Name: Sarah Simon
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Major: Criminology and political science
Activities: University Honor Council, Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation, International Affairs Association, Penn Hillel, Sphinx Senior Society, Shamash Senior Society, Philomathean Society, Pi Sigma Alpha, Transfer Student Organization
34th Street Magazine: What drew you to Penn, and why did you decide to transfer?
Sarah Simon: It's actually quite a funny story. I was at the University of Virginia (UVA) for my [first] year, and I absolutely loved it. I still have really wonderful friends. But I knew going into college that I wanted to do something in the criminal justice space, and I thought perhaps the best avenue for me to really capitalize [on] my life's ambitions was to study criminology, which was a major that UVA did not have. So literally the week before the deadline, I decided to apply only to Penn to transfer. When I got in, it was a really difficult decision for me because I had put a lot of time and energy into building this really vibrant life at UVA that I really loved. I would be transferring only for an academic purpose, really. I remember I was so excited when I got into Penn and saw all of the professors whose work I had read, and would have the opportunity to study under, and do research under. So I decided that, you know, this would probably be something I really regret if I [didn't] come. And it's been a really wonderful decision. I have loved every minute here.
Street: You played a role in the establishment of the Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation. What inspired you to do this?
SS: I've known since I was really young that human rights and criminal justice work is the field that I wanted to enter and use my education to hopefully change that landscape. All of my grandparents were Jewish refugees from varying countries. A lot of them are Holocaust survivors. Through my family stories and family history, I’m no stranger to oppression. I recognize that, in America, that's not something that I have to face, but there are so many people here who do. Being Jewish is very central to who I am. It motivates everything that I do. I really feel like I channel my grandparents in all of my life's work. So when I see opportunities to become involved in the criminal justice landscape, I pursue them with all my might. It's very, very important to me to create a more just future.
I was interning at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office under Larry Krasner, who is a personal hero of mine in terms of modeling progressive prosecution policies. And I had heard about Terrance because, even though I wasn't working in the Conviction Integrity Unit, which is the team of attorneys who exonerated him, I had friends who were. I went to go see Terrance at a conference. I remember walking up to him after, and I was like, “What can I do? How can I help? How can I help you build this nonprofit?” The Liberation Foundation is a nonprofit for wrongful convictions and disproportionate sentencing. So since about March of 2020, I've been on board. I've primarily done fundraising work, and publicity work, and applying for grants, and that kind of thing. It's been definitely a really new involvement for me because most of my prior criminal justice and legal engagement work has been in the form of case processing.
Street: Can you tell us about your research in the Criminology Department?
SS: The first week that I got to Penn, I was in a class with professor Adrian Raine called "Biopsychosocial Criminology." He was really the primary reason that I transferred, and I went to his office hours literally the first week with my resume. I was like, “I think this is probably gonna sound really strange to you, but I came to the school to hopefully engage with your work and do research under you. And I was wondering if there might be a spot in your lab to do research.” I was shaking, and I handed him my resume. He was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” He connected me with his Ph.D. student, and the work that we were doing was really fascinating. I had done previous research in the malleability of memory, implicit bias, the fallacies of eyewitness testimony, [that] type of thing, which is more psychological research. But this was seeing if there could be some sort of non–invasive transcranial direct current stimulation to inhibit aggressive and antisocial behaviors, and hopefully prevent criminal or more aggressive proceedings. It was really, really fascinating. I was doing neuroscience literature reviews and learning so much while I felt like I was helping out with this really important project.
Street: You mentioned being Jewish is very central to your identity. How are you involved with Hillel? Do you think it has influenced your Penn experience?
SS: Yeah, absolutely. I've done a couple of Hillel fellowships, including the Encompass Fellowship. I was one of four Jewish students in this cohort of 25 people. We learned about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and then traveled to the region. Then another one I did was the Pincus [Scholars] Fellowship, where we learned about how to apply these ancient Jewish texts and ideas to modern world and modern social issues. It's really been in college—independent of exact Hillel involvements—that I've really felt like I've connected to my Jewish identity. Right now, I'm actually working with Hillel staff to establish a fellowship called "Jewish Identity Deassimilated." It's all about understanding who the Jewish people are, how we exist in the modern world, [and] what this means for us, because we're such a colonized people that I think it's really important to understand Judaism.
Street: The Sphinx Senior Society recognizes seniors who “have made significant contributions to the university as leaders of the campus.” What has your involvement with Sphinx meant to you?
SS: I ended up in Sphinx because I was president of the University Honor Council. Despite COVID–19 obviously having an impact on how we're able to interact and what we do, it's been such a wonderful experience. I have been able to meet people and engage with people who [are] literally just so inspiring, and I never would have met them had it not been for Sphinx connecting us all. I think that's really the beauty of the organization at its core. It brings people from all different sides of campus together. It's been really great to be a part of a community of people who I never would have met otherwise.
Street: How did you get involved with the University Honor Council?
SS: Pursuing justice has always been very integral to who I am. In high school, I was actually involved with my honor council. I was president. Then I went to UVA, and I was on an analogous body called the University Judiciary Committee. Then I got here and saw that Penn had an honor council as well, and I applied and I joined. It's been a really formative and wonderful part of my experience. I was a member for two years in the community engagement committee until I became president.
Street: What has been your most memorable experience at Penn?
I feel like my life really came together in a really beautiful way—and I knew that I was on the right path, like living a higher purpose for myself—when I signed the lease for the house that I live in now. I signed it after my sophomore year. It was just with such a great group of my friends, and I felt like a lot of different parts of my life were coming together, and I was able to have a place of my choosing to live with people that I really loved. That's definitely been a pretty primary component of my experience too, balancing my academic and organizational ambitions and involvements with my personal life. I really felt a sense of coming home when we moved into this new house.
Street: If you could impart one lesson on the Penn community, what would it be?
SS: Never refuse to do something for fear that it won't work out for you. Make sure you put yourself out there. Because I really believe that this school has so much to offer its students. There can be a lot of different stressors in life in a day for all Penn students. But if you just put yourself out there and really take risks in that regard, I believe that what you put out will come back to you at least in some capacity.
Street: What's next for you after Penn?
SS: I am putting out a lot of feelers right now. I know ultimately I want to go to law school and practice human rights law, and particularly international human rights law. It's really something I would love to do, but I'm definitely taking a year [off school] after graduation, whether that's to work for a nonprofit organization or an international human rights organization. We shall see because applications are still in the works, but hopefully I will have the opportunity to do really meaningful human rights work next year before going to law school.
Last song you listened to?
“A Sunday Kind of Love” by Etta James.
What’s something people wouldn't guess about you?
This is my party–trick–not–really–party–trick: I am a very proficient Texas Hold'em poker player. I grew up playing with my dad and have taken a lot of people's money.
If you were a building on campus, which one would you be and why?
That's so interesting. I feel like my internal vibes match up with the Fisher [Fine Arts] Library. But I feel like my external vibes match up more with the Perelman Political Science Building.
Who do you look up to?
My family is everything to me. My grandparents, my parents. Their stories really are at the core of who I am.
If we weren't in the middle of a pandemic, and you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I think I would go to the mountains of Colorado and go on a camping trip.
There are two types of people at Penn…
The people who love walking down Locust and people who avoid it at all costs.
And you are?
Definitely the former. I love waving to friends.