When Jean Marie Kouassi, a native of the Ivory Coast, started as a Wharton student in the late 1990s, he had already experienced some of the obstacles of being an immigrant to the United States and sought opportunities to smooth the path for others.
In conversations with other African immigrants, both at Penn and in his West Philadelphia neighborhood, it became clear that language and culture were barriers to individuals’ advancing and to ensuring their children succeeded in endeavors in school and in the community.
Kouassi’s conversations eventually led him to launch Palms Solutions in 2009. The nonprofit’s initial focus was on Philadelphia’s francophone African immigrant, and has since expanded to support a broader cross-section of the region’s residents.
“When we talk about Palms Solutions, we talk about the palms of our hands—we cannot do this alone, we have to work together—hand in hand,” Kouassi says. “Our main objective is to make sure that we create a platform that allows us to exchange and learn from each other and allows us to build a stronger community together.”
Palms Solutions has been working in the community ever since and for many years has engaged Penn faculty and students in helping the organization fulfill its mission. Most recently, a partnership with the Biology Graduate Group at Penn expands a mentor-mentee program, whose goals include exposing more K-12 students to the possibilities of higher education in STEM fields and building bridges between Penn undergraduate and graduate students and young scholars and families in the community.
“I really applaud the work that the organization is doing,” says Anika Kalra, a junior biology major from New York City who worked as a tutor for Palms Solutions last spring. “I think they’re an amazing group of people and programs, and I’m really proud to have been a part of their mission.”
A core element of Palms Solution's work is breaking down the cultural barriers that can impede immigrants’ educational and economic success, a priority that traces back to Kouassi’s time at Penn, where he earned not only his bachelor’s degree from Wharton but also his master’s in nonprofit leadership from the School of Social Policy & Practice. “My invaluable experience at Penn and cultural upbringing uniquely positioned me to bridge the Philadelphia African and Caribbean diaspora and academic institutions,” he says.
Sometimes these cultural differences can affect how children interact with teachers or other figures of authority. Understanding and acknowledging these differences can enable these students to thrive, says Kouassi, and is central to one of the organization’s educational efforts, TIMBA, short for Technology and Inquiry into a Multicultural Bilingual Academic Setting. The after-school program was launched in 2012 in collaboration with Valerie Ross, founding director of Penn’s Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing, and Katie Beals, an adjunct professor at Drexel University. TIMBA’s motto is “Making it difficult for our students to fail.”
For tutors involved in TIMBA, robust preparation and training emphasize the need to be open to and interested in the economic, social, and cultural backgrounds of their tutees. “As we work, we want everyone to feel that sense of inclusion,” Kouassi says, “that we are open-minded, respectful, and interested in learning about each other’s similarities and differences.”
Kalra, a writing fellow in the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing, learned of the opportunity to volunteer with TIMBA through Stacy Kastner, the Center’s associate director, in the fall of 2020. “I was really interested in getting involved,” Kalra says.
Working with Beth Pittman-Brown, Palms Solutions’ public relations director, Kalra began online tutoring a group of students weekly, not only helping with their writing but also with math and reading as needed.
“For me, what really keeps me going in tutoring is getting that ‘click,’ getting to see the students really engage,” Kalra says. “The biggest thing for me was seeing some students week after week and reaching that comfort level and seeing their confidence grow. That shift is one of my favorite memories of TIMBA.”
TIMBA also engages tutors from other area universities and is expanding through the new collaboration with the Biology Graduate Group. Biology professor Mecky Pohlschröder of the School of Arts & Sciences has long been involved in Palms Solutions’ community engagement efforts. For years, she has helped orchestrate field trips to Penn’s campus for K-12 students to visit labs. She’s also coordinated visits by Penn faculty and students to STEM-based after-school programs at Monumental Baptist Church (MBC), a longtime partner of and the physical home for Palms Solutions.
The more recent collaboration with the Biology Graduate Group gives undergraduate and graduate students at Penn the chance to connect and exchange with younger students through a virtual tutoring platform. “The goal is to prepare a large number of students underrepresented in STEM in the Philadelphia area for the transition to college,” Pohlschröder says. The partnership also helps ease that transition, she says, “by broadening Penn’s students’ global horizon while committing them to fostering, cultivating, and maintaining a culture of diversity and inclusion, leading to a more inclusive culture in STEM.” Wil Prall, a Ph.D. student in the Biology Department who joined in helping the initiatives at Palms Solutions, connects undergraduate- and graduate-level students at Penn with the TIMBA program.
Prall and Pohlschröder have also collaborated with Kouassi in the design of a new course, Research in Biological Sciences and Its Social Impact, to be offered this spring, which will provide fellows in the Penn Freshmen Exposure to Biological Sciences program with a holistic education in STEM. Through the course, which is supported by the SNF Paideia Program, students will have the opportunity to learn fundamentals of research in the biological sciences while also exploring how research and science are relevant and vital to all communities.
Looking ahead, the Palms Solution team also hopes to repeat a successful event held for the first time in April at MBC, Palm It Forward. Aimed at meeting the heightened needs of many community members during the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers—including Prall—distributed food, while others helped with vaccination sign-up in collaboration with MBC and SunRay Drugs. The event also provided a venue for open dialogue about the pandemic’s impact on public health and education.
Through these and other ambitious future plans, Kouassi hopes to more tightly weave together the area’s rich communities whether they be immigrant, longtime resident, or academic. “For me, programs like Palm it Forward and TIMBA are critical as they promote diversity, not as a liability, but rather an asset to us all.”
More information on the efforts and mission of Palms Solutions is at https://palmssolutions.org/.