them having already completed half of a Bachelor’s degree,” says Urban, adding that students who have already completed an associate’s degree could easily be halfway toward the requirements for the BAAS degree. ““I am always struck by the embarrassment—and sometimes shame—some adults carry with them regarding their unfinished degree,” says Urban. She recommends students to inquire about the transferability of their previous credits as a first step, and to see if the institution offers a preliminary transfer credit evaluation or virtual information sessions to help a prospective student gather information, as Penn LPS Online does. “The ideal question to ask regarding transfer credit,” says Urban, “is not necessarily how many credits will transfer, but how many will I have left to complete my degree?”

A bachelor’s degree for ambitious, challenge-seeking adults also needs to provide the high-quality education that distinguishes Penn. “I think that we’ve taken the best of what Penn offers and created a degree specifically for a working adult student population,” says Urban. “Students in the BAAS degree really get the benefit of a phenomenal faculty and the interdisciplinary focus that really is the strength of a Penn education, and what they learn on Tuesday night they can apply in the workforce on Wednesday.”

For example? “Hallmarks of a Penn degree, regardless of the method of delivery, are the writing and rhetorical skills you carry with you. The writing program at Penn will reinvigorate your writing by refining your entire approach to writing,” Urban says. “Student feedback about the writing program, without fail, identify its value in giving the structure and confidence to approach any writing project, regardless of what it is.” In addition to writing and communication skills, Urban says that the interdisciplinary nature of the courses and concentrations help students become flexible, agile thinkers. “As one of the Divisions of the School of Arts and Sciences, the College of Liberal and Professional Studies is steeped in the liberal arts,” says Urban. “The liberal arts focus allows students to make connections across seemingly disparate topics.”

Perhaps the biggest step toward making academic excellence accessible to more working adults is the decision to design the courses for distance learning. “Being able to offer this Ivy League degree online makes it accessible to people who are striving to be the best in their industry,” says Urban. “I think it's exciting to open up a liberal arts education to students who would never have the opportunity to relocate to Philadelphia to complete a degree.”

“The most pleasant surprise for many adult students, who angst over returning to school and how they will fare in the online classroom, is how well they do academically as an adult,” adds Urban.

Designing a degree that evolves

So how do you build an online degree with a flexible schedule and a customizable curriculum, but still deliver the Ivy League resources and faculty that work within the University’s traditional academic calendar? “With support from the University, an accomplished and creative faculty and a staff of nimble, creative people,” says Urban. That agile thinking and student-focused problem-solving is built into the foundation of all College of Liberal and Professional Studies programs, she explains: “We work with literally every nontraditional program: high school programs, non-degree programs, professional masters’ degrees, Summer Sessions, non-residential undergraduate degrees,” she enumerates.

“One of the innovations in the undergraduate degree is that students who are not admissible under the current standard application process may still participate in our Gateway Program, which is an on-ramp to the bachelor’s degree,” she adds. Designed for students who may have been out of school for many years or perhaps had a rocky initial academic experience, the Gateway Program allows students to meet the academic requirements for admission by completing four online Gateway courses in good academic and community standing. Gateway students take courses alongside other bachelor’s degree students, certificate and non-degree course-takers. When they have completed all four courses, they submit a fast-track application to move from Gateway student to a BAAS student. Once they are officially enrolled in the BAAS, the Gateway courses count toward their degree requirements.

In the early days of developing the program, says Urban, there were many people involved in the process to think critically and creatively about how to provide a quality curriculum, student services, career connections, and more. Accustomed to working with a small crew of academic advisors, enrollment specialists, and administrators, she expanded the Penn LPS Online team to include a career development advisor, a student success advisor, and an online student life manager. “We had to consider how we were going to provide online tutoring, academic advising, and career advising for a heterogenous adult student population with a range of needs,” Urban reflects. “We were already doing a lot of phone and email advising, so that wasn’t a big transition. How do you build community for a global student body and how do you create virtual opportunities for students to huddle around common interests? So we've had to think through all of those processes and programs.”

Coursework in the time of COVID-19

In March 2020, as universities across the nation shifted to remote instruction and virtual classrooms, Penn LPS Online courses continued apace. “Our students were already operating online,” says Urban. “The impact of that transition wasn’t necessarily on their own education, but their day-to-day life. Especially for those who have school-age children and took on their education in addition to working full time and taking classes.”

Urban and her team have taken the opportunity to listen directly to students about those challenges. “We’ve had drop-in sessions when the entire undergrad team staff is available, and we just invite students to come in and talk with us in a Zoom session,” she says. “We had a session the other night where we were all talking about self-care during the quarantine and hearing what everybody's struggles are. Who's studying in the bathroom because it's the only place they can get peace from everybody else in their family?  Who's living in a small space shared with many people, and can offer strategies on creating a good work/study space?”

As it turned out, the conversation yielded an opportunity to build community online—and for the team to re-envision their expectations about student needs. “We had several students in that session who talked about doing yoga, so it spawned the opportunity for us to create a special interest group on My Penn LPS,” Urban recalls. My Penn LPS is a key platform of Penn LPS Online’s “virtual campus,” where staff and students can convene around common interests or share resources related to career advancement, work/life balance, and personal enrichment.

“The pandemic has shoved people out of their comfort zone and at the same time required businesses to re-imagine many business processes,” Urban reflects. But in regard to online college education, she says, “I do think it’s pushed everybody forward. As more people are exposed to the idea that you don’t have to be in the same place and time as other learners, everyone benefits. It expands everybody’s idea of what education is.” While the urgent transition to remote learning isn’t comparable to the process of designing a course to be taught online, she suspects exposure to virtual learning tools will interest faculty members in teaching online who might not have considered it before the pandemic. Another likely outcome might be when residential courses return to campus there may be some new features inspired by the faculty’s experience teaching remotely. “It was really amazing to see what faculty in the residential program were able to do in March,” says Urban, “but when the instructional designers work with the faculty, they really think through a very deliberate process with a focus on learning outcomes.”

In the meantime, says Urban, she is grateful for all the creativity and fun that staff and students bring to the program. "I work with a phenomenal staff," she says, "and the students are so very interesting. They're up for a challenge in all aspects of their lives."

To learn more about how Penn LPS Online provides support for BAAS students, please visit the Student Resource page or drop in on one of our upcoming virtual events.

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