In 2016, Dean Steven Fluharty approached his team in the School of Arts & Sciences with a question: If we designed a bachelor’s program for working adults and other non-traditional students from scratch, what would it look like?
Those conversations and many months of brainstorming led to Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) Online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (B.A.A.S.) program, which was launched in 2019. Its mission is to provide an Ivy League degree through an online curriculum that integrates professional and academic opportunities. A linchpin of achieving that mission is the Senior Portfolio, a digital collection of materials compiled by each graduating student to showcase their academic abilities and make connections to their current or future careers.
“When developing the B.A.A.S., we noticed that many of our peers and competitors were spending a lot of time talking about the importance of threading career planning and professional outcomes through their programs, but we weren’t seeing much clear integration. Instead, they tended to say, ‘look at our wonderful career services center,’” says Kristine Rabberman, Ph.D., Assistant Vice Dean and Director of Academic Affairs at Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies. “We wanted to do more, so we developed the Senior Portfolio. It was based on intensive research into high-impact practices and feedback from our Employer Advisory Board about what skills and competencies are most needed in the workplace.”
The aim of the Senior Portfolio is to help students translate their knowledge and skills from the classroom to the professional world. The portfolio includes eight examples, called artifacts, that symbolize the learnings from each of the program’s core competencies: analytical and critical skills, communication, creativity and innovation, digital literacy, ethics, global citizenship and diversity, historical perspectives, and scientific process and problem-solving. The artifacts can be presented in a number of ways, including through written coursework assignments, audio, video, visual arts, essays, and reports. The portfolio also asks each student to demonstrate career readiness through an updated resume, optimized LinkedIn profile, and virtual interview. Finally, each portfolio must include a synthesis project that ties together the program experience with the student’s life and career journey.
Beth Jamieson, LPS’22, who concentrated in creative studies, notes that her Senior Portfolio included assignments that were brand new to her, such as an essay transposed through digital imagery and a memo written from the perspective of an airline CEO doing damage control after a public relations crisis. Jamieson says those novel assignments, and studying poetry, storytelling, screenwriting, and copyediting, gave her a “well-rounded understanding of effective written communications, literary analysis, and the identification of the intersection between present day and historical texts, as well as the cross sections between the study of ethics, diversity, and culture.”
Jamieson completed the program while a full-time employee at Penn Live Arts where she was the Front of House Manager. Her goal was to pursue a degree while also progressing her career in the arts. She explains, “When my dream of finishing college was deferred, I worked hard to find my footing in the arts community. Being part of such an encouraging team at Penn Live Arts, I was able to earn my degree while furthering my career at the same time. The creative studies concentration allowed me to merge my two biggest passions—the arts and writing. The coursework and Senior Portfolio, mixed with the experiences I’ve had working for the University, have been invaluable.”
Jamieson, who has since been promoted to Associate Director of Guest Services, adds, “My Senior Project demonstrates the diversity of my studies, as well as the practical ways it will be utilized in my career now and in the future.”
While the portfolio is meant to serve as a digital proof point for current and potential employers of the transferrable learning that students developed in the program, it’s also intended as a potent practice in reflection and goal setting.
Having students, in this really intentional way, continue to think about their goals, as well as how to apply the hard and soft skills they developed throughout the program, is powerful.
“There is tremendous value in reflective writing and practices,” says Rabberman. “Having students, in this really intentional way, continue to think about their goals, as well as how to apply the hard and soft skills they developed throughout the program, is powerful. The portfolio also helps students, faculty, and employers see how applicable the arts and sciences are in meeting a whole host of needs within the workplace.”
For Steven Sickles, LPS’22, a mobile developer working with the State Department, the portfolio was a unique opportunity to reflect on his life, career, education, and what he wants to pursue next. Sickles was a dual-degree candidate at Penn 40-odd years earlier for four years, but ultimately did not complete his degrees. He felt called to return to “reconnect with the Penn community and complete the journey he had started,” and the B.A.A.S. was the ideal solution.
He notes that the Senior Portfolio was an opportunity to “reflect on those moments in his life” that brought him to where he is, and more importantly, “that made him who he is.” “You rarely get a chance like that in life,” he adds. Sickles is continuing his career in technology, but also expanding his ambitions to playwriting and music composition.
The reflective nature of the Senior Portfolio has helped many other students come to realizations about where they’ve been and where they want to go. One student, a retired Penn employee who’d always wanted to complete her degree, started traveling extensively and used those travels in her Senior Portfolio to reflect upon the competencies gained in the program and her career legacy. Another student who is working abroad in Kenya to help onboard lawyers used the portfolio to recognize how his international work is shaping his career trajectory. Another graduate discovered a passion for positive psychology through her coursework and portfolio and is planning graduate study in the field.
I gained academic and scholarly knowledge through the program and Senior Portfolio, but also confidence in myself, my choices, and who I am.
“The B.A.A.S. program has students from all walks of life with different goals and plans for the future. Some have had very successful careers and are coming back to complete their degree, like Steven, while others want to change careers, seek promotions, pursue graduate school, or find their next step,” says Kristin Sowden, Associate Director of Career Advising at Penn LPS Online.
For Halle Sherman, LPS’22, a professional ballerina, the portfolio was a reflective exercise on an intensely physical career and how that experience shaped her. She notes that the portfolio helped her come to realizations about herself and her inner strength.
“When I came to Penn, I wasn’t pushing boundaries as much as I’d hoped; I wasn’t the thinker, thriver, or outspoken individual that I wanted to be. I grew up, with, and through Penn,” says Sherman. “I gained academic and scholarly knowledge through the program and Senior Portfolio, but also confidence in myself, my choices, and who I am.”
Sherman has parlayed her new-found confidence into leadership roles at the Huntsville Ballet. She continues to dance, but also now manages the ballet’s Instagram account and helps lead a program that provides free dance classes, workshops, and lesson plans to underprivileged schools. She adds, “I would not be the same person I am today without Penn.”
The Senior Portfolio is an opportunity for students to look back on their lives and to think about who they are and who they are becoming as they move forward in their professional careers, academic pursuits, and beyond, says Sowden. “I feel so privileged to bear witness to B.A.A.S. students as they come to their ‘aha moments’ through the program and the portfolio. They are truly remarkable individuals.”