It’s Wednesday, and Eden Harris (E '19) is peeling an orange. She removes the rind and picks at the pith until each slice is clean, then breaks them in half to eat them. We’re talking at the Penn First (First–Generation Low–Income) Town Hall, which is far less formal than it sounds. Today, we’re making lip scrubs out of brown sugar and coconut oil. There are apples and oranges for people to eat on the table, and everyone is making idle chit–chat.
Eden has wavy, auburn hair, speaks in a low voice, and smiles constantly, especially when she’s talking about her friends. As the social chair of Penn First, she has the challenge of catering events to what people need while sticking to a cheap budget. She recently needed to make an activity for everyone to help with self–care. While she could have used the budget Penn First has, she thought of another idea.
"I wanted the theme to be ‘self–care doesn’t have to be cost–prohibitive,' she tells me, "So I stored all these old jam jars that I had, washed them out, and basically had these 'compliment jars.' If you’re having a good day, or something good happens, you write down, like, 'I just aced my quiz!’ and throw it in there. And if you’re having a bad day, you fish for something and pull something out, and you’re reminded like, you’ve accomplished a lot! You’re at Penn, you’re studying what you want, whatever it may be. Or even just like, ‘My hair looked really good today,'" she says with a sly smile.
Re–using jars is key to the idea as well; Eden cares a lot about the environment, which often goes hand–in–hand with being aware of cost. Another event she recently put on was a “semi in–formal,” where they got a room in ARCH and served pasta, played music, and hung out. The dress code was nonexistent; some people arrived in dresses and high heels, others in t–shirts and shorts.
Maintaining the social side of the First–Generation Low–Income students at Penn is no easy task, but for Eden, being able to provide help to those who need it is incredibly important. She is also part of the Netter Center’s Moelis Access Science (MAS), which works with STEM students in West Philly schools.
“It’s a bit of a strange feeling for me,” she says, “Because a lot of the students in these schools are from similar socioeconomic backgrounds to me. But I grew up, like, ten miles away from here and in a very different school district.” She’s in an administrative position now, but when she worked directly with the kids, they would often tell her they hadn’t eaten in days.
“I never knew how to respond to those things, because I so was that kid. I really was. You’re waiting on your food stamps, it’s not gonna be deposited for another three days. Your parents can’t buy food. It’s not lunchtime yet. 99% of the students in these schools are on free–and–reduced lunch, and I was [too] my whole life.”
Eden had to learn how to support not only herself, but also those around her. Growing up, her home dynamic was severely affected by her parents’ mental illness, which led to near homelessness at times, and having to take care of her sister, who has a learning disorder. She managed with some help from her high school friends, but also had to take care of herself at times.
“I learned to be my own role model, but also the person cheering myself on from the sidelines.”
Part of that was asking for help when she needed it. In her junior year, her parents were on the brink of homelessness again. Eden felt helpless, and considered dropping out to go back home. She spoke with an advisor in the Engineering department, who emailed her professors explaining the situation. Her French professor reached out and offered her an open ear.
“Normally, I politely decline that stuff left–and–right. I didn’t really like to talk to people about these things, because I was a little ashamed of it, but also grew up never really talking to people about my feelings, so I wasn’t really used to it. Basically, I don’t know what changed in my brain, but I was like, ‘You know what? Yeah, I’ll take you up on that. Like, I’d love to talk to you in your office sometime.’ And we ended up hardcore bonding over similar life experiences.”
That professor, Mélanie Péron, ended up being a mentor for Eden and coached her through the rest of the school year. She encouraged Eden to look into a summer abroad opportunity in France that ended up being incredibly formative for her, but also distilled her Penn experience.
“That was one of the most polarized experiences I’ve ever had, because everyone who went on that trip was able to front $10,000, or they were on a significant–enough amount of financial aid that it basically was like what they would have paid in rent somewhere. […] When I got there, I would go get a 99 cent baguette every day, and that was like my lunch. One kid on the trip was like, ‘I heard this town has a Michelin–star restaurant. I already made reservations.’”
She and the other financially–assisted students became closer and found ways to save on things like food and activities. They spent their time walking in parks, going to museums on free days, and laughing about the rest of the group, who they called "the Tourists." "That’s what they were doing!” she laughs, "They were very much there to see the, not the sights that we were seeing, but the sights as in the shopping mall. And I didn’t get it, cuz I was like, 'I'm pretty sure you can find those pants on the internet anywhere.'"
"They came there for the experience they wanted to have and they had it."
On that trip, Eden met her friend India Allen (C ’21) while waiting over three hours before they could leave the customs line at the French airport. India tells me, “I saw that she was wearing Penn gear, and I was like ‘Ayyy, are you headed to this program?’ And we just hit it off.”
India was also worried about the cost of the trip, being FGLI as well, and nervous about fitting in with the rich people on the trip. But being from similar backgrounds, Eden helped put India at ease and made the trip that much more comfortable.
“She’s let me sleep on her couch before, when I didn’t have a place to stay,” India says of their friendship. “I know she really cares about people, too. Just with her involvement with Penn First, and my personal experience with her, she just really cares about the people that she is around. Whatever group it is, she’ll advocate for people’s best interests. That’s something that I really admire in her.”
Compassion has followed Eden throughout her life. She’s helped her sister to enroll in a community college. She composts while at school, and convinced her roommates to do the same. She’s preparing this summer to do ecological research testing soil samples. Some people's spheres of empathy stop at themselves—Eden’s has no clear boundary.
As the members of Penn First pack up to go, there’s still plenty of fruit left. Eden considers taking a bag of oranges, but doesn’t think she’ll eat them all, so she pulls out a spare bag she carries with her to take a few. Another Penn First member has the same dilemma, and Eden hands her an extra bag.