Hadassah Raskas (C ‘20) hates tomatoes.
She’s not a picky eater by any means. When I ask her what her favorite food is, she laughs and says, “There are so many!”
“I really like sushi. I really like gnocchi. I like everything,” she says. “I just don’t like tomatoes.”
And though she cautions it’s “not scientific,” she has a hypothesis about tomatoes.
“I have a theory that 25% of Americans don’t like tomatoes. I really want to test it, because 25% percent of people I’ve shared this with are like, ‘Yes, tomatoes are the worst.’”
Hadassah has spent a lot of her life thinking analytically about food, especially the intersection between food and health. In middle school, she dreamed of becoming a dietician. And a high school internship with the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit dedicated to decreasing childhood obesity, made her realize the power of behavioral science to change people’s habits.
“Behavioral science is all about thinking about the cognitive biases that affect our behavior and recognizing that people don't always act rationally,” she explains. Studying why people act the way they do can help health experts figure out the best ways to encourage people to make healthy choices. Even before college, Hadassah was already puzzling out the question that’s driven her future career: “How do we make it easier for people to be healthier?”
Hadassah dove straight into behavioral science at Penn through her Health and Societies major, and she joined the Dining Advisory Board, a group of students who work with dining administrators, to put her interest in food and health into action.
Last spring, green cards labeled “Eat & Greet” popped up on tables in Hill House Dining Hall, signaling that the students who had them wanted to talk. Hadassah, who led the Eat & Greets trial initiative her junior year, wanted “to make it easy for people to find someone to sit with in the dining hall and meet new people, especially [first years].”
Hadassah is often thinking of concrete ways to make people’s lives better, whether it’s by encouraging them to be healthy or giving them opportunities to meet new friends. She’s dedicated, pragmatic, and laser–focused on big–picture goals.
But Hadassah tells me this hasn’t always been the case. Her sophomore year, she got caught up in a productivity competition: like many Penn students, she felt pressured “to be constantly busy” and “to engage in as many clubs as possible.’
“It was important to step back and say, ‘Okay, what am I doing? Does it align with what I want to be doing, with what I believe in, with where I'm trying to get?’ And equally as important, ‘Am I enjoying myself?’”
She decided to reevaluate her course load and take four classes in the fall, something she encourages everyone to consider.
“I’m a really big fan of taking four classes,” she says. “ I think it leaves you the opportunity to be engaged in lots of other things and to really make use of so much that happens at Penn.”
Hadassah’s connection to the Orthodox Jewish Community at Penn has often helped her center her priorities. She describes the group as tight–knit and supportive; upperclassmen reached out to her before she even got to Penn. And the structure of Orthodox Judaism, which involves daily prayer and keeping the Sabbath from Friday night to Saturday night, gave her the time and headspace to take a break from a typically jam–packed college schedule.
“We don’t use our phones or any technology for 24 hours,” she says. “I believe that it enriches my life, having that time to just be present amongst friends and honestly just rest.”
“Having that time at Penn, where we're always so busy and so rushed and doing so much…I don't know what I would do without it.”
Hadassah’s grounded sense of self has helped her navigate a senior year that’s been “anything but typical.” She spent the first six weeks overseeing the official launch of Eat & Greets, then flew across the world to study abroad in Israel. Second semester, she juggled an internship and being a part–time student—and then there was the pandemic.
“I was sad to be missing out on the end of my senior year,” she says. “But I think my primary reaction to it after I moved on from being sad was, ‘There’s got to be something I can do to help.’”
She had moved back home to Silver Springs, Md., and she suddenly found herself with more time on her hands. When she reached out to other friends stuck in quarantine, they all said the same thing: “I want to do something, but I don’t know what.”
Working with other Penn seniors and a friend from the University of Maryland, she began a project that would eventually become Corona Connects, a website that matches people with volunteer opportunities based on location, time commitment, and type of activity.
“There is an unprecedented level of need, whether that be with senior citizens, with people with special needs, with food pantries, et cetera,” she says. “At the same time, there’s lots of college students and other people with time on their hands who want to volunteer, and all we need is someone to connect the two.”
In between remote classes, her internship, and spending time with friends and family, Hadassah has served as the president of Corona Connects. Focusing her time on the project has allowed her to put into practice three important values: optimism, gratitude, and volunteering.
“There’s all these research studies that show that, when you express gratitude and when you remind yourself of all the things you’re grateful for, you are happier.” As a student in a relatively “fortunate position”—with a home, a healthy family, and time—Hadassah says that working on Corona Connects has strengthened her sense of purpose and given her a way to improve the outside world, even from home.
“Calling it Corona Connects was two–fold,” she explains. The pandemic has connected everyone in a tragic way—rarely has so much of the world gone through the threat of illness, mass quarantine, and economic hardship at the same time—yet there are so many willing to help.
“It’s precisely because we are so globally connected that this has been so devastating,” Hadassah says. “But perhaps we can connect through kindness.”