By Elisa Ludwig
To undergraduates at a large university, the administration can seem like a mysterious, all-powerful entity, creating policy that affects their lives but doesn’t always take into account the reality of their day-to-day experience. The Engineering Deans’ Advisory Board (EDAB) was designed to bridge that gap and give students a platform to communicate with key decision makers.
“Having a means to create significant change was appealing to me,” says Johnathan Chen, (ENG’19, W’19), board president and Electrical Engineering major who also leads the electrical subteam for Penn’s award-winning Electric Racing team. “From my first meeting during freshman year, I was impressed with the professional comportment of the board’s executive leadership. I could see how they were creating an important dialogue between students and the administration and I wanted to get involved.”
The 13-member board meets once per week for 60 to 90 minutes. The executive board, comprised of four members, also meets weekly to plan out action items and brainstorm. Throughout his interactions with the group, Chen has found a real kinship with his fellow board members, who he says work hard and enjoy one another’s company in equal measure.
Bioengineering major Daphne Cheung (ENG’19) joined the board as a first-year student because she saw an opportunity to develop professional skills outside of the classroom. “For me, it was about trying to build a different kind of aptitude in areas such as project management, and learning how to work with different kinds of people, including students and faculty, and of course, the deans,” she says.
Currently, Cheung handles recruitment and onboarding for new members as vice president. “There’s a real satisfaction in knowing we play such an important role in connecting students to the administration and making previously unknown concerns heard,” she says.
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
Most recently, the board researched, culled and presented a 57-page white paper that detailed students’ greatest concerns, from mental health stressors to club engagement to pre-professional opportunities. This process occurs every four years, but this year’s edition was especially ambitious in scope, tackling big issues such as financial aid and diversity and inclusion.
“The document included everything we wanted the deans to know about us and it also created a blueprint for our future projects,” Chen says.
For the deans, the white paper set a tone, signaling that these students take their responsibility seriously.
“EDAB board members are organized, thoughtful and think strategically to implement initiatives that benefit the School,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “The dedication with which they carry out their mission of bringing student voices to the deans is inspiring. I am amazed by the enormous maturity and expertise that belies the age and experience of these students.”
Cheung has gotten particularly involved in broadening pre-professional opportunities for students. “We noticed that there was a disproportionate representation of finance and consulting companies on campus, but not as many for students hoping to enter biotech, industry, manufacturing and product design. The process of getting companies on campus was complex, so we sought a shorter-term solution. We worked with Career Services to identify areas of improvement, and set up advising hours so students could seek help and get the answers they needed much more easily and quickly,” she says.
Another example of a larger-scale effort is a recent mental health peer audit of undergraduate students in order to open up a conversation with the goal of ascertaining what exactly is at the core of their stress.
Still other board projects have included discrete, material improvements such as establishing a photo studio for students to document their projects and expanding study room options. When Chen first joined EDAB, he immediately suggested the group look into improving signage around campus. “In the first few weeks I was here I got lost all the time. That seemed like a simple thing that, once you called someone’s attention to it, could be improved,” he says.
One of the board’s most recent, tangible accomplishments, Chen says, has been to create a social space for students. “In Penn Engineering, social opportunities have traditionally existed within majors through shared classes. We felt that creating a physical space to encourage social interaction across study disciplines would only benefit students and enrich their social and academic lives.” The board worked with the administration to get furniture placed in the Levine lobby to activate that space for casual student use.
NETWORK OF LEADERS
Given that many student life and academic issues transcend Penn Engineering, EDAB interfaces with other similar organizations across the University. “We’re involved in the admissions advisory boards, and we meet with both the Wharton and SAS versions of our group,” Cheung says. “An academic steering meeting has included representatives from boards across the University. Bureaucracy can be very daunting to navigate at times, but we find that when we work together we can get things done.”
They’ve also met with the dean of Penn Admissions, Eric Furda, faculty across the University and the Wharton dean. “We learn what’s on the faculty’s minds,” Cheung says. “Realizing that they sometimes face the same problems we do when trying to effect change is eye-opening.”
In preparation for the 2018–19 academic year, EDAB’s leadership team spent time reflecting on what lies ahead and how it can best evolve as it recruits new members. For instance, the board itself has changed to better represent the student body, which has become increasingly female. For everyone involved, the challenges come with their own lessons and learnings.
“Being involved in EDAB has helped me to become more comfortable with public speaking and, in particular, addressing people with power,” Cheung says. “It’s also helped me work with others, to become a better listener, to negotiate different points of view and find common ground. It’s an awesome responsibility and a great privilege.”