On the eve of his 21st birthday, Evan* (C’ 18) woke to the sound of Penn Police knocking on his door. After a flurry of terse words and frantic texts, he was escorted into an ambulance bound for the Penn Emergency Evaluation Clinic (PEEC). He was hospitalized by Student Intervention Services (SIS). On paper, the decision was voluntary. But in reality, it was a lot more complicated.
In December 2016, Evan sat in his West Philadelphia apartment, face illuminated by the glow of a computer. Recruiting had been difficult that semester, but he had a case due that night and an interview the next day. It was the only final round interview he’d been offered so far, and, on his birthday, it felt like fate. As the hours flew by, the pressure mounted. Evan toggled back and forth between the case and Facebook, where he messaged a friend at Columbia University about his stressful situation.
“I have no desire to live. It’s over,” he typed. Then he went back to work.
Evan checked his phone later that night and saw a handful of messages and a missed call from the friend, who said they were going to call counseling services if Evan didn’t pick up. His friend was concerned about the severity of Evan’s message. Evan messaged back, assuring his friend that he was fine, and that he was going to bed.
Later that night, Evan received a call from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). He told them that he was okay—just stressed, not seriously unwell. Besides, he still had to submit the case, and he didn’t have time to speak with them. Annoyed after the call, Evan messaged his friend and Wharton advisor to stop notifying CAPS. He felt the University “didn’t really care if I lived or died.”
After his conversation with CAPS, Penn Police arrived at his door. They asked him about the messages to his friend and advisor. Evan reiterated that he was fine, just on the cusp of an important day, and he thought getting Penn Police involved was a bit extreme. Still, the conversation continued. The police asked if he consented to being transported to PEEC.
Exhausted from the back and forth, and clinging to the hope of being discharged in the morning, he agreed. In the ambulance, he messaged his CAPS therapist and academic advisor the names and numbers of family.
In the hospital, Evan informed the doctors that he wasn’t a threat to himself. Evan recalls that doctors at PEEC said the CAPS psychologist he spoke to earlier that evening recommended he be hospitalized. However, his CAPS notes, which he obtained in 2019, say that “suicidal ideation was not active,” that he “was future–oriented,” and that the University intended to “place him in a cab to CAPS at 9am.”
This didn’t happen.
Instead, a representative from SIS called Evan’s parents, who live halfway around the world, in the early hours of the morning. SIS relayed that their son was in the hospital, and they had to come pick him up when he was discharged the next day. Stunned, his parents told SIS that they didn’t have the means or time to be in the United States with such short notice.
Instead, a family friend in Connecticut drove a few hours to pick Evan up the next morning. Tired and disheveled, he missed his interview that day.
When Evan speaks to me about his hospitalization, his voice shakes. He is “very traumatized” by the experience, and he harbors shame and frustration about his interactions with SIS leading up to that night. He understands that SIS takes precautions to protect students, but he felt dehumanized by their bureaucratic process.
“I was already very anxious,” Evan says. “But that made me much more anxious.”
SIS was founded in 2002 by current Associate Vice Provost of University Life Sharon Smith to provide immediate care to students following extenuating circumstances. The department addresses personal and academic student crises, from providing students with laptops during the virtual semester, to counseling students through sudden, traumatic experiences. They also manage an emergency fund for undergraduate and graduate students.
SIS is separate from CAPS, but the two departments operate in similar ways. Both are confidential and use a case management system to organize student interactions. Many of SIS’s encounters are brief, while CAPS generally works with students for a few months to address mental health crises. The work of both organizations frequently intersects; students may speak with representatives from both departments, and the pair may coordinate logistics behind the scenes.
Over the years, SIS has garnered commendation from the university and ire from some students and parents. In 2005, the office was recognized by the Division of Human Resources as a “Model of Excellence” for “develop[ing] an extremely effective approach for providing immediate support to Penn students in crisis,” and their website is peppered with voluntary, glowing reviews. Comments include high praise: “I don’t know what I would have done without your support.” “You have saved my life.”
However, SIS, like CAPS, is fighting an uphill battle against mental health issues at Penn. The University has lost more than a dozen students to suicide in the past decade, along with a former director of CAPS. Despite an expansion of mental health services following the suicide cluster, SIS has its limits. When instruction went virtual in the spring of 2020, SIS’s caseload increased by 25%. Moreover, they denied 56% of students who applied for on–campus housing, and denied 13% of students who applied for emergency grants.
Though their website is littered with positive testimonies, criticism of SIS is hardly as public as its praise. Many students shoulder the weight of stressful interactions with the organization alone, from jarring phone calls and recommended leaves of absence to a maze of bureaucracy that can complicate reporting sexual assault.
