It all started with men’s lightweight rowing.
On a whim, Joshua Christine (LPS ‘19) attended walk–on tryouts. He trained hard for two weeks. Finally, per his childhood fantasy of being a college athlete, he secured a spot on the team. Rowing would be good exercise, sure, but it was bigger than that: rowing would provide the community that Joshua had lacked since coming to Penn. Teammates who’d have his back, friends who’d bleed and sweat alongside him. Joshua had served in the military, and in the civilian world, this brand of brotherhood seemed readily available only in sports.
Things were looking up. Then, one of the coaches got a call from Penn Athletics.
Rowing falls under the jurisdiction of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA), and IRA rules are built on those of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). NCAA bylaw 14.1.1 states that “a student–athlete shall not represent an institution in intercollegiate athletics competition unless the student has been admitted as a regularly enrolled, degree–seeking student in accordance with the regular, published entrance requirements of that institution.” As a student in the LPS school, Joshua was not considered “regularly enrolled.” He was deemed ineligible to play, and could not be added to the official roster.
So rowing was out. But the military had trained Joshua to persevere, and his goal of participating in intercollegiate athletics became a question for answers.
At 29 years old, Joshua doesn’t fit the conventional profile of a Penn undergraduate. He looks young enough for his age—there’s a vibrancy to his grin and easy laugh. Throw a “P” sweater on him and he could pass as a senior. As soon as he speaks, though, it is evident that his experiences are anything but standard.
“College was never a conversation, because we were broke,” Joshua recalls. Under the shadow of an abusive father, his family hopped between states, vans, and YMCAs until finally settling near Philadelphia for Joshua’s high school years.
Any resources tailored to helping low–income students flew over his head. “When you grow up poor you don’t know that [there is support for you], and you actively don’t think that is the case. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Environments that breed children for the Ivy League are inherently different from those that cause others to join the military. Like Joshua, Alexandra Tolhurst (C ‘19) wasn’t on track to make it to Penn. She grew up in a military family in a military–oriented town in Michigan and enlisted immediately after graduating from high school. Alexandra has been on a different track since birth, and only after her father’s persistent efforts to have her be the family’s first college graduate did her path curve towards higher education.
Like Alexandra, Joshua did recognize from the beginning that was military service was a viable path. At 18, he enrolled in the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, where he served for a year and a half before leaving on account of injury. Eight years later, after spending time in the workforce and starting his own business, Joshua applied to transfer from Portland Community College to the University of Pennsylvania.
With requirements like high school transcripts, teacher evaluations, and SAT scores, which expire after 5 years, college applications are not designed for people like Joshua. How would his years in the military and the workforce translate among peers whose wildest moments consisted of mission trips and varsity sports? It had been nearly a decade since he was a high school senior. When he called Penn Admissions, the student on the other end of the phone told him that he could not apply through standard means and instead referred him to the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS).
Joshua transferred to Penn LPS in the spring of 2016. So far, he has “hated [his] college experience.” As a veteran in LPS, “you don’t have access to official intercollegiate sports, [or] the same financial aid. Your classes are billed at a different rate. Your classes will not be taught by standing faculty but will be taught by PhD candidate students,” he explained.
“This whole time, I thought that I got into Penn, but I got into Penn’s bastard stepchild,” says Joshua. “I’m not a special fucking student or at least I certainly didn’t want to be.”
Veterans may apply to any of the four undergraduate schools, but for one reason or another, most end up in LPS. When asked why, the admissions office said it did not have anyone available to comment. Alexandra doesn’t know of anyone else in her position—she’s a veteran studying in the undergraduate College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), not LPS.
When Alexandra applied to Penn after a year and half of service, she too was rerouted. Having lived in the Philadelphia area, she knew that LPS was not the school for her and that there was nothing that mandated her to apply there. Alexandra was also 18 at the time, like most other applicants. She disregarded the instructions of the admissions office and applied directly to CAS. Soon, she was singing Hurrah’s as part of the class of 2019.
Jesse Raines (LPS ‘19) is a high school dropout who worked as an infantryman and private contractor in Afghanistan for eight years. When he called the admissions office, he talked to those same work–study students that Joshua spoke to. “The students who work part–time, the ones that answer the phone—they told me I had to apply to LPS. I’ve since learned that’s not correct.”
Despite the misinformation, Jesse has enjoyed his time at Penn. According to its website, LPS is “the home of lifelong learning [...] housed within the School of Arts and Sciences.” Unlike Joshua, Jesse sees little difference; he’s adamant that LPS and SAS provide the same bill of goods, and he’s never had one LPS class taught by a PhD candidate. It’s the veterans who “keep to themselves,” Jesse says, who say it’s not “a really positive experience.”
Jesse does acknowledge a lack of top–down assistance, however. The administrators he’s interacted with aren’t familiar with the nuances of the GI Bill or how his healthcare policy is covered by the Veterans Health Administration. Does Penn support him as individual? Sure. “Do they support me as a veteran? Not really.”
But he isn’t sure there are enough veterans on campus to warrant special advocacy. The numbers are foggy, as the University publishes no official statistics. This is most likely because veterans have to self–identify, and there are certainly reasons not to—social stigma for one, politics for another. Some traditional students have challenged Jesse’s legitimacy as a member of the Penn community. Others question his choice to go into the military.
Alexandra notes a sort of cultural dissonance between her and her classmates which stems not so much from her time in the military but from factors at play far earlier in her life. The higher education system—at Penn and beyond—is not set up for easy navigation by low income students or students from communities that encourage enlistment in the military. Students like Alexandra, Joshua, and Jesse at times struggle to fit their experiences and backgrounds into the climate of the greater university.
Joshua called the NCAA and the Ivy League, and petitioned the athletics department and Penn administration. He even emailed Amy Gutmann. He wanted back on the rowing team—a community that represented all he hadn’t been given as an LPS student at Penn.
So far, nothing has come out in favor of Joshua’s case; he’s been refuted, forwarded up the chain of command. In recent history, no LPS student has participated in intercollegiate athletics, veteran or not. Joshua will graduate this coming spring. Soon after, LPS will be phased out by an .
Alexandra, who works as an assistant in the Penn admissions office, finds that LPS has “been very standoffish in telling the veterans” about the phaseout, only making it clear that students currently enrolled in the program will be able to finish their degrees. Vice Dean of LPS Nora Lewis confirmed that LPS “will continue to offer evening classes as long as we have students, until they all graduate.”
“For the students currently in the B.A. [LPS program], it’s going to be business as usual for them. It will probably be invisible to them—that there’s going to any kind of change,” says Kathy Urban, Director of Undergraduate programs.
Alexandra is worried, but not fatalistic. “If undergraduates knew that it was happening, they would want to speak up. [...] Nobody wants to see education taken away.”
As it stands, all LPS students will conclude their courses of study as expected. But as their program shifts from on–campus to exclusively online, it will become impossible for future students to form the sort of community so central to Jesse and Joshua’s experiences at Penn. And as the degree program comes to offer only four concentrations as opposed to the full range of majors, the meaning of an LPS degree acquired before the change becomes uncertain.
Until then, Joshua is holding out hope that Amy will respond to his email.
Angela Lin is a sophomore from Eden Prairie, Minnesota studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She is a features staff writer.