There’s a long–standing association between the idea of The Penn Face—the phenomenon of having to put on a mask of confidence, happiness, awakeness, ok–ness—and mental health awareness. The creators of Penn Faces, a small group of five students lead by Emily Hoeven (C '18), came together nearly a year ago, hoping to separate the two ideas.

“There are a lot of groups on campus that try to combat the Penn Face, but this is specifically a place to go to do just that,” explains Isabella Cuan (C '18), who has been actively involved with boosting the project’s presence on campus this semester. Cuan, one of the original five students on the project, has photographed many Penn Faces contributors, and her poignant closeups accompany Penn Faces’ online stories. This past Friday, Penn Faces held a speakeasy on College Green, where a collection of both professors and students were invited to come share their own stories of resilience. Many of the students who spoke have also shared their stories on the site.

The site accepts submissions of all sorts, including essays, short stories, drawings or anything else someone might want to display online. Although stories can be submitted with a name or anonymously, those who don’t feel as comfortable opening up on the site can choose instead to sign the virtual pledge, adding themselves to a running tally of students, faculty and alumni. The pledge, explains Cuan, is a way to word the mission of Penn Faces “without excluding it to matters of mental health.”

The pledge, the heart of Penn Faces, reads: “I pledge to challenge a single notion of success, to contribute to an environment where others feel safe and comfortable, to create more honest and open dialogue, to learn from setbacks and be proud of accomplishments that matter to me.”

Even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing a story on the site, it’s worth checking out. Below each story is a button that reads “I am here with you,” each click of which contributes to a tally of empowering fist symbols collected near the top of the story. Although the list of stories on the site is still growing, the speakeasy event held on Friday emphasized the need on campus for a place of open sharing. Some of Penn’s most beloved professors, including calculus superhero Nakia Rimmer and creative writing goddess Kathryn Watterson spoke out about their deeply personal experiences with failure, illness and the universal obstacle of establishing self–esteem.

The mission of Penn Faces can best be summed up by Watterson’s final comments, spoken to a group of students huddled in the cold, sitting on tablecloths on College Green as they hung onto her every word.

“Don’t wait for somebody else to love you, just love yourself.”

Find Penn Faces at


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