One of the best things about Bryn Mawr’s location is how close it is to Philadelphia. Center City is only a 25-minute train ride from Bryn Mawr Station to 30th Street Station. As much as I have enjoyed going into the city with my friends, I always wanted to have the experience of going to class in an urban setting. With the aid of the Quaker consortium, students in the tri-co are allowed to register for classes at the University of Pennsylvania. However, owing to an already full schedule that required me to take certain classes at Bryn Mawr only, I was unable to plan my schedule around a Penn class.
I was naturally elated when I found out about the Tri-Co Philly program. It is an academic program that would allow me to not only take classes in Philadelphia but would also let me engage in co-curricular activities in relation to those classes. The courses are usually offered in three clusters, but I was able to participate in just one this semester – Community Engagement and Social Responsibility (CESR) as part of my Health Studies minor. Taught by Dr. Anne Montgomery, Visiting Assistant Professor of Health Studies at Haverford College, this course took a Philadelphia-centric approach to the war on drugs. Other courses that were offered in this semester’s cluster included Behavioral Public Policy in the City and The Philadelphia Mosaic: Immigrant Communities in the city.
As a part of the CESR course, the thirteen of us who were enrolled in the class were also assigned a placement where we were required to volunteer for a minimum of three hours a week. One of the best parts of taking a course through Tri-Co Philly is that the cost of transportation via regional rail and around Philadelphia is completely covered. As a college student on a tight budget, this meant the world to me. I got placed at Prevention Point Philadelphia in Kensington for my weekly placement and have managed to learn a lot about harm reduction and organizational values in the short amount of time that I’ve spent there. Through our volunteer work, we were also asked to think about issues surrounding our own privilege.
Given that the class is so discussion based, we usually need to post a short blurb based on the week’s topic. We have discussed with one another how it is important to create an environment that is welcoming and judgment free and how important it is to be responsible for our own actions when we’re all at our placements. It’s truly humbling to see the mutual respect that we all have for one another as we all try to learn and reflect.
We have had a handful of guest speakers come in almost every week. These guest speakers are key Philadelphia stake holders and have ranged from doctors in addiction medicine, harm reduction activists, people who use drugs, politicians, etc. One thing that has stood out to me in this course by far is how we are identifying and analyzing tensions between social service and social change. One of our very first speakers was a professor of addiction medicine and he spoke to us about language in addressing addiction and how something as simple as that can have an effect in the care that is delivered. This continued focus on competency in medicine that I have learned about even in previous health studies courses will ultimately be instrumental to how I view others one day.
Alongside discussion of medical perspectives on the causes of the opioid epidemic, we have also examined the ever so present stigma associated with substance use disorder. My favorite part of the course has undoubtedly been meeting a group of five incredibly strong women in recovery from a program called Mothers MATTER. Hearing their stories really did allow us to put a face to the epidemic and made me realize how important it is to normalize drug use such that we do not end up stigmatizing vulnerable populations. Now that we’ve had classes shift to online, we still have speakers either join us via Zoom or listen to pre-recorded lectures. The course also deals with the various socio-political issues at work, for example – availability of suboxone/methadone, and establishment of safe-injection sites. In this way, we are also able to analyze the structural violence in producing the opioid crisis.
In relation to COVID-19, people who use drugs remain more vulnerable than ever and with the recent switch on an online method of instruction, this course is helping me gain a deeper understanding of the fine lines between systems of power and organizational hierarchy. Although we cannot physically be present at our placements at this time, the fierceness with which we still advocate for harm reduction has been my biggest takeaway.
To be able to take a course like this that focuses on learning and reflection outside the classroom so heavily has truly been one of my highlights thus far in college. Every week, we are tackling a new aspect of the opioid epidemic and we are getting to engage with individuals who are at the forefront of tackling and supporting people who are affected by this epidemic. I’d encourage individuals to partake in the Tri-Co Philly program if they are able to and if circumstances allow the program to be implemented next semester. A different cohort of courses will be offered but the idea is to experience and engage in the myriad of conversations and opportunities that are to be found in the city of Philadelphia.