Penn Wellness is set to receive $8,000 from the Vice Provost for University Life for the upcoming school year after not previously being allocated an annual budget.
Part think tank and part umbrella organization, Penn Wellness works to improve the wellbeing of the student body by bringing together student communities and wellness groups while working alongside VPUL to advertise and promote mental health initiatives.
Founded last semester by 2016 College graduate Ben Bolnick, the umbrella organization is comprised of almost 30 student constituent groups that work together on joint initiatives all while forming a platform for collaboration. On the Penn Wellness website, students can find a consolidated list of resources and services available to them as well as daily wellness programming around campus.
In April on the day following Wharton junior Olivia Kong’s suicide, the Vice Provost for University Life Valerie Swain-Cade McCoullum reached out to Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Kat McKay and the Chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Gaurav Shukla to ask for input on how VPUL can better serve students’ mental health needs.
McKay had previously served as UA treasurer and had also chaired the Funding Steering Assembly, an organization consisting of all the student-run funding boards at Penn. With this background in student group funding, she suggested requesting annual funding for Penn Wellness.
“I had started working with Penn Wellness in the weeks after the [UA] election because improving our community’s access to wellness resources is an important part of the UA President’s role,” McKay said. “While I was considering what to suggest, I realized that Penn Wellness could serve as a funding board in addition to its other roles.”
After speaking with Bolnick, who chaired Penn Wellness at the time and who agreed with her idea, she decided to request an annual benchmark amount of $5,000, saying it “would put Penn Wellness on the higher end of student funding sources in terms of annual budget and seemed appropriate for their needs.”
On April 14, McKay met with Dr. Cade who agreed with her proposal immediately.
“I was really amazed at her response — she didn’t even hesitate,” McKay said. “I think this shows how deeply she cares about the student community at Penn and how much she values student input.”
Dr. Cade then raised the funding level to $8,000 annually, commenting that “[Penn Wellness’] work is critically important to the health and wellness of our Penn students. They do extraordinary work and I am confident that this grant program will enable them to expand even further their reach.”
Current Chair of Penn Wellness and rising College senior Peter Moon said “I think mental wellness groups tend to be typically underfunded.” Also serving as the co-president of Active Minds, a constituent mental health group of Penn Wellness, Moon explained that “Active Minds has a working budget of somewhere between $100 and $200 per year, which is really not enough for events.”
Moon said that for some mental health initiatives, executive members have to fundraise and use additional funds to make events possible and successful.
“[Rising College senior] Jared Fenton with Penn Reflect was using a lot of his supplemental income to make many events possible,” Moon said.
Moon is confident, however, that this new funding to Penn Wellness will “make a lot of bigger events possible and make long term programming possible because we can fund something that meets throughout the year.”
While still working out the specifics on how to allocate the annual fund, Moon said that he hopes to prioritize workshops and ongoing events and discussions where people can show up and interact as opposed to speaker series comprising of “one person talking for 40 minutes and then leaving”.
“High-profile speakers, while sometimes awesome to bring in, are not necessarily the best course of action and they’re a big expense...we want the audience to have as an active role in the event as possible and to engage them,” Moon said.
In terms of next steps for the group, Moon said that the goal is to have Penn Wellness branded on some major event as well as to have more events from the group to make sure that they’re creating as inclusive a community as possible.
“Realistically, I don’t think there will be a point where you can breeze through Penn with no stress at all but that’s where the student groups come in and provide the support necessary,” Moon said. “The most important thing is that all students know what resources are available and that there aren’t barriers to accessing these resources.”
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