If Sydney Lewis (C ’21) had to describe her last four years at Penn in one word, it would be "yes." 

“I think that everyone’s default at Penn, or at any school, should be yes—just say yes,” she explains. “I made sure to say yes to everything.”

A health and societies major from Nashville, Tenn., Sydney is known for always having a smile on her face and a cup of coffee in her hand. 

It’s her “just–say–yes” attitude that has led her to rise through the ranks of many campus organizations—including Penn Hillel. Coming from a place with a small Jewish presence, Sydney says it was Hillel's tight–knit community that drew her to dear old Penn in the first place. 

“Whenever I visited schools, I remember touring all of their Hillels. After the normal college tour, I would just go to the Hillel and people–watch because I wanted to feel if it was busy, or if there were cool people that I wanted to become friends with,” she says. “And I found what I was looking for at Penn.”

By the time that Hillel committee signups rolled around, Sydney did what she does best: just say yes. “Starting the second week of school, I just joined every committee," she says. "I was on committees for things that I had never done before. Outreach and engagement and religious committees—it was all very new for me. But I just defaulted to yes.” 

Sydney—who would go on to become the organization’s president—estimates that she's spent “maybe 75%” of her college career within Hillel's walls, helping her fellow students find their home away from home. From pancake breakfasts to move–in barbecues, some of Sydney’s most memorable moments come from her tenure at Hillel. 

“I distinctly remember the move–in reception my sophomore year because I spearheaded that with another girl,” she says. “It was just fun because all of these parents were like, ‘Please take care of my kid!’ and I was 19, 20 years old. I don’t know how to take care of your kid! But it turned out to be amazing. I think that those initial moments—the first impressions—are so important.”

During the COVID–19 pandemic, Sydney put her “just–say–yes” attitude into practice in completely new ways. Working as both a contact tracer and vaccine clinic volunteer, Sydney has spent the past year helping Philadelphians navigate life in the midst of a pandemic.

“About a year ago, the Master of Public Health program coordinators [sent out an email] and basically said, ‘We need contact tracers. Who’s interested?’” she explains. “I had not had any sort of hands–on experience in public health. I had just taken classes, so I was really interested in doing that.”

Sydney started off her run as a contact tracer by calling people who'd been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID–19, before transitioning to notifying positive cases of their test results. While Sydney was ready to shoulder the burden, she says that the job was far from easy: “Honestly, I have had some of the best conversations and some of the worst conversations [through this experience] … There were times on the phone where there would be tears on both ends because I would really take the time to get to know that person before talking them through next steps.”

Working in the contact tracing sphere profoundly changed her perception of the pandemic. Sydney says that, while she felt comfortable spending a few months at home with her family, contact tracing illuminated how not everyone’s situation is conducive to dealing with COVID–19.

“There were a lot of moments where I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders talking to someone and asking them to take two weeks off of work, when that’s not feasible for so many people. Even asking them to isolate—if they live in a house with a lot of people—it’s really hard to do that,” she says. “That made me more grateful for my life, but it also made me more aware of how we need to do more to bring more access to people.”

With these access issues in mind, Sydney helped kickstart a social needs response team tasked with reshaping the contact tracing interview to address the myriad non–health factors that are affected by COVID–19. 

“We asked about food access; we asked if they could pay their bills, their rent—things like that,” she says. “We had to call employers and talk to people’s bosses on the phone, telling them—pleading with them—that this person couldn’t come into work.” 

As the vaccine rollout continues (and less contact tracing is needed), Sydney's been relocated to the vaccine volunteering realm—which she describes as a welcome change. “I kept saying, ‘I want to be put out of work! I don’t want to continue contact tracing!’ … That was kind of my motto. I love doing this—I love this experience—but I want it to be done because that means that COVID–19 is under control.”

In her new role, Sydney has lent her services to several clinics around the city, walking residents through the vaccination process with a smile wherever she’s stationed. After nearly a year of contact tracing, she says that witnessing Philadelphians get vaccinated has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

And while Sydney understands that many Philadelphians aren’t quite ready to get the jab, she never shies away from talking through the vaccination process with anyone who’s on the fence: “There were a few people that I had to walk outside with and talk to before getting the vaccine because they were [unsure] about it. It’s definitely a really personal thing to talk to a stranger about getting a vaccine. But it definitely was something that I needed, and something that they needed. I think that just having someone to hold your hand through it really is so helpful.”

As for what Sydney’s future holds, her time as a Quaker isn’t over yet. She plans to return to Penn in the fall to pursue her Master of Public Health. And while she’s not sure what path her new degree will take her on, she assures me that journey will involve quite a few spontaneous yeses. 

“My greatest memories [at Penn] have been when I just said yes without thinking about the plans. I always want to help. I always want to be there for other people. If someone wants to do something, I just say yes—and then we’ll go from there.”


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