Anything you can do, Sam Pancoe (C ‘22) can do better.
A Philly–born–and–raised student in the Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences (MLS) Scholars program, Sam describes their major as “I do biochemistry and I submatriculated into chemistry,” which is a nonchalant way of saying that they’ll be graduating with both their master’s in chemistry and their bachelor’s in biochemistry.
They don’t like to count the number of student groups they’ve led at one point or another because “if you look too hard it gets scary,” but the list includes Spice Collective, Penn Association for Gender Equity (PAGE), and the student branch of Philadelphia Alliance for Labor Support (PALS).
Our original plan is to meet at Mina’s World, a queer and trans POC–owned coffee shop in West Philadelphia known for housemade samosas and fair worker compensation. As I walk up Spruce that morning, the street numbers get higher and the traces of Penn’s geographic reach—first the off–campus frats, then the Campus Apartments signs—start to disappear.
For Sam, who waxes poetic about Lorenzo’s’ $5 face–sized slices of pizza, Rita’s water ice, bullying people about Wawa “even though the campus Wawa is objectively the worst,” and a recording of when Philly won the Super Bowl that their family watches every Christmas, it feels like home.
“The whole joke in my life has been that I’m just gonna stay in Philly ‘til I die. And I stopped saying that because people are freaked out. But it’s true. I will just be here forever,” they say.
The next step in that journey: medical school at Thomas Jefferson University, with an eye on a potential career in obstetrics and gynecology. It’s another decision that’s linked to their given and chosen home, which has one of the highest race–based maternal mortality rates in the country. In their work with PALS, which trains Penn students and community members as doulas, Sam has seen Philadelphia’s birth inequities firsthand.
For someone who’s had their hand in the past four years’ most notable gender equity– and inclusivity–related projects, Sam understands the gravity of their work, but can also stay casual when talking about it. This is the same person who lists off four different “greatest shames” as a running bit during our interview. These range from their unabashed love for the second floor of Pottruck to “the hold Smokes’ Sink or Swim has on me.”
When Sam talks about their decision to study under the notoriously rigorous Vagelos program, it sounds like they did it on a whim. But what they ended up finding was “a group of friends to do school with, and not in a casual way.” Sam knows it sounds weird coming from a STEM major, but they’re emphatic about what an asset this community has been: “It’s exciting to talk and have intellectual conversations with people.” Apparently some of these conversations take place in the Hamilton Court hot tub, where the group chats about recent scientific papers.
It feels absurd to imagine a bunch of college students lounging in a hot tub, debating the relative merits of journal articles published in, like, Nature. But it also perfectly exemplifies how Sam is a magnet for people who are just as dedicated and enthusiastic as they are.
Take Serena Martinez (C ‘22), who was a PAGE first year coordinator in 2021, when the organization hosted the inaugural session of its first–year pre–orientation program Penn GenEq. The curriculum made an affinity space for students of marginalized genders interested in gender equity, but also strove to have a measurable impact during New Student Orientation and beyond: educating first years about campus sexual violence and bystander intervention. As Sam puts it, “[We were] thinking about what skills we want to give to the first years, how it could feel open without it feeling trauma–y.”
Even though Sam was the chair of PAGE during Penn GenEq, they’re adamant that “it’s Serena’s baby.” But it couldn’t have happened without Sam, either. Chalk that up to another source of mock chagrin—“My deepest shame is that I know a lot about funding at Penn—like too much about funding at Penn.”
Having the know–how and authority to redistribute even a small fraction of Penn’s massive endowment—thanks in part to their seat on the University’s Social Life Inclusion Fund—is a tool without a price tag in Sam’s arsenal. “Something that I really value about PAGE is that people have ideas, and I got to be the person who pulled the ideas together and made them happen,” they say.
As for how the test run went, Sam has reasons to be proud—both serious and silly. The serious: “It’s not gonna change all of campus. But I think it’s really important to celebrate when things work out,” which can feel like a rarity, especially for student activists. The silly: “We watched Charlie’s Angels with Kristen Stewart who looked hot and they were like, ‘Fuck,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah you’re in college now.’”
Another of Sam’s friends–slash–co–conspirators is Claire Medina (C ‘22), and together they dreamed up and executed (along with other members of PAGE and Penn Non–Cis, including Penn 10 alumnus Amanpreet Singh) Penn’s trans–inclusive language guide “in the depths of COVID hell,” meaning winter of 2020 into 2021. The guide was a collaborative effort that centered trans experience with a specific target audience of Penn students.
How did the idea come about? Sam undersells themself again: “In the way that everyone I know just is pedantic and an English major, we were like, ‘Let’s do a little trans project.’”
But the question remains: “What is changing your language without changing the material ramifications of being trans at Penn?” If you’re Sam Pancoe, there isn’t an easy answer, but the operative word to keep going in spite of that is “hope.” This same hope colors their experience as a Penn Anti–Violence Educator where, according to Sam, “there’s been varying degrees of hope and disillusionment in all of us cycling through that all the time.”
All of this is an incomplete list of their accomplishments and extracurriculars—barely touching on Sam’s work with Service Link, where they help people register for health care, or their time leading Spice Collective—and you may be wondering why, exactly, they do it all.
First off, Sam wants you to know that they joined the crew team when they first came to Penn, and everything else has been a cakewalk compared to that. But beyond witty anecdotes, they’re adamant that this is just what you do “when you desperately need space and the only way to do it is to do all of it.”
Sam frames it like this: Penn is set up to tell students, “‘Here are certain identities and they all have their own group,’ but what happens if you fit into multiple of them?” Sam’s answer was to just do all of them, which they’ll readily admit isn’t the best path forward, but it’s the one they chose.
And if that space isn’t there for yourself and your community, you just have to make it yourself.
When Sam and I meet up, the inclement weather has shut down Mina’s World’s outside tables, and we’re forced to relocate to the wooden swing on the porch of their Pine Street home—a marked improvement from their previous apartment, they assure me. As it turns out, the porch has been pretty well–trodden lately; there’s been a constant parade of friends through the house, not to mention that Sam and their roommates have also been “throwing a lot of parties quite frankly.”
Just the night before, Sam and their roommates “threw a gay Asian party for the gay Asians,” where everyone was welcome, whether they were a close friend or a first year. That last part was particularly important to Sam, who adds, “Having spaces to build communities that are social and that fit within the framework of what Penn knows to be social has really shaped my final year here.”
It’s all a part of their senior year ethos, which Sam describes as “living as the other half lives.” This, I discover, translates to “no sleep, a lot of drinking, a lot of seeing people all the time.” But as with everything Sam does, it’s not just some silly diversion. It’s their “project for the year.”
So what makes Sam most proud about their time at Penn?
“Maybe it’s the language guide, but maybe it’s finding different ways to make communities feel like themselves,” they say, after pausing to think. “There’s something nice about being in a position where I have the tools and the space to take a night off and let people have fun.”
So yes, Sam Pancoe can do just about anything better than you, but there’s not a single thing they’ve done by themselves. Even one piece of Sam’s final advice is courtesy of their friend Madison: “The first [piece] is: Drink less. The second is: Don’t cheat on people. And the third is: Go to therapy. And that’s what I learned senior year.”