It’s hard to return from a leave of absence. It’s even harder to come back knowing that you feel worse than before.
Let me explain: I took a leave after fall semester last year because of unbearable circumstances and experiences that rattled my emotional core. I could write an entire book on the events leading to my leave, but this is sufficient for now.
Image from OFTW (http://www.1fortheworld.org/)
Most Penn students want to make a positive difference in the world, but many aren’t sure where to start. One For The World (OFTW) is a Penn-founded organization that makes giving back easy. Their goal is to encourage students to pledge 1% of their future incomes to effective charities that are in desperate need of help. These charities are carefully reviewed and selected each year by a group of Penn PhD students, along with Wharton MBAs and undergrads. The OFTW concept was originally intended for MBA students, but has since expanded to undergraduates thanks to two current seniors, Lauren D’Amore and Shayna Fertig. The MBA students have been extremely successful in encouraging fellow graduate students to take the pledge, rallying as many as half of MBA students to take the pledge. Last Fall, the MBA chapter raised $28,000 during pledge week. Now the undergraduate co-presidents Lindsey Li (W’19) and Lauren O’Mara (C’19) are trying to increase the numbers of undergraduates taking the 1% pledge. They have had success with many students, especially seniors, and are looking to reach more seniors as graduation approaches. Li and O’Mara interviewed two seniors who have taken the pledge, Lindsey Sawczuk and Kyle Kroeger. The co-presidents hope to inspire other Penn students to take the pledge after reading the firsthand perspectives of Sawczuk and Kroeger.
In 2006, my family moved into a brownstone in Harlem, New York. Though I was young, I remember other family members being skeptical about the decision. They questioned my parent’s choice to live in the ‘sketchy’ and supposedly dangerous neighborhood. For years, my parents and I were met with the question “Do you feel safe there?” whenever we disclosed where we lived, and we spent a great deal of time assuring people that whatever conception they had of Harlem was incorrect.
However, the nature of these conversations has rapidly changed over the past couple years. I haven’t been asked about my sense of security at home for some time, and people frequently comment about how ‘nice’ it’s getting in Harlem. Bodegas and empty storefronts have been converted into nook-in-the-wall coffee shops and barn-aesthetic restaurants. Businesses are more vibrant than ever, and now there’s always a group of children playing outside Alexander Hamilton’s house in St. Nicholas Park.
How do you feel late at night on Locust Walk?
Do you feel like you’re in danger? Do you think your college campus is perfectly safe?
The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”  Many different actions fall under the category of sexual assault.
Women in college are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in general—23.1 percent experience assault during their college years, as well as 5.4 percent of men . And scarily, according to a 2015 report, 20.8 percent of female undergraduate students (and 4.5 percent of male undergraduate students) at the University of Pennsylvania have experienced unwanted sexual touching . This year welcomed a new freshman class to Penn—the Class of 2020. With these frightening statistics, it would be understandable for women to feel apprehension about this potential campus danger. However, perceptions of this underlying threat seem to be very mixed within the freshman class.
Redlining [red-lahy-ning]: noun: a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc., refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods.
The practice of redlining in cities across the United States, including Philadelphia, started with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 and ended in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act.
A key that shows different rankings of regions, as written on security maps. [via The Atlantic]
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) created maps that ranked residential neighborhoods based on their desirability for further investment in a color-coded system. Often, higher ranks of “A” or “B” were likely to receive loans, while ranks of “C” or “D” were likely to be denied loans.
The FHA used various factors to differentiate rankings of zones, among which was the description of the kinds of people living in the area. Often, areas that were predominantly African American communities, or even immigrant communities, were ranked low on the scale. The common, but unstated, thought was that the arrival of African Americans and Immigrant in a community signaled the decline and ultimate demise of a neighborhood.
Dichotomy and juxtaposition are two words that University of Pennsylvania students love to use (and to hate, because Penn students also hate everything).
