Behind-the-Scenes of Penn Benjamins

Photo of Penn Benjamins Training

Each Thursday night, two Penn students make their way over to Van Pelt Weigle Information Commons rooms 128 and 129. Inside, they place water boilers, piles of cups, and assortments of snacks onto the table—their standard arrangement for the following hours. While it may appear as if they’re setting up for another lengthy evening in the library, the students are actually preparing for their upcoming shifts as Penn Benjamins Peer Counselors.

Every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 11 PM, Van Pelt WIC Rooms 128 and 129 are transformed from study to support spaces for the Penn student body. (On Sunday and Monday at the same time, this transformation takes place in the Harnwell Library). During the following hours, these two counselors, along with several other Penn students, will welcome undergraduates into the Weigle Commons GSRs for confidential counseling sessions. In the midst of environments associated with work and stress, these makeshift offices provide the space necessary for a good breather and emotional release.

Every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 11 PM, Van Pelt WIC Rooms 128 and 129 are transformed from study to support spaces for the Penn student body.

Founded by a group of four students, Penn Benjamins Peer Counseling was conceived as way for Penn students to connect with one another. By recognizing the importance of peer support in finding their own happiness, the founders hoped to create a space where this type of interaction was actively encouraged. With everyone dealing with the pressures attached to an academic environment, students share a natural understanding of each other as they confront day-to-day challenges. Penn Benjamins makes use of this unique peer-to-peer relationship by providing short-term counseling services to undergraduates at the University. Whether students are feeling anxious about classwork or overwhelmed by extracurriculars, Penn Benjamins are equipped with listening ears and counseling techniques to help peers through their dilemmas. Most importantly, sessions are private and counselors will discuss the resources available on campus and help direct students to those most closely related to their needs.

cover photo spring 2016

What’s it like to train for Penn Benjamins?

My relationship with Penn Bens is a highly personal one. Over the course of the spring semester, I’ve been training to become part of the new Penn Bens lineup in the fall. Every Tuesday night from 7:30 to 10:30, I can be found in an open circle on the 2nd floor of Houston Hall watching PowerPoint presentations and practicing counseling skills with 20-something other Penn students. In just a few weeks, the conversations have become surprisingly intimate: I’ve shared personal thoughts and heard details of others’ lives often only reserved for closest of circles. In being encouraged to share real-life experiences during role play exercises, many of us have opened up to each other much more quickly than one normally would with strangers. And the result has been nothing but striking—the eclectic group of individuals assembled has already developed remarkable cohesiveness. Each week I feel closer to the people around me, and it’s no doubt a result of the emphasis on genuine listening and caring brought by the group.

Hands don’t reach out automatically, but if you make an effort, twelve will latch on.

My interest in joining Penn Bens largely stemmed from my desire to become involved in mental wellness on campus—for both my own sake and the good of those around me. The recent suicides of Penn students stained my memory in the months leading up to NSO, and made me recognize the importance of caring for myself and looking out for others in a new environment. I didn’t (and still don’t really) know what to expect from the months ahead of me, but I realized prioritizing my own needs would be an important task that I faced while handling emerging independence.

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Image taken by Andreas Nolan

Even with mental wellness sitting atop my priority list, the first semester was riddled with pervasive and deceptive anxiety. I could never seem to fully identify what was bothering me, but I always knew I wasn’t feeling as well as I should. Part of this I can attribute to adjusting to a new environment—of course the transition wouldn’t be seamless—but retrospectively I can say a great deal of the stress was from feeling lost on campus. I’d never been a part of an environment so big before, and not being able to fully grasp everything going on around me nagged at my mental state more than I was aware.

It’s for this reason that I wish I had been aware of Penn Benjamins during the first semester, not just before I applied for counselor training in January. Had I talked to a counselor knowledgeable about Penn’s atmosphere and resources, campus would have felt much smaller than it did in August. With the school as big as it is, it’s impossible to be fully acquainted at the beginning of the year; at the same time, Penn often feels like the type of place where students have to be proactive about making things happen. Hands don’t reach out automatically, but if you make an effort, twelve will latch on.

Each week I feel closer to the people around me, and it’s no doubt a result of the emphasis on genuine listening and caring brought by the group.

It’s for this reason that Penn Bens’ place is so important on campus: it connects students with each other as well as with the opportunities to discover resources previously unknown to them. A single session can effectively narrow down the vast array of resources available to students which, although incredibly helpful, can feel overwhelming when first encountered. Whether an existential crisis has left you feeling lost or you simply need a break from hours of studying, Penn Bens creates a space where students can feel secure in having their mental strains taken care of by being given undivided attention. And sometimes, as in many opportunities for social impact, listening and being heard are the first steps towards results.

To learn more about Penn Benjamins, visit us at http://www.pennbenjamins.org or check us out on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pennbens. And for a list of mental and physical wellness resources on campus, look at http://www.pennbenjamins.org/resources.html. We’re here for you.

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