Street spoke with five students about their experiences navigating extenuating circumstances alongside interventions from SIS and CAPS. In the reporting process, Street repeatedly reached out for comment to current SIS Director Lauren Rudick, Associate Director for Crisis Intervention and Case Management Lindsay Adams Van Ostenbridge, former CAPS Director of Outreach Meeta Kumar, and Associate Vice Provost for University Life Sharon Smith. However, it is SIS’s policy to not comment directly on student cases to preserve confidentiality; the office can only talk broadly about its mission. Thus, outside of some comments from Smith, the aforementioned administrators did not respond.
Evan recognizes that SIS is helpful to many students, but he feels they fell short in his situation. He first came into contact with the department in the spring of 2016—before his overwhelming recruitment season and subsequent hospitalization—following the suicide of junior Olivia Kong (W ‘17). Evan was distressed by Olivia’s death. They were close in age and, at the time, both studying in Wharton. He spoke to a Wharton academic advisor, who referred him to CAPS, and he received an unsolicited but appreciated call from SIS the next day.
His mental health at an all–time low, Evan met with Van Ostenbridge, a SIS case manager at the time, to talk about his situation. He became frustrated during the meeting, upset by the caseworker’s “cold, cruel, and bureaucratic” attitude. The conversation’s tone was unexpected, especially given the sensitive subject matter. Evan wondered if caseworkers for SIS interacted like this with all of their students, and if friends in more serious situations received similar treatment. “Was this how Olivia’s conversations with administrators went?” he thought.
“You people are awful,” he told Van Ostenbridge. She responded sarcastically: “Yeah, we’re awful.”
In 2019, three years after this interaction, Van Ostenbridge was promoted to become the Associate Director for Crisis Intervention and Case Management within SIS.
Evan spoke with SIS a few more times before the end of the semester, unsure of how to proceed with schoolwork given his mental state. Dr. Meeta Kumar, the CAPS Director of Outreach who worked adjacent to SIS, helped Evan work out a reduced course load for the fall of 2016, as opposed to taking the leave of absence SIS administrators suggested.
For a while, things went relatively smoothly. Evan worked as a teacher’s assistant and maintained a high GPA, on track to graduate despite his reduced course load. A few months passed before Evan met with SIS again—the day after his hospitalization. When his family friend picked him up the morning after, he was ushered into a meeting with Sharon Smith, the then–current SIS director. He expressed his frustration and confusion in an outburst, and Smith recommended that he stay away from campus for the weekend and be placed in the care of “someone good.”
After the weekend, Evan’s parents arrived on campus from abroad to meet with administrators. The three of them sat down with Kumar, who Evan thought would be the best person to interface with his parents.
A few moments into the meeting, Kumar began to read information from Evan’s CAPS notes to his parents, which alarmed him. They had never discussed sharing these private sentiments with his parents, and this disclosure came out of left field.
Kumar concluded the discussion of Evan’s CAPS notes by saying that he should be a “positive, contributing member to the Penn community.” Was he not already? The comment made him feel like a burden.
Before leaving the U.S., Evan’s parents met with Van Ostenbridge, his original case manager. The interaction was tense: Van Ostenbridge invited and expected Evan’s parents to come back after winter break, despite travel expenses and time.
Evan spoke with Kumar once more in the spring of his senior year. He sunk back into a bad mental state, and his mother visited to support him. They scheduled a meeting with Kumar to discuss options, but quickly canceled when Evan’s information vanished from PenninTouch one night. Although he was reinstated in the platform the next day, he doesn’t know what caused the glitch, and he’s steered clear of SIS since.
Reflecting on his experience, Evan recognizes that Penn’s mental health services can be very helpful, but that looks different for everyone. The way his case was managed negatively impacted his mental and academic well being in the long run.
Evan isn’t the only student who has had a tense relationship with SIS. Talia Coopersmith (C’ 24) was sexually assaulted by a friend in early October of this year. When we spoke in a corner of the Starbucks under the 1920 Commons, Talia was calm and direct. She says the assault upended her life, but she’s had time to process the incident and reflect on Penn’s resources for survivors.
Talia stumbled upon SIS in a frenzy of panicked emails and internet searches. Reeling from the assault and drowning under a growing mountain of schoolwork, she asked a friend to compile a list of on–campus resources. After assessing her options, Talia filed a report with the Title IX office, which referred her to SIS. She describes her path to SIS as a “non–replicable route,” because Penn’s resources were difficult to navigate without significant assistance.