Dichotomy: noun di·chot·o·my \dī-ˈkä-tə-mē. : a difference between two opposite things : a division into two opposite groups
Juxtaposition: noun jux·ta·po·si·tion \ˌjək-stə-pə-ˈzi-shən\: the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side
But no two words more aptly describe 40th Street in Philadelphia. From Baltimore Avenue to Chestnut Street, 40th is an apparent but unnamed boundary, a marker of dichotomy. The street is the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It is where the meticulously kept pedestrian-only Locust Walk meets the littered and potholed streets of West Philadelphia, an area of the city with high poverty, evidenced by the average household income of $19,236. 40th Street is lined with police officers and security guards whose job is to make Penn students feel safe 24 hours a day. What are their own neighborhoods like? I do not know, and I’ve never gotten to know one well enough to ask.
Penn prides itself in selecting a diverse student body. That being said, I never expected to meet someone at Penn who had been a crack cocaine dealer and had come from one of the most rough areas of West Philly. And I never expected that person to be so accomplished and ambitious.
I was first introduced to Glen’s story when I serendipitously decided to attend a random documentary screening last year.
I left amazed by the different journeys students take to arrive at Penn and stunned by the reality so different from our own that’s ever present only a few streets further west into Philadelphia.
The film “Glen’s Village” was commissioned by 5th Borough Films and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a non-profit newspaper that reports on the city’s education system. It was directed and co-produced by Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist and filmmaker Dorian Geiger and Paul Jablow, a veteran Philadelphia education reporter. The film has been to more than 15 film festivals across the U.S and has won 5 awards. Glen’s village is also currently nominated for a Education Writers Award.
The only thing more impressive than the accolades the film has accrued is Glen’s story itself.
C’15 graduate Megan Russo once took a class on food security at Penn. One day, the professor showed a video of families in West Philly struggling to feed themselves. It was a gripping image that prompted the student next to her to raise her hand and say, “I wish I could meet someone who was going through all of this—not someone from the video, but someone I know in real life.” Russo sat in her seat, her heart beating faster in disbelief, thinking how it was possible that her classmate didn’t know a single person who had experienced poverty. “I’m sitting right next to her,” remembered Russo, “and I had lived that experience for so long. How does she not know that these things exist on our campus? This isn’t something we’re removed from; it’s happening right here.”
Russo is right. Income inequality doesn’t begin at 41st street. It’s a reality within the Penn community and it’s disconcerting how rarely this is acknowledged.
12 percent of Penn’s undergraduate population are first generation; in 2015 alone, 278 incoming freshman identified as the first in their family to attend college. This is a sizable percentage, but Penn’s culture is such that it rarely considers, let alone accommodates, the needs of these students. Just strolling down Locust Walk, it’s not difficult to see why they might feel alienated: students stream by in jackets from Canada Goose or Moncler which retail at $600 to $1500 apiece. Otherwise, they loiter outside Huntsman hall in preppy gear or scurry to class with a Starbucks Frappuccino in one hand and take-out from Honeygrow in the other.
For the past month and a half, I’ve stepped outside of the Penn bubble and gone downtown with a group from the Newman Center. Our intention was to talk to the homeless offering them some coffee, giveaways, and empathy. Through this experience, I listened to their stories, both sad and hopeful, and I also learned a few things. Some things surprised me and others just increased my concern. So, here are the Top 5 things I learned in the streets of Philly.
1. Some people just want to be heard.
On my first night, I met an old gentleman. It was a cold night, and I had never done anything like this before. When I introduced myself, the man shook my hand and smiled. One question, as simple as ‘where are you from?’ triggered an hour and a half of conversation. He talked about the way people looked at him and how one of my friends looked like Superman. He spoke frankly about the assumptions people made about his abilities, and complained about the football season. ‘The teams are not what they used to be’, he would say, and whenever we tried to answer him, he would just acknowledge and keep on talking. He just needed someone to hear him.
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.