Friday evening, over 150 students crowded into Harrison College House’s bustling Heyer Sky Lounge for sushi, green tea, pizza and an opportunity to openly discuss pressing issues in their lives and across campus.
Founded by College senior Jared Fenton in the fall of 2015, Penn Reflect is entering its second year as a growing student-led organization, which operates under the motto, “Be Open. Be Real.” The club meets once a month in Harrison's rooftop lounge, but it does not have an official membership. Instead, events are advertised across Facebook, the group's website and an email listserv.
“It’s a way to escape the craziness of everyday life at Penn," Fenton said. "It’s a way to, more importantly, just be confident in who you are and have a place you can go to, to speak openly about life at Penn.”
Discussion topics are student-driven and solicited via listserv prior to the event. Often they reflect on trends in the academic year, recent events on campus or movements underway in the lives of college students. Friday’s large forum, for instance, divided into more intimate groups on relationships, stress, jobs and Greek life facilitated by students trained by professional counselors.
“Identifying Penn Face is one thing, but actually talking about it and coming up with solutions to fight it is a completely other thing," Wharton junior and conversation facilitatorEddie Zilberbrand said. "The amazing thing about Penn Reflect is people are taking the time out of their day to take off the mask, so to say, and really just speak their mind."
The observation that Penn Reflect is intended to be a transformative experience at an individual and broader level is shared by its founder, facilitators and students who attended.
While participants are asked to keep the details of conversations confidential, the group's founders and facilitators expressed that they would like to see these conversations reverberate throughout campus.
“One of the most remarkable things about Penn Reflect for me is the culture of empathy and compassion that it promotes,” College junior Abby Zislis said, adding that the club has influenced her interactions in other parts of her life.
The program has grown to its current size from meetings with only a few dozen students, Penn Reflect member and College senior Steven Acchione said.
“At one point [Jared] consciously said he cannot change a culture. He said ‘I can give you pizza, and sushi, and green tea or whatever, but I can’t change a culture," Graduate School of Education student Irteza Binte-Farid said. "But I wonder if one person can by creating these spaces. If so, how do you keep that sustained over time?”
Fenton expressed hope that the club will continue to grow and improve after he graduates.
“It’s very important to me that the club stays here and continues to get better," he said. "I hope that it’s a million times better the year after I leave than it is right now, and that it keeps getting that way.”
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