Penn Community Scholars Program

About the Penn Community Scholars Program

The Penn Community Scholars Program (Penn CSP) is a training program for community organizations offering skill development in community-academic research partnerships. The Penn CSP not only arms scholars with the tools necessary to expand their research capacity, but with personal connections to work alongside and along with academic institutions and funders throughout the region. Its’ rigorous curriculum aims to increase knowledge, attitudes and beliefs around the meaning of and the need for community-academic partnerships, and walks participants through the research process, building research skills that lead to a culminating pitch presentation. 

To date, the Penn CSP has built capacity among more than 50 individuals from organizations that serve largely minority, low-income communities in Philadelphia. At baseline, organizations come into the program with varying levels of research expertise and infrastructure. Process and impact outcomes are assessed throughout the program and following to measure program satisfaction; changes in knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and self-efficacy; behavior change; and the organizations’ intent and practice of conducting research. 


The Penn CSP started in 2015 through a partnership between the Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholars Program, with a vision to establish a more robust infrastructure to: support community engagement; build community capacity to serve as research partners; and promote the development of equitable partnerships to address critically important health, social, behavioral, and environmental research and policy initiatives between diverse Philadelphia communities and the University of Pennsylvania. It is now a free-standing program co-directed by Sara Solomon (Deputy Director, Penn Injury Science Center) and Nicole Thomas (Executive Director, Urban Health Lab) with primary funding from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

Program Goals

Enhance community capacity to develop, implement, and evaluate programs

Improve community capacity to form and sustain research partnerships

Foster dialogue and opportunity for collaboration between existing Penn and community initiatives

Serve as a networking resource for Penn researchers and community-based organizations

Program Results

Across all cohorts, participants noted high program satisfaction and increased knowledge, self-efficacy, and positive attitudes and beliefs towards conducting research.

View the entire 2017-2020 report


increase in trust in the research process


increase in confidence in developing program goals and objectives


increase in confidence to identify a problem


increase in positive attitudes toward the importance of research


increase in desire to partner with an academic

Educational Content

The Penn CSP includes 10-12 sessions across 2 academic semesters, with education goals and topics on:

The need and meaning of community-academic partnerships

The research process

Research skill development

Conducting community needs assessments; identifying community problems; developing and refining research questions; drafting logic models and memorandums of understanding; partnering with academics; navigating the institutional review board (IRB)

Developing and presenting a professional pitch

Participating in a culminating symposium

The Intersection of Community, Academia, and Grant-Making

The culminating symposium where Community Scholars “pitch” their idea to a panel of researchers and funders

As a community-based agency… we have historically struggled to develop meaningful and truly collaborative relationships with research partners because we weren’t able to “speak the language” of academics and researchers.

We are currently using our new research knowledge gained from the Community Scholars Training Program to pitch several research projects within various academic institutions in Philadelphia, including Temple and Penn.

In fact, we used our pitch in a meeting with one of our hospital partners and were able to obtain direct funding in the exact amount we were seeking for the first time in nearly 10 years!

Penn Community Scholar, 2016

Community Scholars Alumni

A & W Community Solutions
African Family Health Organization
Al Bustan Seeds of Culture
Alzheimer’s Association
American Heart Association
ARTZ Philadelphia
Belmont Alliance Civic Association
Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia
Blessings Inc.
Coalition of African Communities
Delaware Valley Fairness Project

Dept. of Behavioral Health
Five Loaves & Two Fish Unlimited – Hero, Inc.
Habitat’s Home Repair (Habitat for Humanity)
Intercultural Family Services
Jarell Christopher Seay Love and Laughter
Lutheran Settlement House
Mt. Zion Baptist Church
Nationalities Service Center
No More Secrets Mind Body Spirit Inc.
Oromo Community Organization of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services
Prevention Point Philadelphia
Promise Zone Research Connection
Sayre Health Center
Schuylkill Center
Sisters R Us Circle of Survivors
Southwest Community Development Corporation

Program Leadership

Penn CSP is led by individuals who have committed their lives to genuine community engagement, with the goal of building a bi-directional bridge between community and academia to achieve health equity and increase the benefit of research to the communities it is meant to serve. 

Nicole Thomas, MBA


Sara Solomon, MPH, RD


Lucy Wolf Tuton, PhD

Associate Director

Andrew Belfiglio, MPH

Project Manager