Mental health initiatives were a major point of discussion in last night’s elections for the chair and vice chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, during which two women were elected to positions currently held by men.
Justine Sefcik — a fourth-year nursing doctoral student and GAPSA’s current vice chair for research students — was elected as chair, with responsibilities that include serving as GAPSA’s primary advocate to the University administration. The chair sits on various University committees, including the Board of Trustees.
In candidate speeches made to the GAPSA General Assembly, as well as in the question-and-answer periods following these speeches, mental health was a topic of concern. Sefcik expressed that she plans to address mental health in her role as chair.
“As a nurse, I feel that mental health is very important, and I think this year students haven’t had as big of a voice as administration in deciding which direction we’re moving in for mental health,” Sefcik said in response to a question from the General Assembly. “There’s a lot of groups that popped up and want to work on this initiative, but as chair I’d like to bring all of these groups together and work with administration to make sure our voices our heard.”
Rebekkah Merrell, a second-year dental student, was elected as vice chair, a position where she will manage GAPSA executive board meetings. She expressed an intention to address the mental health issues apparent on campus by organizing activities such as yoga and meditation classes, in which students can take breaks from the pressures of an Ivy League institution.
Merrell said that uniting students from different graduate schools to participate in activities “where students can relax ... is a great initiative that we can start at Penn ... to prove that as an Ivy league School, we are standing up against the [idea] that it’s just going to be so much stress and pressure that no one can handle it.”
As vice chair, one of Merrell’s major responsibilities will be organizing GradFest, a weeklong celebration held each September to welcome new and returning graduate students to campus. She plans to promote attendance by distributing information to graduate students months in advance. Merrell also intends to incorporate new events led by other members of the executive board to educate students about the various services and activities led by GAPSA.
Sefcik also expressed additional plans for her future role. After her speech, a member of the General Assembly asked Sefcik what she felt would be the biggest challenge facing GAPSA in the coming semesters. She mentioned that funding for the President Gutmann Leadership Award — which provides travel grants to graduate students — will be ending this year.
“That was a large pot of money to contribute to students, so I’d like to work with President Gutmann to see if we can continue that fund,” Sefcik said.