pennface
Photo: Emily Xu

A group of upperclassmen addressed mental health at Penn on Nov. 12 in a frank, student-led discussion about “Penn Face,” its effects, and possible ways to improve mental wellness on campus. 

Organized by the College Dean’s Advisory Board in conjunction with Penn Wellness, the event, “Deconstructing the Penn Face,” featured six undergraduate panelists who shared their individual experiences with social pressures at Penn and how they found ways to cope. 

College junior Candy Alfaro, a leader of Kite and Key and Penn First, as well as a social media staffer at The Daily Pennsylvanian, defined Penn Face as “an illusion.” Alfaro referenced an encounter she had with a former classmate after taking a challenging freshman seminar with him the year before. While it had seemed like everyone else in the class was handling the coursework without difficulty and that she was alone in feeling overwhelmed, her friend confided in her during sophomore year that he “had no clue what [he] was doing.” 

Other panelists agreed that Penn students often avoid sharing their negative experiences with others. 

Wharton junior Allysha Davis, a member of the track and field team, remembered crying on her birthday during freshman year because she felt alone, but said she collected herself when she ran into her friend shortly after. She recalled telling herself, “I don’t want to be vulnerable, I don’t want to be seen as weak.”

While the panelists all acknowledged that maintaining good mental health at Penn came with inevitable challenges, they emphasized it was attainable if students decided to make it a priority for themselves and those around them. 

Various panelists encouraged students to reach out to a trusted faculty member or upperclassman and make sure to be emotionally available for their peers. College senior and Lambda Alliance Chair Sean Collins said students often see Counseling and Psychological Services as ineffective, but talking to someone in the Penn faculty first can be beneficial. By doing that, he said, “I didn’t need to go to someone that I didn’t know.”

When it comes to helping peers who may be experiencing stress, Penn Wellness Treasurer and College senior Kelly Gao said it is important to know the difference between providing a listening ear and encouraging a friend to find professional help. Realizing which option is required is critical, Gao said. 

Alfaro advised against small talk, or asking someone how they are doing on Locust Walk and not stopping to hear their answer. 

“When I ask someone how their day is going, I try to get an honest answer out of them,” she said. “Stop and listen.”

Several panelists also encouraged students to cultivate a sense of structure in their daily schedules and make time for self-care. President of Sigma Delta Tau sorority and College senior Liz Heit said being productive can make a big difference in her attitude. 

“I didn’t feel good when I wasn’t accomplishing anything,” she said. 

President of the Interfraternity Council and College senior Bradley Freeman agreed, adding that he has “never gone to the gym and felt worse after.” Davis also suggested exercise and “tak[ing] time for self reflection,” while spending time outside and logging off of social media were also popular suggestions. 

Amid ongoing pressure on the Penn administration to do more for its student wellness on campus, the panelists advocated for students to take care of themselves and each other regardless of administrative actions. 

“You only have so much time here,” Freeman said, “You don’t want to waste it.”

All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.