Beelining down Locust, groggily purchasing coffee at Wawa, rushing to pick up mail between classes—we superficially interact with so many people who we are barely aware of, yet who each hold unique and important roles in Penn’s community. Below, our writers share the stories of some people we share this campus with. Some names have been changed for the sake of confidentiality.
Claudia Cohen Hall College Office Receptionist
Bhavana Penmetsa and Sneha Sharma
Through the large double doors of Claudia Cohen Hall lies the College Office, with its grey cubicle nooks, constant buzzing of questions, distinctly bookish smell, and one Barbara Woodford. Sitting right at the front desk, Ms. Woodford represents everything the College Office hopes to be for its students: a calming and reassuring source of support and encouragement. She navigates the concerns of hundreds of students weekly with ease that only twenty years of experience working at that very desk provides, and always with a smile.
Though most people at Penn might recognize Ms. Woodford as the College’s receptionist, little do they know that she also owns two online businesses and will soon be a certified real estate investment business consultant. She is a wealth of information and advice, ready to impart her wisdom to the many Penn students who walk through her office. A Philadelphia local, Ms. Woodford is the embodiment of brotherly love and sisterly affection (both of which she describes as being her favorite qualities about Philly). She makes a community everywhere she goes, speaking fondly about her line-dancing team as well as the work-study students she looks over at the office.
Ms. Woodford never forgets a face. Though she talks to dozens of students daily, she treats each individual with genuine respect, giving care for every word that they share. It is no surprise then that when former students come back to the office for a visit, their faces light up when they see her at the front desk exuberant and spirited just as they remember. When asked what the best part of her job is, Ms. Woodford simply responds with a lilt to her voice, “The students. Nothing brings me greater joy than seeing a student come in as a shy freshman and four years later walk confidently across the stage. I love being part of their journey.”
The Mail Clerk in the Quad Mailroom
Makeda Barr-Brown, Judy Liu, and Markus Mak
The three of us got the opportunity to interview Pearl, the mail clerk in the quad. She described her daily responsibilities as getting packages from a variety of carriers, putting packages in the database, and distributing packages to students. She has been working at Penn for four years at various locations on campus.
While Pearl acknowledges that she has a long commute every day from Kensington, where she lives with her nine-year-old son, she enjoys spending time with him at home when she is not working in the mail room. She appreciates that this job exposes her son to all of the opportunities at Penn and that it could give him an advantage in admissions if he ever decides to apply to Penn for college.
When asked about her job, Pearl responded that she loves the work she does. She appreciates being able to work on her typing skills through this job, but it can often get boring when students are off campus. She enjoys working with her colleagues and interacting with students. She says that her colleagues are like a family and some of her favorite moments at work are times when gets to laugh with her coworkers.
Her greatest challenge at work is dealing with the attitudes of students. Some students are impatient and inconsiderate and they do not always understand that she is just doing her job. Sometimes, when she hands students their IDs, they snatch it instead of just taking it from her hand. Some students just put their ID on the table rather than handing it to her, even though she is sitting right in front of them. More patience from students would definitely be appreciated.
Overall, Pearl loves her job. She left us with advice to keep doing well and to have a positive attitude.
Skye is freshman in the college, who proudly identifies as “aggressively undeclared”. She is an only child from Virginia Beach, eighteen years of age, and supposedly born on June 3, 2000. This date is uncertain because she was adopted from an orphanage in the city of Yulin in the Shaanxi Providence of China. After her father received a raise at work, her parents took the leap and decided to adopt. Skye was only eleven months old when her parents found her through the “Adoptions from the Heart” nonprofit orgJahkeezation. They chose a child from China, as do many adopting parents, because it is a country seen to be more ethical and organized in its adoption procedures. Upon adoption, Skye could walk and speak a bit of Chinese, but of course remembers nothing about that first year of her life.
Today, Skye doesn’t know Chinese, but does identify as Chinese and wishes she knew the language. She expresses her occasional discomfort interacting with Chinese people and their culture, noting, “I don’t know anything about it, but I’m expected to.” She also explains that growing up her parents did not really acknowledge the differences between being Asian and being White, a distinction which she now realizes should have been discussed. Aside from this difficulty, Skye insists she hasn’t been confronted with too many obstacles because of her background as an adopted child (besides one arduous DMV experience).
She adds that other adopted kids and their families aren’t so lucky. Child trafficking is an unfortunately lucrative business. It can result in parents realizing their adopted child was stolen from their original family and having to make some very tough decisions. Nonetheless, Skye wants everyone to know that “adoption is a really good thing,” and for her “it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Despite the uncertainty about those eleven months of her infancy, it is very clear Skye’s childhood was a happy one, and her future is certainly bright.
Penn Graduate Student
Emma Davies and Hadriana Lowenkron
You never know who you’re going to meet on Locust Walk on a Monday afternoon. Penn is known for having students of all walks of life who are passionate about what they do, and willing to share that passion with those around them. Alisa Lachance, a first year graduate student, is no different.