Her interactions with the office—a few Zoom calls the week after her assault—were mostly helpful. SIS put a hold on her classes when she expressed she couldn’t concentrate on coursework following the incident, pushed up her meeting with a CAPS counselor when the appointments were backlogged, and offered an array of resources for managing her interactions with the perpetrator.
Still, Talia was often confused by the office’s communication style. Administrators were “adamant about the semantics'' of the incident. Did he pin her down? For how long? Their inquiries dredged up memories of the assault, and Talia didn’t quite understand their relevance. Each time she spoke with a new department, she found herself having to recount her entire situation again.
“I remember having double conversations with [CAPS and SIS, professors and administrators],” she says. “I didn’t know if [my information] was cross communicated, or if I just needed to tell everyone everything every single time.”
Retelling her trauma may have only made matters worse. Clinical psychologist Peter Levine writes, “Just exposing a client to his or her traumatic memories and having the person relive them [is], at best, unnecessary … and at worst retraumatizing.”
Throughout her interactions with SIS, Talia asked about the possibility of bringing her situation to the police or elsewhere outside of the Penn ecosystem, but she always got the same response: “You’ll lose.” She understands that SIS was most likely just being honest, but she was put off by their bluntness. She would have liked to have been offered the option in earnest.
Still, Talia is grateful that SIS provided her with a baseline of support: “They taught me how to breathe,” but she walked away “with the feeling that, even within Penn, the system is always going to benefit [her assailant] and always going to be so bureaucratic that it dissuades anyone from pursuing real action.”
At second glance, SIS bears the unique burden of offering students private support while managing crises that could impact Penn’s reputation. SIS’s recent public record is precarious. In 2018, Olivia’s parents sued the university for negligence, implicating agencies like CAPS and SIS for brushing off their daughter’s cries for help. Her death, and those that followed, received coverage in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and NBC News. In 2019, former Daily Pennsylvanian executive editor Rebecca Tan (C’ 19) wrote a longform profile of Paul Clarke (C’ 20), a Penn graduate with whom SIS failed to keep close contact as he struggled with addiction throughout his undergraduate years.
As he skates home on Walnut Street, Derek Nhieu (W ‘23) tells me over the phone about his experience with SIS’s community concerns.
Derek describes his campus presence as “public” and “well–known.” He’s not wrong. Derek is the junior Class Board president, a Joseph Wharton Scholar, a SNF Paideia Fellow, on the board of more clubs than I have fingers, and a mentor to first–generation, low–income students, which he views as his most important work. His activities are all people–oriented: “I have to be very sensitive to people's needs and wants, whether that's academically, socially, or extracurricularly.”
Despite his happy–go–lucky front, the past few months have been hard. Derek reached a low point in October and turned to his private Snapchat story to speak freely about his mental health. Soon after posting, he got a call from SIS administrator Van Ostenbridge—a few students reported concerns about his mental health. Derek spoke with her briefly, assuring her that he was “going through a lot,” but “trying to do [his] best.” The two discussed the potential for academic accommodations for mental health reasons, then hung up the phone.
Derek felt like the random phone call “caught him off guard,” and that another student may have not answered, or been turned off from speaking to Penn counseling services at all. However, he understood the potential urgency of the situation and was grateful that his friends worried about him enough to involve a professional. “I appreciate that people were reporting me,” he says. “But maybe there’s a better system. For other people, it could make things worse if they feel like their privacy is being betrayed.”
The next week, he received an email from SIS. More students had reported Derek, this time because they felt his content about mental health was triggering. The office asked to meet with him over Zoom immediately. This was surprising. None of Derek’s peers had told him that his content was harmful to them, which he would have preferred before getting administration involved.
On the call, he was met by SIS administrators Rudick and Van Ostenbridge and one representative from the Office of Student Affairs (OSA), whom he recognized from his role in student government. Derek found their presence odd. OSA’s website describes the organization as “a primary source of information and advice about co–curricular opportunities and resources,” which Derek struggled to connect to his personal mental health journey.
In the meeting, Derek opened up about how difficult the past few months had been, and why he talked about his depression on social media. He says that he shares his feelings so openly because it’s cathartic and destigmatizes mental health among his peers. He thought SIS would understand.
But the second half of the conversation shifted to university–wide concerns; Derek felt that OSA and SIS “[didn’t] want a negative impact on the Penn community.” He reassured them that his posts were on a private story that hardly topped that rarely accumulates more than 200 views, and he would monitor his content closely if he was triggering his peers. Although the conversation was polite, he logged off wondering if the administrators were mitigating a “community–wide incident,” which would “look horrible on the school.”
