Alex Luben is a student at Ursinus, a small liberal arts college in the Montgomery County borough of Collegeville.

But this semester, the junior psychology major is living on Drexel University's West Philadelphia campus and taking all her classes in the city.

"I feel like there's opportunities around every corner, like literally," said Luben, 20 of Los Angeles.

That's what the administrators at the 1,650-student Ursinus College had in mind when they decided to offer "The Philadelphia Experience" - PhillyX for short - based on a study abroad-style concept, but using the history-rich City of Brotherly Love instead.

Center City is about 30 miles from Ursinus' 170-acre, tree-lined campus, but to students, it can seem light-years away. There's no easy way to get from one to the other on public transportation. By car, it can take 90 minutes during peak traffic times.

So why not allow students to spend a semester immersed in the city, working internships at its businesses and agencies and studying its way of life?

"Philly is kind of a living classroom for us," said Kelly Sorensen, interim associate dean at Ursinus.

Students can choose from several courses.

For his Introduction to Theater course, professor Domenick Scudera is taking students to a dozen shows at city theaters, big and small, where they watch, then often meet with and ask questions of cast members. On Wednesday night, his students saw How We Got On, about the roots of hip hop, at the Drake.

For Michelle Nzadi Keita's Memoir Writing class, students explore the city. They recently toured the "President's House" exhibit at Fifth and Market, where visitors learn about how the nation's first president kept slaves in his Philadelphia mansion, and see the paradox between liberty and slavery. They've also visited Chinatown and walked the Gayborhood.

Keita, who lives in Germantown, has brought her memoir writing class into the city for several years. Students need to experience the city to understand it, she said.

"There's more than one truth in the world, but until they sort of feel it, it's hard to realize," said Keita, an associate professor of English, who also coordinates the African American and Africana studies program at Ursinus.

Roger Florka, an associate professor of philosophy, is offering Race and Ethnicity in Philadelphia, most times taught at a coffee shop on the same West Philadelphia block where he lives.

His students have mapped out ethnic neighborhoods and each will pick one to explore, then tell the class about it.

"I want them to be honest when reporting back how they feel about that neighborhood," he said.

Fifteen students are enrolled in PhillyX, chosen from 32 applicants. They have different reasons for being there.

"I wanted to get out of Collegeville," said Ethan Elliott, 21, a junior economics major from Denver. "It's a stifling environment. The town is Ursinus College and the diner."

So far, he loves being in Philadelphia.

"There's a lot to do, and I can get to places," he said.

Stephanie Guzman, 18, a sophomore psychology major from New York City, missed home.

"It's a beautiful campus," she said of Ursinus, "but I'm just used to the loud noises and big buildings. So to be here in Philly was a homecoming."

Even students who grew up in Philadelphia had their reasons.

Mya Flood, 20, a junior theater major from North Philadelphia, wanted to get hands-on experience in the theater community. Junior Rachael Carter, 20, an international relations and peace and social justice major, is from the city's East Oak Lane section, near the Montgomery County border. But she spent more time outside the city than in it.

"I never had the chance to truly experience the city in all its capacity and glory," she said.

The program is not without precedent. Hamilton College has one in New York City. Messiah College in Mechanicsburg ran one in Philadelphia for more than four decades but closed it in 2014 because it became too expensive, a spokeswoman said.

For Ursinus' program, students pay the same as if they were living on campus even though the program is a bit more expensive to run, Sorensen said.

Students also have an option of taking a course at Drexel or doing research.

Most of them are interning at places such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Broad Street Ministry, the Food Trust, and ReelBlack, a major promoter of black films.

All 15 students are enrolled in the class "Philly 101," taught by multiple instructors and focused on the city's role as the birthplace of democracy. The course includes a study of the founding U.S. documents drafted in Philadelphia, and of former Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez's novel Third and Indiana, which is set in a drug-ridden, gang dominated area of the city once known as the Badlands.

That class meets at the Summit, the upscale high-rise student housing development at 3400 Lancaster Ave. where they live this semester. Last Monday, politics professor Paul Stern led a discussion on the concept of community.

Luben told the class she's troubled that the workers who built the high-rise probably couldn't afford to live there.

"Everyone looks to this way of living as the ideal, and a lot of people can't have that," she said.

Sometimes having the opportunity makes her feel guilty, she said.

The first thing Florka had his students do was walk Baltimore Avenue, from 45th to 50th Streets, on a Saturday afternoon and note the businesses, ethnically and racially.

His biggest task is getting students to open up. Six of seven in the class are white, and most grew up in white neighborhoods, he said. White students often learn that they should not talk about race, that not being racist means being color-blind, he said.

He wants to know what they think.

"I want to hear," he said. "Let's talk about it."

ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693@ssnyderinq

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