This issue of 34th Street is dedicated to the peers we have lost during our time here, and to those they have left behind.
Jeffrey Lee, Class of 2012
Thomas Hartford, Class of 2013
Oliver Pacchiana, Class of 2014
Arya Singh, Class of 2014
Pulkit “Josh” Singh, Class of 2015
Joseph Yuhasz, Class of 2015
Kevin Zhao, Class of 2015
Annie Zhu, Class of 2015
Alex Moll, Class of 2016
Madison Holleran, Class of 2017
On August 13th, 2013, Nathan Stauffer learned via a Facebook status that one of his best friends at Penn, Alex Moll, had passed away. Without receiving any information from Penn directly, Nate was left at the mercy of Facebook and his own imagination to make sense of Alex’s seemingly inexplicable death.
“I read the ‘rest in peace’ statuses and went immediately to Alex’s page,” Nate paused, clenching his espresso–brown eyes shut. “The last thing Alex ever posted was a picture of himself at the Golden Gate Bridge with the caption: ‘found eternal peace,’” he says, anxiously tugging at the burgundy strings of his wool hat. “So I assumed he jumped off.”
Later, thanks to a Daily Pennsylvanian article, Nate learned his first friend at Penn had actually died of bone cancer, a disease which he had concealed from friends in order to maximize his abbreviated time at Penn. The university failed to offer Nate counseling, academic leniency or even the option to celebrate Alex’s life at a memorial service.
“I really don’t think the university provided anything,” he says. He takes a moment to stare into a dark corner of the room and states with great brevity, “At Penn, death gets swept under the rug.”
Disturbingly, Nate’s story of grieving beneath the “rug” isn’t an isolated case, but a common account of grieving alone at Penn. According to a recent article in the DP, the administration follows a set of “guidelines” to direct their responses to undergraduate death—treating each loss circumstantially, claiming to hand the reigns to the family. Because the “guidelines” are kept confidential, students cannot assess whether or not they are being stripped of their rights of bereavement under university policy. Thus, to understand loss at Penn, one must listen to the stories of the students left to grieve alone, together. This is their story—the story of life after death at Penn.
Since November 2011, 10 undergraduates have passed away. Of the 10 deceased students, five were acknowledged in an on–campus memorial and three were acknowledged by university president, Amy Gutmann. Never in the past four years have students received a university–wide email announcing a peer’s death. Moreover, the duration and necessity of an academic grieving period is left at the mercy of individual professors, and an on–campus memorial service only occurs if the family requests it.
This is not the norm. Of the other Ivy League universities, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard have sent school–wide emails when a student passes away, informing the student body of resources and services available to foster support, community and life in the face of death.
And not only is Penn’s neglectful response to death an exception amongst peer institutions, it is also unhealthy. And even Penn knows it. According to Penn’s Behavioral Corporate Services, when the subject of death is “avoided, ignored or denied,” the grieving process is compromised. Consequently, the loss is likely to manifest itself in the form of “physical or emotional illness.” Penn is compromising students’ mental health.
“There were a lot of people whose lives Alex touched and, as a result, there were a lot people who were deeply affected by his death that could’ve benefitted from school–wide notification and services before it became a media frenzy.” Nate pauses, as if to let the laugh–laced chatter of Houston Hall speak for him, “They should treat them as actual living beings, like someone you just saw in the dining hall last night.”
“I don’t care if Amy Gutmann says her condolences or not...If she’s gonna talk, she should talk every time,” says senior Cara*, sitting cross–legged atop her twin XL bed. Allison*, Cara’s best friend, also a senior, closes her eyes and nods in solemn agreement. Now seniors with post–graduate plans on the horizon, they giggle about how “clueless” they were when they first met each other, living on the first floor of King’s Court English House. This may have been the way they spent their first nights together at Penn, giggling and getting to know each other. The one thing missing is their former hallmate Arya Singh, who lived with them that first year in King’s Court. She passed away on February 8th, 2013.
Beyond being forced to inform her friends of Arya’s death, Allison was frustrated by the consequences of the university’s institutionalized ignorance and its professors’ varied reactions. Because there was no official announcement of death, Cara and Allison were forced to personally notify their professors of Arya’s passing; from there, they were left to the professors’ individual whims. “I had a fluids exam the day after she died that I was not excused from,” recalls Cara with disgust.
“It’s so extremely inconsistent,” Allison chimes in. “I had such a good experience with Wharton—they pushed my statistics midterm back two weeks.” Allison looks down at her legs dangling over the side of the bed, “But Arya’s close friend couldn’t even attend the memorial because she had to take a midterm.”
“I don’t understand why there’s a difference in policy,” says Cara, tucking a lock of dirty blonde hair behind her ear. “The fact is, I don’t care how they died. I care that they’re gone, and that’s what’s tragic about it.” Her blue eyes fill with tears. “In the end, they’re still not here and, because of that, there should be a standard way of dealing with these issues.” Cara sighs heavily, “A death is a death. And in college it’s not supposed to happen, no matter how,” she says through tear–clouded laughter.
However, the failure to accommodate Cara’s grieving may not be the fault of unsympathetic professors, but instead the fault of the university administration. As it stands, professors and students are equally ill–informed of death at Penn.