In an unrecorded conversation with Sharon Smith, the Associate Vice Provost for University Life and former SIS director, she mentions how much pride she holds in the office she built. Smith still receives emails and thank–you letters from students and parents she met 10 years ago.
Indeed, not all student interactions with SIS are charged with tension.
Gerardo Ramirez (C’ 23) contacted SIS after experiencing housing difficulties at the start of the semester. He was searching for someone to cut through layers of bureaucracy at Penn. Gerardo wants details of his situation to remain private, but he does feel comfortable speaking to his overall experience with SIS.
For the past few months, he’s been meeting every other week with his case manager, Takahide Watanabe, who connects him with other departments like Weingarten or CAPS and “keeps him in check” with his goals, like attending tutoring sessions and submitting assignments on time. Gerardo is still not clear what SIS’s responsibilities are on campus, but he knows that they’ve helped him maintain his living arrangement, and for that he is grateful. He notes that overall his experience with SIS has been a positive one, though he emphasizes that for many he knows this isn’t the case.
Like Gerardo, Adrien Wilson (C’ 24) has worked with a SIS caseworker on a weekly or biweekly basis and has had an overall positive experience.
Early in the fall semester, Adrien began skipping classes. The transition to in–person learning was more difficult than she had expected, and a lapse in her insurance meant that she wasn’t receiving her medication. She reached out to a TA, explaining her situation and asking for leeway. The next morning, there was an email from SIS in her inbox.
From that point on, she worked with a SIS caseworker on a regular basis. The two immediately connected—Adrien’s case manager was “relatively young and very kind” and studied the same major as Adrien when she was in college.
Originally, SIS recommended a leave of absence for Adrien, but she wanted to stay on campus, so she worked with her case manager to make that feasible. The caseworker managed interactions with Student Health Services, determining how long Adrien could go without her insurance. When Adrien needed to drop a class, causing her to go from three to two credit units, her case manager negotiated with the university to ensure that she wouldn’t lose her financial aid, which is only given to full time students.
Adrien’s case manager stayed invested throughout the process. She wasn’t always in need of immediate assistance, but she appreciated that SIS was looking out for her. Reflecting on the experience, Adrien doesn’t think she’d be on campus without her case manager. “It was nice having her lay out all of the options,” she says. “They’re very accommodating.”
Sharon Smith welcomes criticism of her work, as long as it enables her to better serve the Penn community. University Life offices are constantly evolving to suit the needs of the student body. This year, CAPS hired four new clinicians to expand their services, but counselors still struggle to keep up with the demands of a high–pressure campus and a range of traumatic experiences, from Evan’s anxiety to Talia’s assault. The experience is taxing on all individuals involved.
To students who report negative experiences with SIS, “that’s their truth,” Smith says. She’s not going to tell me, or anyone, that those events didn’t happen, and that those feelings of frustration aren’t valid.
In the weeks following my conversations with students impacted by SIS, I see their experiences reflected across the student body. A classmate struggles to make it through the week until their CAPS appointment, the agency still backlogged. Another student spends hours navigating a maze of university resources after she is sexually harassed. A close friend tells me she can’t speak to anyone else about her thoughts. She’s afraid they’ll report her, and that’s not what she needs. While there’s no doubting the invaluable aid that SIS provides students, every member of the Penn community can reconsider their approach to taking care of their peers. How do we communicate effectively, support friends while maintaining their autonomy, and center victims?
“There are definitely people at Penn who can enhance wellness,” Evan says, thinking of his academic advisor. “But we need empathy and trust.”
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Derek Nhieu's private Snapchat story received "barely 100 views," and he initially spoke with Lindsay Van Ostenbridge about the potential of a reduced course load specifically, but after further communication with Derek, we have more accurate statistics about the reach of his Snapchat account and have since learned the conversation was about academic accommodations broadly. Additionally, a previous version of this article stated that the police told Evan* CAPS recommended he be hospitalized, but after further communication with Evan*, we have learned he misattributed the quote. The article has been updated to reflect those changes.
Correction: A previously version of this article stated that the Harnwell faculty director escorted Adrien Wilson to SIS, which we have since determined is incorrect. After asking Adrien to identify who escorted her, she acknowledged that she misidentified the faculty director. This piece has since been updated. Street regrets this error.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary, and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., texting available 24/7): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: PVP provides confidential support and resources to students affected by sexual violence, relationship violence, and stalking.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services: 215-898-6600 (active 24/7): Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.
Penn Women's Center: 215-898-8611 (Monday–Thursday 9:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Friday 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.): PWC provides confidential crisis and options counseling.