Last year, I was privileged enough to attend convocation for the incoming class of Penn freshmen as an honorary guest. My role as DP editor-in-chief made me a campus leader, according to the invitation. I sat on the stage, staring at the audience’s faces as distinguished administrators promised that the next four years of their lives would be everything they could hope for. These amazing, bright young students were destined to accomplish great things.
Now, here I am again, reflecting on my time at this university and trying to remember if it was what I expected coming in as a wide-eyed freshman.
The answer is a resounding no.
I surprised myself, once a wait-listed student, by excelling in my academics. But I could never understand the complex social scene at Penn, and this became an undeniable source of stress. The Daily Pennsylvanian was the only place that seemed to calm that stress. It was also the place where I slowly discovered how many other students felt lost at Penn, some to a much worse extent than I did.
During my time working for the DP, 10 students took their own lives. I might have covered the crime beat, but around the office, it was sometimes referred to as the “death beat.” I called grieving parents and friends and asked, almost in a cruelly formulaic way, if they wanted to share something about their loved one for my article. I have heard so many of them cry, and I cried for many of them after our conversations ended. The loss of each of these students has been a tragedy, and at times I couldn’t help but feel it take me over.
As the end of college approaches, I’m not obsessing over what’s next, because I can’t stop thinking about the students who will never reach their own graduation days. I wonder about what could have helped them. I know mental illness is too complex of an issue to have an easy solution, but I also know the administration has let these students and their families down.
I know this because I am one of the few students who knows how Penn really operates.
It is laughable how many times I’ve gotten a desperate phone call or email from a director or communications person in one of Penn’s absurd number of departments trying to convince me that the DP should not publish something. I was told that a story about financial aid officers lying to students wasn’t relevant. I was told that writing about hazardous conditions for college house residents was just bringing an internal dispute unnecessary attention. I was told that writing about how the administration (mis)handles the issue of suicide was irresponsible because it could cause other students to take their own lives.
What I have learned is that this university’s top priority is protecting its image. Plenty of administrators and professors do care greatly about students, but it will never be the number one concern in Penn’s top offices. Undeniably, this is a huge factor playing into why so many students here feel disconnected and lost.
For example, in an attempt to recruit the best professors in higher education and appease the ones they already have, the administration puts no requirements on faculty to learn how to approach their interactions with students, leading too many professors to behave inappropriately, which ultimately ostracizes their students through insults. Optional mental health training for professors wasn’t even offered until this March.
I only had three mentors during my time at Penn and none were professors. My first DP editor when I was a beat reporter, Sarah Smith, taught me how to not back down from a source or story. My second editor, Harry Cooperman, taught me how to consider all perspectives and be fair to all sources. My third editor, Will Marble, taught me how to be skeptical of everything. I owe them for inspiring me more than any professor or university speech ever did, and I hope that during my time on the 131st board of the DP I was able to inspire others too.
In the end, Penn has left us “amazing, bright young minds” with too many unfulfilled promises. Fortunately, I know the DP will continue to speak up for students and push for change with the same fervor that the publication instilled in me.
Jill Castellano was the DP editor-in-chief on the 131st board. Previously, she was a senior reporter and a crime reporter. She will be working as a data journalist at the Salt Lake Tribune after graduation.
JILL CASTELLANO is a College senior from Ardsley, NY, majoring in psychology and criminology. She served as the DP editor-in-chief on the 131st board. Previously, she was a senior reporter and a crime reporter. She will be working as a data journalist at the Salt Lake Tribune after graduation.
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