I couldn't help myself but scoff when President Gutmann began her speech at the Campus Conversation by thanking students for attending and being “a part of the community.” The irony, of course, was that she spoke these words to an auditorium devoid of nearly any students. Only about one hundred students were in attendance—abysmal for a campus of 10,000 undergrads. After Dr. Gutmann opened, she and Provost Pritchett were interviewed by UA President Michelle Xu. Next came a panel with two Psychiatry professors, Reverend Chaz Howard and Dr. Angela Duckworth. And finally, students were invited to participate in several small group discussions where they could air their grievances, which would purportedly be shared with the administration.
This event was not profound in its content. It covered topics ranging from suicide to natural disasters to financial aid, but in addressing everything, it addressed nothing. However, this event was notably an official admission from the administration: Penn has a problem, and the administration wants to work with students to combat it.
Unfortunately, the poor student attendance signaled to the admins that there is not sufficient buy–in from the undergrads: another big problem. When tragedy strikes, we rush to social media to post our support and talk about the need for reform, but once the topic is no longer trending, it’s back to normal. It’s reminiscent of a politician's generic response to any national tragedy: social media support and a week touting mental health, gun reform, or disaster relief. Then back to business.
But these problems aren’t solved by a hashtag campaign or any taskforce. The best remedy for the prevailing high levels of stress and unwellness on our campus is an organic, bottom–up, student–led cultural change. The fundamental problem with Penn is that everyone thinks their time and energy is infinitely more important than those around them. By reframing mental health not as a problem that administrators must address, but rather as a function of student actions, I trust that we can lessen the overall levels of stress on campus.
I’m not trying to brush off the responsibility of the administration. Certainly, there are massive institutional problems related but not limited to financial aid and social event policy that negatively impact mental health. And this isn’t a criticism of all students either: there are admirable, supportive peers and clubs all around us. But there is no doubt in my mind that we can and as a community, should do more.
Last Spring, I sat in a meeting with one of the university’s deans along with several other student leaders. We were free to discuss anything we wanted, but he was mainly interested in how the school was doing in terms of student life and happiness. The conversation centered around the hyper–competitive environment and unfairness in club recruiting processes – relatively unoriginal talking points. But if these problems are broadly recognized, why do they still persist? We vehemently command those around us to run fair processes, but when we as individuals are faced with accepting our sister’s friend into our club or the more qualified candidate, we too often choose the former. We talk about ameliorating mental health, but when confronted with the opportunity to make a difficult but positive change as a club leader, we find it easier to ignore. Fortunately, the first steps are pretty simple.
When you’re in the position of denying students from a club, take the extra ten minutes to write a meaningful, personalized email. When you’re accepting someone into your club, make sure it’s based off merit – not because they look like you or went to your boarding school. Set aside some time for community service. If someone asks for help in a class, don’t respond with “No way, that’ll mess up my curve,” but instead consider offering your support. Think critically about expanding the acceptances of your club if it makes practical sense; there ought not be an inherent premium attached to exclusivity. When someone is down, reach out—not with a “Let me know if you need anything,” placing the burden on them to opt in, but with a genuine and forceful “How are you doing? Let’s grab coffee if you’re free!” When someone isn’t down, still check in. And after a tragedy, make those affected a priority: give them your notes, open up your home, and make sure the rest of their life is not derailed while they are grieving.
We must take care of ourselves, too. We can’t all be therapists, and we need to make sure that taking care of others is never at the expense of our own mental wellness. But as Dr. Duckworth said at the Campus Conversation, “When I get a text message [from a student] that says ‘Hey, do you have a minute to talk?’ the answer absolutely has to be yes.” Random acts of kindness need not be prompted—they should be the norm. The environment on campus is ours to shape, and I hope we turn towards benevolence and generosity—not only for for future Penn students, but also for ourselves.