When former College student Aran Rana of the Class of 2019 died in Hong Kong this year, his closest friends found out in the same way and at the same time that over 10,000 other undergraduates did: five paragraphs in an email notification from the University.
College junior Navya Dasari was in a study room in the Biomedical Library when a friend showed her the email on Rana’s death. College junior Colin Lodewick, who is the 34th Street Arts editor, was in an English class when the notification popped up. Together with Rana’s three housemates — College juniors Naomi Elegant, Meerie Jesuthasan and Jessica Zuo — Lodewick and Dasari learned of his death at exactly 2:22 p.m. that day.
All these students had been close friends with Rana since they were freshmen, but none of them received news of his death from Penn prior to that school-wide email. In the weeks and months following that announcement, no Penn administrators proactively reached out to them offering support.
Lodewick discovered several days after the announcement of Rana’s death that the obituary for Rana in the Penn Almanac, the University’s journal for faculty and staff, inaccurately attributed a quote to Rana’s mother instead his father. The Almanac wrote that “Mr. Rana’s mother said he would be remembered for his ‘friendliness, kindness and his vivaciousness.’” It was in fact Rana’s father, Aditya Rana, who made that statement.
“This, maybe, really epitomizes how little Penn really dug into the issue,” Lodewick said.
A "postvention" refers to an intervention conducted within a community after a death by suicide. On university campuses, administrators typically take charge of this process, and at Penn, various departments, from the Division of Public Safety to Student Intervention Services, are involved.
In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, the Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum said that since the early 1990s, Penn has worked to follow a standard series of steps following any student death. Following the miscommunication of former Wharton junior Olivia Kong’s death in 2016, Penn administrators also worked with students to make the postvention process more consistent across different incidents.
But despite these efforts, Cade conceded there are instances where Penn does not, or is unable to, follow this standard protocol. The experiences of Lodewick, Dasari and their friends bear this out.
VPUL policy states that once a student death is reported to the University, the Penn Police Department is supposed to work closely with SIS, the Office of the Chaplain and departments under VPUL to notify and support students connected to the deceased. But in some cases, these departments do not end up locating those in need of support.
“One of the challenges that we have is, how do we find out who are close community members to a student?” Cade said.
Rana’s closest friends received nearly no help from Penn, but friends of Kong and of College senior Nicholas Moya, who died in August this year, did. Cade emphasized that administrators have continually worked to improve the postvention process. But for some students, this doesn’t erase the experiences that have left them feeling forgotten by their school during a time of extreme distress.
“I needed support that Penn wasn’t able to offer,” Lodewick said, adding that from the time of Rana’s death until today, he has never felt that Penn was aware he had lost a friend.
“I felt very alone in my grief,” Dasari added. “And I feel part of that was the way Penn’s administration and community didn’t really react to what happened. I just felt alone.”
The inconsistencies in the postvention process across three incidents
In a document supplied to the DP, VPUL laid out 10 policy points for Penn’s postvention process. Once Penn receives news of a student death, the first course of action is to reach out to the student’s family, then to find and notify the student’s closest friends before sending out a general email to the student body.
There is “a very intentional effort to do personal outreach,” VPUL spokesperson Monica Yant Kinney said, though the experiences of some students suggest this isn’t always successful.
None of Rana’s closest friends knew about his death prior to the school-wide email. In contrast, when Moya died on Aug. 31, various high-level administrators were actively involved in the postvention process hours before the rest of the undergraduate population was notified.
The Friday after Moya’s death, Cade, Director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life Eddie Banks-Crosson, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Hikaru Kozuma, University Chaplain Rev. Chaz Howard and several representatives from Counseling and Psychological Services proactively went to the fraternity house of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, where Moya was a member, said Sammy President and Wharton junior Ethan Volk.
They brought pizza, talked to students and stayed from a little past midnight to 2 a.m. Cade also worked closely with members of the fraternity to craft the email that was later sent to all undergraduates at 9:37 a.m.
In the weeks after Rana’s death, most of his closest friends had no interaction with administrators. College junior and Daily Pennsylvanian Contributing Reporter Naomi Elegant, one of Rana’s housemates, received an email from SIS arranging to pick up Rana’s belongings, but was not contacted by staff from either SIS or any other administrative department offering support.
Among Rana’s friends, Dasari was the only exception. Even then, it was not a designated administrator but her academic advisor who reached out after seeing a post that Dasari had made on Facebook.
“I recognize that if I didn’t see that, I wouldn’t have known,” said Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Dasari’s advisor and the associate director for recruitment for the Creative Writing Program, who is also a 2005 College graduate. “I think it comes down to a little bit of chance and the choice that I’ve made as an advisor to connect to my students in a slightly more informal manner.”
