The Power of Community
When John Fantuzzo (PhD '80) and his wife, Christine (MA '83), decided to live with a large group of 18- and 19-year-olds, their friends thought they were a little crazy! After parenting their own children to adulthood, it was curious that they would decide to do it again-many times over. But the Fantuzzos do so with good reason.
As Faculty Fellows at the University of Pennsylvania, the Fantuzzos live in community with 500 students at Riepe House on campus. The purpose of the Fellows program is to stimulate students' academic and personal growth through talks, scholarly events, and house activities, and to encourage reflection on their own backgrounds as they attain their degrees. By living in community, the students, who apply even before their first year for entrance into this highly competitive program, get to know faculty members intimately--living literally next door to them. The role the Fantuzzos play is to not only create academic programs for students, but to also provide these important growth opportunities outside the classroom.
"It has been really exciting learning about the students and their lives," Fantuzzo says. "As a professor, you can only learn so much about your students in the classroom or academic settings--but living with them in a more relational and connected way is like anthropology. I now understand the problems they face and the academic pressure to perform and am there, as a servant, to support their learning and development."
Apart from his other responsibilities, in 2001 Fantuzzo developed a program in his college house that pairs Penn students one-on-one with children in low-income neighborhood elementary schools in West Philadelphia. Through the program, students mentor pre-kindergarten through elementary-age children in the surrounding community, helping them attain success in school and learn how to interact with their peers in social learning situations.
The program provides Penn students, many of whom come from privileged backgrounds, with opportunities to serve others and be involved in life-giving relationships. "We want freshmen to use their youth and vigor to help their community. This kind of volunteerism can create a sense of awareness about others in their communities, as well as influence their studies for the better," says Fantuzzo.
He illustrates how this can happen with the story of one student's experience. "Sabasi is a Nigerian-born freshman who has been working with an amazing African-American first grader. Through her tutoring, Sabasi has been very impressed by this student's willingness to work on his deficiencies and try hard to learn more. She has made some links in her study to his family's strong cultural-racial identity support," Fantuzzo shares. "She has therefore been researching racial identity for Black students and is looking for ways to understand how the school can support these strengths. Sabasi is very excited about learning more about how education can support cultural-racial identity and how this can serve as a protective factor for young, low-income, urban Black students."
Fantuzzo is enthusiastic about the program and its impact on both the participants and the community. Often students become aware of a world they never knew or understood, he notes, and they are able to see that they can impact reality. Involvement in the program has often prompted increased leadership on campus, redirection of future careers to social action, and a heightened desire to interact with others in the surrounding community. "We have also seen better test scores and a desire on the part of the schools to have us come," he says--a development which has impacted his own research on the psychological and educational well-being of low-income, disadvantaged children.
Through his position, not only is Fantuzzo influencing the individual lives of Penn students and inner-city school children, but his work also promotes Kingdom values. "It's a challenge to be an evangelical Christian in this environment," Fantuzzo says. "But I looked for a place to come alongside the university's vision with the community." Penn is known for its commitment to community service, and this was a unique way to align principles of the institution with those of God's Kingdom. "Life is an intersection of many things," he says of this concept, which was confirmed through his studies and experiences at Fuller. "Like the example of the Trinity, there is an interconnectedness in our relationships and work. I've found that the students and I are more the same than different. And finding commonalities is what Christ is all about."
Fantuzzo envisions a bright future for his program. In addition to attracting the best applicants--which the program's reputation already does--he wants to make it something that binds the community and the university together in partnership for years to come. He is trying to secure sources of funding and improve this prototype so that it will continue long after he is gone.
Whatever the future holds, Fantuzzo knows, for now, that God has called him to this position. "And being where God calls you pretty much trumps everything else," he says.