The university’s Crisis Intervention Services (CIS) department claims to “often” advise professors and faculty on how to appropriately respond to students coping with the loss of a loved one. However, one professor commented that he received zero notification regarding the recent deaths of Josh Singh, Kevin Zhou and Madison Holleran. Until he was informed for the purpose of this article, he was unaware that two students had passed away since the start of the new year. He only knew out about Madison’s death through a New York Post article sent to him by a friend.
Like Cara, Allison and Nate, junior Manna Fujiu was left to mourn the loss of her best friend, Annie Zhu, alone.
On December 3rd, 2011, Manna felt a lump rise in her throat as the Penn–chartered school bus heading to Annie’s funeral in Flemington, New Jersey rolled away from the Quad—with only two other students onboard.
“It really aggravated my grieving process that I didn’t think enough was done for her,” Manna says, sweeping her ombre black–auburn bangs across her cheekbones. “I feel like if the bus to her funeral had been better advertised more people would’ve gone,” she continues.
Although Manna’s house dean discussed planting a tree or hosting a candlelight vigil to memorialize her best friend, neither plan ever came to fruition. Consequently, that underutilized chartered bus service was the only administrative effort to memorialize Annie Zhu.
Manna closes her eyes, revealing a tired coat of black eyeliner. “I couldn’t find any of Annie’s friends to grieve with on campus.” She stammers, “I went through a really dark time.”
Unable to connect with peers, Manna sought out the sympathy of her professors, carefully composing emails to each, informing them of her bereavement. “My professors didn’t even respond,” she shrugs, biting her chapped lower lip, “I wasn’t asking anything specific. I mean, there wasn’t anything to respond to, I guess.”
Because her professors didn’t respond to her original email, Manna never asked for any extensions or accommodations, fearing the professors would view her requests as “playing the death card” in order to gain a competitive advantage over her classmates.
Unable to find other students or professors to share her grief, Manna sought professional help. Although Manna used Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), she was not extended their services by a university official. Instead, she discovered the university’s mental health office via late–night Google search.
Despite the claim of CAPS director Bill Alexander that his office reaches out to “very close friends and classmates” of the deceased, only one of the seven students interviewed was offered CAPS support directly by the university.
That student is Andrew*. Not–so–coincidentally, Andrew, a senior, is also the singular student interviewed who was satisfied with Penn’s treatment of death due to the univeristy’s rare showing of comprehensive support.
When Oliver Pacchiana died in a rock climbing accident on March 31, 2013, Andrew and the rest of his bandmates were informed of the loss of their tuba player during a practice session by a team of CIS specialists and the university chaplain, “Chaz” Howard. Moreover, Andrew also received “academic and emotional support” from his professors and was personally guided through his loss in one–on–one sessions with Chaz.
“I thought Penn did a great job,” says Andrew, clad in the classic crimson ‘P’ Penn sweatshirt and a wool scarf. “Their support felt like the healthiest possible response.”
Pushing his oversized black–rimmed glasses over the bridge of his nose, he speaks in a deep, thoughtful voice. “CAPS only intervenes when it’s too late,” he says, tearing the thin cardboard sleeve of his coffee cup into two neat pieces, “I’m not just talking about the victim side; I’m talking about the survivor side too.”
Unanimously, the “survivors” desire a more accessible, less stigmatized mental health system at Penn, as the state of mental health on campus has come under review in the past week. CAPS recently initiated a student advisory board to destigmatize mental health among students.
Although it may take longer to change the entire state of mental health at Penn, a simple email sent to notify both the student body and faculty of a student’s death and the support services available would facilitate community, health and life in the face of death.
Whether it comes in the form of an email or an emphasis on mental wellness, students need to know that the university cares. In the meantime, we're left to grieve alone, together.
Together, we remember Madison Holleran, in the purple ribbons pinned to the red and blue uniforms of Penn’s lacrosse, gymnastics, wrestling and track teams.
Together, we remember Pulkit “Josh” Singh, in the story of Josh's closest friends driving two and a half hours to his funeral service in Bethpage, New York.
Together, we remember Kevin Zhao, in a celebration of his life on January 18th, 2014 at a memorial service in Houston Hall.
Filled with raucous laughter and screeching wooden chairs, only 24 hours after the service there’s not a single hint of Kevin’s memorial in Houston Hall. And yet, as Nate blinks away tears, it’s clear that those closest to the deceased don’t need candles to remember. “Penn, in general, wasn’t supportive. But the groups Penn fosters were very supportive in our time of need,” he says, referencing the aid of his Mask and Wig brothers and the Penn undergraduate community at large.
He sits back in his chair and begins reflectively, “I know the groups I can rely on and they’re always there when I need them. We can all lean on each other.” And then, as if surrendering to a higher power, he clasps his hands behind his head and gazes upward into the dusty rafters of Houston Hall, “we all kind of have to lean on each other.”
Alexandra Sternlicht is a sophomore from Newton, Massachusetts majoring in english. She is the Highbrow editor for 34th Street Magazine.
*Names have been changed at the request of these individuals.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Arya Singh's freshman–year roommate could not attend her memorial service. The article has been updated to show that it was a close friend who could not attend. Additionally, a previous version said that Cara had a physics exam which her professor did not excuse her from. It has been updated to reflect that it was actually a fluids exam she had to take. Finally, a previous version said that Cara and Allison were roommates for four years. It has been updated to reflect that they are not roommates, but close friends.
Update: An earlier version of this article failed to include Joseph Yuhasz on the list of students we have lost in our time at Penn. The numbers in the article were updated to reflect this addition.