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GROUP THINK is The Daily Pennsylvanian’s roundtable section, in which we throw a question at the columnists and see which answers stick. Read your favorite columnist, or read them all. If you would like to apply to be a columnist for the Spring semester, please fill out the columnist application here.

This week's prompt: The fall semester is just about to end and a lot has happened that has left lasting impressions and changes on this campus. With this in mind, what do you believe is the most pressing issue facing Penn (specifically Penn students) and how should we address it?

Isabella Simonetti | Simonetti Says So

We’re all eager to be critical of Penn for its shortcomings: the task force, hypercompetitive club culture, lack of mental health resources — the list is extensive. And we aren’t wrong to criticize the University for these serious issues. But we often forget our place in Penn’s unhealthy culture and dismiss behavior that perpetuates it. It is easy to complain. What’s difficult is to instigate change. Maybe if we boycotted fraternity parties, they wouldn’t hold so much power; maybe if we willingly shared our class notes, things wouldn’t be cutthroat; maybe if we took the time to be polite to others, we wouldn’t need reminders around campus to be kind. Some of us do these things. But a lot of us do not. That’s Penn’s biggest problem. 

Jessica Li | Road Jess Travelled

To me, the most pressing issue facing Penn is creating a safer, stronger community — one in which we can forthrightly address mental health, take care of each other, and instill a sense of well-being and security. Oftentimes, I think a lot of our problems and complaints are a result of our sometimes very isolating and lonely campus. At a school where we often feel everyone is only looking after themselves, it's hard to open up and feel like your problems are valid. At its very core, we need to realize that we are more than a group of random, individual students: We are members of a community, and in this community, we need to cultivate a stronger culture of mutual care. Whether that's through more honest discussion, more funding towards campus gatherings or mental health resources, or just our own individual acts of kindness, there are so many ways to create a more cohesive, accepting community at Penn. When we attempt to fix this problem at its very core, we also start at the root of many other problems that Penn students face. 

Alex Silberzweig | Brutally Honest

The most pressing issue that Penn students face continues to be that of mental health. Simply put, it’s because of Penn’s inherently competitive culture. As college students who work and play in such an exciting but competitive environment, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves and each other. As we continue to grow as individuals and take on the spring semester, we sometimes need to take a step back. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that we will take a break, we know that is oftentimes untrue. It’s worth making sure that we don’t burn out so that we can keep moving forward with our schoolwork and extracurricular activities with full force. 

As Penn students, we are almost programmed to want to do more and be more. We want to out-compete the competition, to graduate with the highest honors, and to make the most out of our undergraduate experience. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, we should definitely not sacrifice our well-being for some academic or extracurricular commitment that we cannot handle. 

It is our responsibility, as individuals and as a community, as well as the administration’s, to make sure that we are both doing the most with the time we have without overextending ourselves and forgoing much-needed breaks. As Penn President Amy Gutmann recently discussed more funding for Counseling and Psychological Services during the Campus Conversation, the administration needs to follow through with an enhancement of the service, which many students say is not adequately supported. Just as we need to hold the administration accountable, we also need to hold ourselves and our peers accountable. We need to understand when we are doing too much with too little and when we need to be there for our friends. Taking time for ourselves and for those we care about, even if it is just for a few minutes each day, will help to alleviate the seemingly insurmountable stress that would otherwise consume us. 

We need to be present in the lives of others when they need us, just as we need to make sure to take time for ourselves. Life at a college as rife with opportunities as Penn sometimes makes us forget that.

Carlos Arias Vivas | Convos With Carlos

Yes, Penn does attract some of the brightest students across the entire nation — even the whole world. However, the hypercompetitive environment on campus is damaging to the student body. The conversation surrounding mental health is an important one. Fourteen students have died by suicide since February 2013. This year, in particular, has been very hard on the Penn community due to all of the natural disasters, executive orders, and student deaths. Having only been here for a couple of months now, I can see how an environment like Penn’s can be taxing on students. What more has to occur for administrators to say enough is enough? Although Penn has tried to be receptive and tried to roll out campus initiatives like the Campaign for Wellness, it is not sufficient. Ironically, even with the new incentives to create change from the Penn administration, we are still one of the Ivy League schools that has the shortest breaks. These breaks are super important for students to de-stress and have a restful period before going back to Penn. Penn does not have long winter breaks like other Ivy League schools due to following Pennsylvania state law. Maybe, Penn President Amy Gutmann can take action and revise Penn’s academic calendar that rivals other private colleges in Pennsylvania that follow the law but still manage to coordinate longer fall, winter, and spring breaks into their schedules. Examples of different Pennsylvania private schools that have longer breaks are Franklin & Marshall College, Haverford College, Bryn Mawr, etc. It is a big change to modify the current academic year schedule by revising the spring semester to add a longer break, but maybe that’s what we need. In a time like this, where mental health awareness is at an all-time high, we would hope to rely on the school administration to really step up and evaluate the well-being of its students.

