Cultural destination: Free passport to the streets of Philadelphia

Drexel initiative is a palpable hit with students and rival institutions. Sarah Cunnane reports

September 2, 2010

Finding the nearest opera house or ballet company is probably not at the top of most students' priorities when they arrive on campus for their first term at university.

Nevertheless, one US institution has found that an initiative to open up local cultural treasures and improve the undergraduate experience is hitting the right note with its students.

Philadelphia's Drexel University has been handing out its "cultural passport" since 2001. The scheme gives first-year undergraduates one free pass to the delights offered by 35 partner institutions throughout the city, exposing many to opera, ballet and theatre for the first time.

Mark Greenberg, provost at Drexel, said that the scheme gave those unused to an urban setting a chance to learn about their new home.

"Before the cultural passport, both students and parents were worried about the move to the city; how students would get around, whether it was safe for them," he explained. "There was this feeling of scepticism about being in the city.

"This programme encourages students to use the bus and subway system to get off campus. There's tremendous enthusiasm for it from the students."

Dr Greenberg said that about three-quarters of eligible students used the passport in their first term: by the end of the year, nearly all had used it at least once.

Students who had participated in the scheme were enthusiastic about its contribution to their university experience.

Andrew Cebulski, a computer engineering student, said: "I'm from Northern Virginia and hadn't been to the Philadelphia area much, aside from a few trips through school and the Boy Scouts. It's amazing what spectacular skill and talent can be seen right here in the city."

Lucy Ji, a graphic design undergraduate, added that the scheme encouraged students to escape "university city" in West Philadelphia, an area dominated by higher education institutions.

"We are cooped up in our residence halls a lot of the time. These passports allow us to get out and experience what Philadelphia is all about," she said.

The idea evolved from a programme run by Pennoni Honors College, part of Drexel, which provided students with free tickets to selected events. Nine years ago, the late Constantine N. Papadakis, former president of Drexel, asked for the scheme to be extended to all students.

Dr Greenberg said that the participating institutions, which include museums, a municipal waterworks and Philadelphia Zoo, were persuaded to take part on the basis that "students who go to the free events will become subscribers or patrons over time".

The passport, printed on the same stock as the official US passport, has proved so popular that Dr Papadakis took a sample of the document to conferences to show his peers.

The scheme has since been adopted by other institutions, including Temple University in Philadelphia, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and the City University of New York.

Dr Greenberg said: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we take it as such."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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