Like all of us, Serena Bian (C ’18) began her freshman year at Penn in 2014 wishing and hoping that she’d find her people right away, the friends that she’d walk next to at graduation while giggling about their first week on campus.
Like most of us, she couldn’t find them anywhere.
We can write about how hard it is to find your place at Penn until our fingers bleed, and we can talk about it until our tongues go numb. But here’s the part we still need to address: Even if you’ve found those people who mean the world to you (and that’s a huge if), you’re probably still lonely sometimes. Or maybe even most of the time.
The American College Health Association found in 2016 that over 60% of college students reported feeling “very lonely” in the past 12 months. Thirty percent had felt that way in the previous two weeks.
For the past two years, Serena has been doing her own small part to make things a bit easier for people. She hosts regular, informal get–togethers—which she calls Space Gatherings—for any member of the Penn community to come and chat with other people about whatever might be on their mind. There’s no website. There’s no Facebook page. Just a space for civil dialogue for whoever might want it.
It’s a simple concept, says Serena, but that’s the point. “It’s very grassroots,” says Serena. “The most official thing I’ve created so far is a short how–to document for people who want to host their own.”
Serena was first inspired by a yoga teacher training course she took over the summer after a lonely freshman year. The course was full of people of all ages and walks of life, yet something about the atmosphere allowed a community to form. “I realized then that people really just want to connect,” says Serena. “We’re so overscheduled that we don’t have time for serendipity. Everyone just wants to have friendships and be seen.”
She got the idea for her first Space Gathering at the start of her sophomore year. She picked out an Airbnb off campus, and spent an afternoon approaching distant acquaintances on Locust Walk to invite them to join her in a new space with new people.
“For that first Space Gathering, one of the rules we had was no small talk when people came into the room,“ says Serena. “We usually open with something like: ‘I’m Serena, and something that I’ve been struggling with is…,’ or ‘Something I like about myself is…’”
“My goal has always been to help people realize the possibilities of what can happen when they start to become engaged in simple, real dialogue with the people around them.”
There was something in the air at that first gathering that made Serena feel like she needed to keep going. Two years later, she’s hosted around 40 Space Gatherings at a variety of locations. She’s brought them back on campus, because she wants to send the message that the sort of connection people gain from those conversations shouldn’t be limited to off–campus spaces.
As a psychology major, it’s fascinated Serena that although there’s no explicit topic for Space Gatherings, most of them have opened up into conversations about mental health. There’s no perfect way to understand what this says about Penn, but Serena knows it’s something important. “When I think of mental health and campus,” says Serena, “the words ‘shared humanity’ come to mind. We just forget to see the humanness in people.”
For Serena, the mission of Space Gatherings has steered her life in ways she never initially expected. This summer, she’s going to be working with journalist Krista Tippett, host of the popular podcast On Being, on Tippett’s new Civil Conversations project, which encourages people to interact in a more productive and meaningful way with those around them.
“Connectivity is important for everyone,” she insists. “Freshmen, sophomores…I’m a senior, I have incredible friends at Penn, and I still get really lonely sometimes. These issues I love thinking about and tackling, they’re just not confined to a single group.”
Any student interested in getting involved in Space Gatherings can email Serena at firstname.lastname@example.org.