Penn’s campus reacted with shock and sadness to news of Wharton junior Ao “Olivia” Kong’s death on Monday. Students mourned their classmate at a candlelight vigil on Monday night and took to social media to express their memories of Kong as well as their discontent with Penn’s culture.
Students on campus have reacted not just to the news of Kong’s death, which was officially ruled a suicide, but also to the University’s handling of the announcement. Current students were not the only group affected — hundreds of prospective students visiting Penn for Quaker Days were also witness to the news.
Kong’s death has brought renewed attention to the longstanding issue of mental health at Penn, which has seen 10 student suicides since February 2013.
The University’s response
The first time most students heard of Kong’s death was in an email from the President’s Office, sent at 2:22 p.m. on Monday. The email reported the incident and listed a number of resources for students, but did not provide Kong’s name.
Wharton sent an email to its own undergraduate body 20 minutes later, sharing Kong’s name as well as additional details about her life. The email, which was sent before her suicide was confirmed, described her death as an “accident.”
Wharton’s only information at the time the email was sent was “from what was reported in the media or sent in emails to the Penn community,” Wharton spokesperson Peter Winicov said in an emailed statement.
Vice President for University Communications Steve MacCarthy has addressed the decision to release the student’s name immediately to Wharton students, but not to all students, citing the Kong’s family’s wishes to maintain privacy.
“Given all the media attention that had been focused on the death, we felt it was important to acknowledge that a student was involved,” MacCarthy said in an emailed statement. “At the time it was being drafted we were respecting the wishes of the family regarding the release of her name.”
Emails from the President’s Office are typically intended for a broad audience and take time to prepare and disseminate, MacCarthy said. He added that at the time this announcement was being drafted, Kong’s name “was not being publicly revealed.”
“The school email goes to a much smaller group of people who were likely to have known the deceased. It occurs as efforts are being made to personally contact roommates, friends, those who knew her in clubs, etc.,” MacCarthy wrote. “At that point the name is well-known within that campus community, so those messages always include the name.”
Many students expressed their frustration with the manner in which Penn notified students of Kong’s death, criticizing the email sent from Wharton that described Kong’s death as an accident.
"Mental health is the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about,” College and Wharton freshman Freddy Chang said. “The University has euphemized the situation by claiming it was an 'accident' and only sending an email to Wharton students rather than bringing the conversation to the forefront.”
College sophomore Carly O’Donnell took to Facebook to express her frustration with Wharton’s email.
“Why, in a separate email sent to Wharton, was this tragic suicide described as an ‘accident?’ Why have 24 hours passed without any amendment to this statement?” she wrote in a status.
O’Donnell also took issue with the decision to not release the student’s name in the initial email sent from the President’s Office.
“I am profoundly disappointed in the actions of the administration here at Penn. Why, when I read the announcement of her passing, did I immediately panic and have to search the internet to see if I personally knew this nameless junior?” she wrote.
O’Donnell urged the University to do something about what she described as a “deadly phenomenon.” Her criticisms extended beyond the administration as well, including University resources like CAPS and the campus culture of concealing imperfections from peers.
“I am tired of internalizing my anger and sadness and pretending that everything is fine. Everything is NOT fine and it is time that both the students and administration of Penn DO something about it. We CANNOT afford to wait until another student takes his or her life,” she wrote.
Students began circulating a petition, pressing Penn President Amy Gutmann and the administration to more seriously address the issue of mental health. The petition was created by College and Wharton junior Sophie Phillips, the president of Phi Gamma Nu — the same business fraternity that Kong was in.
The petition, which was created early Tuesday afternoon, had over 2,000 signatures as of late Tuesday night.
The petition included a list of proposed mental health reforms: shorter wait times at Counseling and Psychological Services, mandatory mental health first aid training for resident advisors and educators, an easier withdrawal process for Wharton classes, more transparency in leave of absence policies, a reduction of financial barriers associated with leaves of absences and a crisis response team to support students in the wake of traumatic events.
Several students left comments below the petition, sharing their frustration with Penn’s handling of suicides and mental health and expressing their support for change.
Prospective students react
While current students were shaken by Kong’s death, the tragedy also had an impact on students considering Penn.
Prospective students and parents were informed of Kong’s death at separate sessions on Monday afternoon. “We felt it was important to address it, since people would be hearing about it,” Vice Dean and Director of Admissions Yvonne Romero Da Silva said.
At the time of the sessions, an official cause of death had not been determined.
Da Silva said the news of Kong’s death showed prospective students and parents what resources Penn has in place. “And so it’s really the questions then can center around what does the University or the community do in the face of such sad news,” she said.
For many visiting high school students, Quaker Days was their first experience on Penn’s campus. Some said they were shaken when they learned of Kong’s death.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda first informed the students of Kong’s death at the “First Hurrah,” on Monday afternoon.
“Everyone on campus acknowledged the tragedy that occurred and did everything they could do to express their condolences,” said Ashten Nguyen, a prospective student from Monterey, Calif. Nguyen also mentioned that during a class she attended with her host, the professor expressed sympathy for those who knew Kong.
Some prospective students who did not attend the “First Hurrah,” first heard the news from current students.
Tuzo Mwarumba, a prospective student from Stillwater, Okla. said he first heard the news from his host, and wasn’t aware that it had been announced by organizers of Quaker Days.
Some prospective students said the news of Kong’s death colored their perception of Penn.
“It kind of added my onto my worries of getting lost in such a big school,” said Maxin Yunis, a prospective student from Philadelphia. “I know Penn is a competitive environment, and especially Penn is much bigger than a lot of other schools.”
“I was afraid of getting lost here to begin with, but seeing this happen to such a great student — who was very involved and successful — how did she not have a support system here?”
But Mwarumba, who attended the vigil on College Green Monday night, said the news would ultimately not affect his decision to attend Penn.
“I saw a side of Penn I never would have been able to see no matter how many Quaker Days I attended,” he said.
Deputy News Editors Sydney Schaedel and Vibha Kannan and Staff Reporter Sophia LePorte contributed reporting.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 11 Penn students have died by suicide since February 2013. That number included a recent Law School graduate whose death was ruled an accident, not a suicide.
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