Josselyn reached out to the College Office, which then informed Dasari’s professors about what had happened and made arrangements that allowed her to cope academically.
“I really needed that support,” Dasari said. “Without that, I would have taken time off or … I don’t know how I would have survived.” She added that when it came to support from Penn, she felt like she “got lucky” among her friends affected by Rana’s death.
By student accounts, the postvention conducted after the deaths of Moya and Kong were markedly different than what friends of Rana experienced.
When Kong died in April 2016, most of her close friends received multiple messages from different administrative departments, said 2016 Wharton and Engineering graduate Calvin Nguyen, who was a member of Phi Gamma Nu, the business fraternity that Kong was in. He said he personally remembered various emails from CAPS and VPUL over the five weeks following Kong’s death.
Similarly, in the days following Moya’s passing, a range of administrators worked to support those affected, Volk said. Banks-Crosson and Kozuma regularly checked in with members of Sammy via phone or email, while SIS Director Sharon Smith personally helped the fraternity organize the memorial for Moya on campus and arranged for four to five Penn transit buses to drive students to and from Moya’s funeral in Broomall, Pa. Administrators also ensured that all Sammy members were placed on a list that was circulated among administrators and faculty who would be made aware of the students personally connected to Moya.
Members of Sigma Delta Tau sorority, which has close ties to Sammy, were also placed on that list, SDT President and College senior Liz Heit said. Soon after Moya’s death, various members of the sorority received an email from the College Office offering to help them with any challenges they were facing academically.
College junior Meerie Jesuthasan, one of Rana’s housemates, a former 34th Street Magazine writer and a former Daily Pennsylvanian opinion columnist, said having to independently send emails to all her faculty, her therapist at CAPS and all her other peers almost made her feel like she was “networking.”
“It was super tiring, having to do that labor,” she said. Reacting to the list of affected students that administrators disseminated following Moya’s death, Jesuthasan said, “Wow — that’s … that is so much of what I wish I had.”
“I think it spoke volumes about the Greek community that we had a lot of support and visibility from administration,” Heit said. “I think it highlights some of the good things about being in Greek life, but of course, it also highlights negative things, and the separation between the Greek community and the larger campus community.”
Why some postventions are different from others
To friends of Rana, Penn’s treatment of his death felt markedly different from other postventions, which they said is likely because of the circumstances surrounding his death.
News of Rana’s passing came two days before spring break. He died while on a leave of absence, and had only spent a little over a year on Penn’s campus before leaving for home in Hong Kong.
In contrast, both Moya and Kong had been upperclassmen deeply embedded in recognized student groups. Moya died two days after the first day of classes in his off-campus residence, and Kong died in the middle of the spring semester at the 40th Street Station on SEPTA’s Market-Frankford line — blocks away from Penn buildings.
Many of these are arbitrary factors, but can significantly affect the way Penn is able to respond. A majority of the University’s postvention efforts are designed to provide in-person support, Cade said, explaining perhaps why so many administrators were streaming in and out of the Sammy house in the early hours following Moya’s death, while friends of Rana felt like they had been forgotten by the University over spring break.
Administrators also seem better-equipped to provide support for the friends of a student in a structured social network such as a fraternity or a recognized student group. Following Moya’s death, one of the first people Volk communicated with was OFSL Director Eddie Banks-Crosson. Similarly, Heit said she was primarily working with an OFSL representative to coordinate administrative support for her sorority.
Administrators want to provide students affected by the death of a friend with the same support that Heit and Volk experienced, but student accounts show that they haven't been able to achieve that. Despite the stated goals and policies of these administrative departments, Penn has left some students grieving alone.
“It seemed like Penn was taking advantage of the fact that [Rana] was on a leave of absence to make it seem like they didn’t have to do that much in terms of following up on his death,” Lodewick said. “It seemed like it was something Penn could just sweep away.”
Is Penn's timeline for postvention long enough?
Another aspect of the postvention process that students hope to change is its timeframe.
Following Kong’s death, administrators stopped checking in with affected students after about four to five weeks, Nguyen said, adding that the repercussions of having a close friend die by suicide aren't likely to end after that time period. Lodewick and Jesuthasan agreed, adding that it can take months or years to process the loss they experienced.
“I think about it everyday,” Nguyen said. “Some days are really bad; some days are better, but it’s something that lasts more than a few weeks. I don’t think it ever goes away.”
“It’d be very helpful, I think, for administration to follow up,” he said.
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