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Glen’s Journey of Resilience: West Philly Streets to the Ivy League

Penn prides itself in selecting a diverse student body. That being said, I never expected to meet someone at Penn who had been a crack cocaine dealer and had come from one of the most rough areas of West Philly. And I never expected that person to be so accomplished and ambitious.

I was first introduced to Glen’s story when I serendipitously decided to attend a random documentary screening last year.

I left amazed by the different journeys students take to arrive at Penn and stunned by the reality so different from our own that’s ever present only a few streets further west into Philadelphia.

The film “Glen’s Village” was commissioned by 5th Borough Films and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a non-profit newspaper that reports on the city’s education system. It was directed and co-produced by Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist and filmmaker Dorian Geiger and  Paul Jablow, a veteran Philadelphia education reporter. The film has been to more than 15 film festivals across the U.S and has won 5 awards. Glen’s village is also currently nominated for a Education Writers Award.

The only thing more impressive than the accolades the film has accrued is Glen’s story itself.

Glen Casey is currently a junior at Penn, majoring in Urban Studies. He graduated from University City High School in 2013, in the last graduating class before the school was closed down.

I sat down with Glen, in the Starbucks under Commons, to learn more about his background and his journey to Penn. He was incredibly humble and forthright, as well as nice and upbeat.

Glen came from an impoverished, marginalized neighborhood in West Philadelphia where people scrambled for survival. His childhood in this environment was traumatic. When he was young, Glen’s brother, Mars, died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. His father was a “king pin” drug dealer involved in a Jamaican gang that brought a large amount of coke and weed into the city. His father was eventually deported to Jamaica.

By ninth grade, Glen was selling crack cocaine on the streets of Philly and burglarizing houses. He was arrested twice. Glen was failing classes.

Glen reflected, “I think it was a matter of time before I went down that path. I spent a lot of time on the streets with my friends, and I decided that if I was spending so much time with them, why not make a little extra money by selling with them.”

However, Glen explained that his situation was actually much better than that of his friends. For him, the route to selling was through his social circles, whereas for many selling crack was their only way to support themselves and their families to be able to afford basic things such as food. He had one friend who even sold to satiate his parents’ crack addictions, whose grandmother and brother were also crack dealers. But once people went down that trajectory, there were only two paths for them: going to jail or getting killed.

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None of this really fazed Glen. Drug dealing and the violence associated with it were very normalized in his community. “Growing up your situation is your situation – so you don’t really know that there are other options.”

Glen was exposed to drug dealing through his father at an early age, and he never perceived it as negative. He told me how he recently lost a friend who was dealing and how another of his friends recently went to jail for shooting his baby mama’s father 6 times. In the documentary, Glen described how he heard his cousin being shot 7 times on 49th street from outside of his home. And he told the story of how he helped burglarize a pimp’s house that lived with prostitutes on 60th and Sansom.

Junior year, Glen decided he wanted to make a change. He was supported by his mother, therapist, and behavioral specialist. “My support system always told me that I was better than this and after a while, I kinda listened to it and decided to do better”

The birth of his daughter junior year also really motivated him to change. He attributes his successful pathway out of the streets to his daughter. She provided him with the excuse to disaffiliate himself from some of his previous friends because he could use her as an explanation for why he couldn’t spend time with them any longer.

Glen started earning straight A’s and became involved in programming in the school run by Penn’s Netter Center, particularly the Student Success Center and its Leaders of Change Program. He graduated high school and enrolled in Temple. In his environment, graduating high school was a huge achievement– let alone matriculating into any college.

Outside of those who went on to college, many either took jobs in the area, became pregnant after high school, or hustled on the streets. “I see friends who are working at the local liquor store, McDonalds, or Checkers. You have a lot of couples that have children right after high school […] Most people didn’t understand the benefits of college or see the fact that if you go to college, you have a much higher chance of moving up the socioeconomic ladder.”

After a year of getting straight A’s at Temple, Glen decided to apply transfer to Penn. “I knew that coming to Penn would give me amazing opportunities that no one in my family had ever had.” Midway through his application, Glen’s mother passed away, and he had to decide whether he would take time off of school or continue and apply to Penn. He decided to persevere and was accepted!!

When I asked him on how people reacted when he got into Penn, he said, “People always doubted me. Even some of my friends from Temple thought I’d never get into Penn. Even now, when I tell people that I go to Penn, some people are in disbelief. I have to show them my id for them to believe it.”

Glen says that his family brags about him. For someone in his family to even go to college, let alone go to Penn is insane.

Academically, Glen said that he had no trouble adjusting to the rigors of Penn. He’s an Urban Studies major and loves his coursework. However, he says that he did experience difficulty adjusting to Penn socially. In his entire first semester at Penn, Glen says that he spoke to no one at Penn. Even though he lived in the quad, he would spend all of his time outside of classes with his friends from home and from Temple. He felt like the people at Penn were much different than him.

He also says that he’s faced many instances of micro-aggressions from the students and some staff who always doubt whether he goes here, even if he’s wearing Penn apparel.

But he says that he has since adjusted a lot more to Penn socially. He met a friend through a conference at Yale who introduced him to a lot of his friends. He was also pledging a multicultural Greek fraternity.

Glen Casey is also really involved with the Netter Center at Penn and community work on campus. He helped develop and teach a course called “College 101”, which is offered as part of a four-course college preparatory program for low-income students transitioning from high school to college. The program is intended to help low-income students overcome the obstacles of matriculating into college. He’s also doing research with PennAHEAD on higher education policy.

In the future, Glen wants to become a teacher or an administrator in education. The end goal is to be head of a district or even the head of the Department of Education. For now, he’s applying for Teach for America because he wants to work with and impact students who share the same background and obstacles as him.

It’s clear, though, that he’s already impacted students by being a role model. When he walks down his former neighborhood, kids he doesn’t know will recognize him and tell him how much of an inspiration he is to them. Glen’s story serves as a testament to the fact that anyone has the potential to accomplish anything.