The door of the new Student Services Center opens onto a bright space. There are large windows, workstations with computers available, plenty of sockets for loading devices and low ottomans in blue and red. A waterfall-style bar in blond wood crosses the center, offering information on work-study programs as well as student publications. The students are scattered throughout the space, either helped by counselors or working quietly on their own. While the center serves students in three main areas, representing the Office of the Bursar, the Office of the Registrar, and Student Registration and Financial Services, students are also encouraged to step out and make this space their own. They are greeted not only by the staff but also with snacks, a seltzer dispenser and seasonal decorations.
It’s a pretty dramatic change from the old Franklin Building. “The office looked like a doctor’s office, didn’t it?” Said Paul Richards. “You sit down and wait, you know a little anxiously. The physical transformation of this space aims to evoke a different set of emotions, a sense of calm and confidence. Speaking of finances, he said, “shouldn’t start from a place of anxiety.”
For MaryFrances McCourt, opening the Student Services Center has been a dream for a long time. “The newly renovated space is a modern and welcoming gateway to student registration and financial services,” said Ms. McCourt, senior vice president of finance and treasurer of Penn. “Our goal is to provide world-class service to our world-class students, faculty and staff, and this space and our team of service center advisors are truly transforming the customer experience for our community.”
“The space itself is designed to be contemporary yet comfortable,” said Jeffrey Greenberg, senior director of the Student Service Center. Some of the feedback his team received was that students were jumping from building to building, didn’t know where to go or what forms to fill out, and wanted a one-stop-shop. “One of the things a student can visit is a scholarship check,” he said. “And they could wander around holding it and looking around.” It’s good for them to be able to hand it to someone, rather than drop it in the mailbox, and then you’re not quite sure what happens to it. Those kind of touches can be a personalized experience that you might have missed before. “
Originally slated to open in fall 2020, the center began welcoming students in September 2021, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Walk-in visits are encouraged. After the concierge at the building entrance verifies that all visitors are following Penn’s COVID guidelines, students can check in at either of the two kiosks with their PennCards. They are placed in a queue and when counselors become available they greet students by name. The advisor quickly assesses whether or not he can answer the student’s question or whether he should bring in a subject matter expert from another office. In addition to the offices, there are also three “huddle rooms” with partial privacy banners. Huddle rooms are used temporarily and repeatedly for multiple purposes. “You don’t have to book it,” Mr. Richards said. “Is the door open?” Great, go ahead.
There is also a Veterans Lounge, an office dedicated to serving veterans and the military affiliated to Penn for the nearly 300 students receiving VA benefits, said Stephanie Brocklehurst, associate director of the center. . This includes students who are themselves veterans as well as undergraduates whose parents have transferred their benefits.
“The theory behind this space is a one-stop-shop with a series of generalists capable of solving the majority of student problems, concerns and questions at this first meeting,” said Mr. Richards. “And if not, get them quickly to the expert who can.” The idea is to limit the number of keystrokes and improve the service experience so that students come away with their problem really solved, he said.
“After a year and a half of doing it virtually everything,” said Greenberg, “it’s a nice feeling to be able to look someone in the eye and have a personal experience with someone, a real person. with a name, with whom you can follow and know that you have already met them.
One of those real people is Wynter Adams, one of five peer counselors employed as students by the Financial Wellness @ Penn program, which uses the space for educational programs. On personal finance, “a lot of people come in to talk about one thing and need help with another,” Adams said. Investing is a trending topic so students will come for it, but in the short term they might need help with budgeting, she said, referring to a recent interaction. “We ended up having a conversation about how you do price comparisons on groceries. “
Originally from Statesville, North Carolina, Ms. Adams earned a master’s degree in environmental studies, focusing on resource studies. It’s a “great experience to be able to connect with and help people,” said Adams. “My mom is an accountant so she always made finances less daunting for me.” Her college friends didn’t have the same relationship with money, Adams said. “They were really, really intimidated and just pushed it around until they had to do something about it. It really connected me to the financial wellness mission.
Mennal Zafar, major in psychology, is a financial wellness program associate who has used the service center herself. A junior from Brooklyn, New York, she wanted to drop a class but was unsure if she would still be considered a full-time student with fewer credits. The counselor “sat down, gave me a lot of confidence,” Ms. Zafar said. “For anyone who is having a hard time navigating the financial aid process, this is definitely worth it. “
In addition to peer financial wellness counselors, the center employs 10 full-time staff, in addition to the 11th dedicated Veterans Affairs Counselor. Advisors spend part of their time in the back office answering questions by email and phone, and the other part meeting students. “It has been a very enriching experience,” said Susan Mclaughlin, Service Desk Advisor. “When someone comes in, you immediately have a completely different relationship with someone. You don’t just have that verbal contact, you have non-verbal contact. You can get a better idea of their concern.
“My favorite thing is sitting at the counter and seeing the students when they come in,” Ms. Mclaughlin said. She likes “the satisfaction of helping them on the spot”. The center makes it feel like it’s part of something bigger. “We’re here to serve the students and doing it in person is really nice,” she said.
Adapted from an article by Kristina García in Penn Today, November 5, 2021.