When asked what she liked most about Penn, Lachance responded: “There’s no short supply of space.” By this, she means there is a hub for anything and everything, and it is really easy to find one’s niche. She has begun to feel at home in the LGBTQ house, the Women’s Center, and La Casa Hispanica, a space dedicated to Spanish conversation that she feels has really helped her practice the language.
After graduating from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a BA in international business, Lachance went into the workforce hoping to communicate across cultures, but ended up being “basically a customer service rep,” due to what she felt was lack of experience. AmeriCorp, a federal public service program designed to “improve lives and foster civic engagement” (Corporation for National & Community Service), gave Lachance her first glimpse into education, which she really enjoyed. This led her to apply to Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “The specific program and department, the Educational Linguistics division, was everything that I had been looking for,” she noted. She added that being in the working world before going back to school made the transition very easy; if she had gone right from undergrad to Penn, she “would have been way more intimidated!”
After graduating from Penn, Lachance hopes to help Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees become more acclimated to the United States. “I want to do a lot of needs-based focus and that is going to fluctuate based on the crisis, based on biases and how the perceptions of certain groups that are marginalized shift over time,” she explained. In line with her field of interest, she describes herself as someone who enjoys talking to new people, and feels that Penn and Philadelphia have given her the opportunity to interact with people she otherwise wouldn’t have gotten the chance to meet.
A House of Our Own Bookstore Owner
A House of Our Own sits between the houses on frat row. Usually, I walk right past it. Its nonchalant storefront, paint-chipped, bush-obscured doorway, and quietness compared to its neighbors makes it easy to miss. But on certain days, when the sky is mottled like the subway platform from which I write this, when leaves drop from trees in slight, helicopter-whirls, and especially when it rains, A House of Our Own opens its eyes. Then we too cannot help but look.
It was on a rainy day that Emma and I slipped through the mist that comes up around campus when everything is wet and boarded the porch.
Bella has owned the bookstore with her husband for forty-six years and today, her personality has absorbed the unmistakable vibe of the collection of thousands of books. Her husband went to Emma’s high school, which we discovered when she inquired about Emma’s hat. And as she helped us check out, she told us of the conservationist Lin Hui Yin who lived in A House of Our Own’s space while at Penn (1924). Elderly Chinese tourists often stop in, and now there is a poster with Yin and her housemates by the door. The house has a penchant for interesting history.
In college, Bella studied music. She worked on composition, played piano, and occasionally still does. As she flipped through the books, observing their tags, she would comment, “This is a nice one.” She never talks when people are putting in their pin. She reads often, as much as she can, and even some fiction here and there. And when I asked about the oldest piece in the collection, she mentioned how the purpose of the bookstore is: make it easier for people to read.
And finally, Bella appreciates the ability to simply browse until something catches your eye—more people should.
The early 2000s playlist, the monotonous beeping of the register, the sound of the ice machine. Working the graveyard shift at Wawa is bittersweet, but you sure see a lot. Jahkee’s weirdest experience to this day was someone passionately and exasperatedly telling him that he was too nice. On the spectrum of backhanded compliments, this sure was ranked pretty high.
Jahkee thinks Penn students are great: friendly, funny, but, unfortunately, very forgetful– “Sometimes it cracks me up, sometimes it’s annoying”. He’s no stranger to the occasional drunk person that leaves without picking up their food, and then runs back in later, red-faced and confused.
When he’s not watching with disdain the speed at which the 5-hour energy stock gets depleted, Jahkee likes to watch some throwback episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and spend time with his family. He notices the light dimming in someone’s eyes as the sugar binge they’re purchasing becomes harder to ignore with every item he scans. Jahkee’s binge, however, is primarily on yogurt (with the occasional sprinkle of berries).
The simple squirrel is as unassuming on Penn’s campus as possible. Scurrying across Locust or alongside a tree juxtaposed to Houston Hall, these creatures go about their own business and interest, with little regard to the whirlwind of lives unfolding around them. We see them in their element, ranging from burying a nut in the hardened dirt, to ferociously playing with a fellow squirrel, but they remain undeterred. Every day, they pass by thousands of students, each with their own stressors, joys, sorrow, and happiness. All the while, they maintain their composure and unwavering passion to following their instinct. Quite admirable, truly, that an animal has such a voracious attention to habit and behavior.
The squirrel is also adaptable to the shifting circumstances around them; they deal with construction, poor weather, and the fear of human interaction, all while maintaining their livelihood. Penn squirrels have become an integral part of the identity of the university, as they have developed tremendous character and personality that has appealed to students of every nature. At the same time, however, they have never compromised their integral tendencies or the manner in which they intuitively behave. They do not demand attention, but rather obtain attention from their ability to deal with adversity and channel their skills; they are unassuming because one does not necessarily refer to them in defining the aspects of Penn’s campus, but by the same token, the university would absolutely not be the same without them. They give depth to the conversations being had, the actions being taken, and the lives being lived in every extent on campus. We are grateful for their company each and every day.