[Trigger warning: this post talks about a recent tragic incident that happened at Penn]
It was a nice morning in the spring of my Freshman year. My hallmate and good friend, Claire and I were having brunch at the dining hall in Hill when we got an email from our RA offering support in light of the recent tragic news. We didn’t know. Then, we found out that a fellow classmate had committed suicide the day before. She lived in the dorm we were eating in at that exact moment. We continued our daily lives, shaken, but ultimately, unscarred.
That was 4 semesters ago. I thought it would be the only time I’d experience news like that. But since then, we’ve lost way too many. I could say all of their names here, and I could even tell you the scary statistic that lingers over this institution but I won’t, because they were more than a list and more than a statistic. They were real people who walked on the same Locust Walk I use to go to class, people I’ve probably bumped into, people I have mutual friends with, people with vivid and complex lives.
Yesterday, we lost Olivia.
I didn’t know her, but it pained me to think about this loss. Like me and most of my friends, she was also from the Class of 2017, poised to sit on Franklin Field next May in a cap and gown. Like my friend Wendy, she was in the CSA culture show. Like my friend May May, she was in the PGN business fraternity. Like my friend Busra, she was in the APO service fraternity. She registered for classes, took midterms, was involved in campus organisations and had many friends. She was just like any one of us.
In times like these, my mind becomes somewhat naïve and child-like. “She was here. Now she isn’t. She was alive. Now she isn’t.” I grapple with this reality, and clearly all of my friends are struggling with it too. There was an outpouring of grief and support, simultaneously. At 5 p.m. yesterday, there was a support group held at Huntsman and hundreds came. Later that night, a vigil. Everyone was struck, and everyone tried their best to reach out to each other.
“Even if we’re not that close, feel free to come to me if you need someone to talk to.”
“I’m always here for you.”
“Given what just happened, I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“You’re not alone.”
“You can always reach out to your advisor, counselling services, a professor, the chaplains’ office, your RA.”
But that raised so many questions in me. Questions that weren’t new, but questions I still could not answer: Why do we only offer support when something like this happens? Why do we not reach out to people who offer support when we need it? How do we stop things like this from happening again?
I certainly wasn’t alone in wondering about this. Coincidentally, the topic for my Psychology class today was mental health. There was an atmosphere of stillness, I would say. In class, we talked about “Penn Face”—a culture that immediately immerses you once you step foot here. It’s the idea that we all have so much we’re struggling with and yet walk around with this facade that everything is perfectly fine all whilst comparing our challenges to the seemingly-perfect lives of our peers. I mean, when I walk down the street and bump into someone I know, occasionally, we’ll strike small-talk. Usually it’s: “How are you?” followed by the obligatory “fine, thanks” or if you’re a little closer to the person, maybe “yeah, I have a shitty week with midterms, papers and OCR etc” to which they might reply “oh my god, ugh, same” and you end on “we should catch up some time” before saying bye and walking away. It’s well-meaning, and not always an entirely sugar-coated conversation but rather expectedly surface-level without fail.
I don’t know why “Penn Face” exists, to be sure. It’s partly about putting up our best selves at all times, whether in person or on social media. To me, it’s partly about persevering and not letting the negativity get to me or affect others. It’s partly the notion that we’ve worked so hard to be here, and now that we’re here, we have to make the most of it so that we can do so much more. I understand this culture and I have no doubts that I am complicit to some extent.
But that’s where it gets tricky, right? Because I do believe in putting my best self forward, I believe I always have to work very hard, I believe in maintaining a positive demeanor. So, where is the line? What do we change?
Some people talk about how the administration has failed us. Not enough resources, an environment that’s too competitive, not being responsive enough. Petitions are written and circled and debated and signed. President Amy Guttman sends out an email encouraging us to reach out for support. But what will be done and will it be effective quickly enough?
Some people talk about how Penn students need to break out of this cycle, that there needs to be a behavioural change in the undergrad culture. But the conversation tends to circle back to the fact that we don’t really know what to do. How do we consistently be a source of support to our peers and seem genuine when our schedules are so packed? How do we reconcile our internal monologues so that we can both push ourselves to do more and be more while being kind to ourselves? How do we destigmatise weakness?
I guess for now I don’t know the answers. But for now, we’re talking about it. We’re thinking about it. We’re reaching out to hold each others’ hands through this.
For anyone at Penn/even outside, if you need someone to talk to, please reach out. To me, if that’s what you feel comfortable with. You are stronger for it. Lastly, if this post was misinformed in one way or another, feel free to let me know.
Take care ❤