Jacquelyn Sussman | The Objectivist

The transition from high school to college is liberating. For once, you are off on your own, not having a parent nor guidance counselor heavily influencing your course of study. You can really do anything. Additionally, the transition is also quite shocking; students are thrown into this intense environment where everyone is working incredibly hard to find and pursue their passions. It is at once exciting, fascinating, intimidating, and a little scary. 

What follows from this transition, however, is a tendency to pay too much attention to what everyone else is doing in an attempt to figure out what you should be doing. That is the most pervasive issue facing Penn students today.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: Penn is an extremely competitive place. Part of the reason I applied to Penn was because of this competitiveness, which to me signals a drive and ambition within students that I strive to possess and utilize. I'm also not going to complain about it; life is competitive and intense, probably more so than college. However, in this type of environment, it is so easy to get "sucked in" to what everyone else has done. It is easy to compare yourself academically and extracurricularly to your peers. It is easy to measure your self-worth in comparison to how successful you deem your peers. It is incredibly easy to see what everyone else is doing and participate in activities that you aren't really interested in. Overall, it is easy to get sucked in to a myriad of competitive microcosms without ever asking yourself: am I interested in what I'm doing right now? Will what I'm doing make me happy in the long run? Am I doing this for me, or for someone else? 

Penn students, and all students in general, really need to ask themselves these questions. I really admire the ones who already are. Perhaps this isn't something that a university administration needs to address, but for students themselves to think about individually. After all, at the end of the day, college is about discovering your passions, and you can't discover them if you never tried to figure out what they are.

Shilpa Saravanan | Phone Home

In Dungeons & Dragons, you can perform Insight checks on non-player characters you encounter — to put it in the words of the D&D Wiki, these checks allow you to “comprehend motives, read between the lines, get a sense of moods and attitudes, and determine how truthful someone is being.”

If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that at Penn, we don’t perform enough Insight checks in real-life situations — on others, but also on ourselves. It’s tough to be honest about why you want the job you want, why you support the causes you support, why you like the art that you like, and why you admire the people you admire. Is it for your resume? Is it to impress someone else? Why do you think that person is worth impressing? No one motive is more valid than any other, but it’s important (for your own good) to be clear-headed.

And it’s even tougher, especially at this time of year, to be honest about when you need help, when you need an extension, and when you just need a break. It’s not a new sentiment in this section of the paper. All the same: Check yourself, but don’t forget to check in with yourself, too.

Cameron Dichter | Real Talk

The best part about being an opinion columnist at Penn (and the worst part about being a student here), is that there’s no shortage of problems to write about. But even as someone who spends every other week crafting a critique of Penn’s many flaws, I still think it’s important to recognize how privileged I am to attend this institution and to consider the people who have not been afforded the same opportunity. And I don’t mean that in a warm and fuzzy, "oh don’t you love Penn deep down" sort of way (because honestly, I don’t). What I mean is that a college degree, or more specifically an Ivy League college degree, opens up a world of opportunities that the majority of people simply do not possess. Attending college is one of the few clear paths for economic mobility in this country. We should think critically about who Penn is providing that path for.

Penn is a world renowned institution that produces billionaires and world leaders but the primary beneficiaries of this education are rich students who already come from privileged backgrounds. About 18.7 percent of Penn students are in the top 1 percent of the income scale. That’s more than the percentage of students (16.5 percent) who come from the bottom 60 percent. Legacy students make up one-sixth of total undergraduate population, which is more than twice the amount of black students. 

Penn needs to make a concerted effort to increase the economic diversity of its undergraduate class. The first steps should be to end or severely limit the use of early admissions and put an end to the practice of giving legacy students an advantage. 

I have a lot of issues with Penn, but near the top of the list is the way this University reproduces income inequality.

James Lee | The Conversation

It’s mental health. No other issue is nearly as pressing in terms of its breadth or seriousness of consequence. Students, including my fellow columnists and me, have tried to understand the issue from different perspectives, but the truth may be that the complexity of the problem as well as its various effects on different people. So this is the answer. I’m not going to try to offer a solution — I think it’s clear at this point that it is not a result of a single cause. The calls for an increase in CAPS funding and and a less competitive, more supportive campus culture are probably a part of the answer, but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say that’s all we need.

One related thing I will say is that people increasingly seem to put the burden for change on the Penn administration, rather than the members of the community itself. Certainly the University has an obligation to care for our well-being. However, we must at times have the awareness and courage to consider whether we ourselves have the duty to improve things, to be the change we want to see.

Sara Merican | Merican in America

A lot has happened this semester, and it is hard to choose one issue. Many of these issues are interconnected and by choosing one here by no means conveys its exclusive importance. We face many issues on campus: mental health, inclusivity, transparency, hyper-competitiveness, and sometimes, a general sentiment of dissatisfaction. Many of these issues have to be solved on the systemic/administrative level, but I believe the pressing thing all of us Penn students have to do is acknowledge that we also have take the initiative to address these problems from the ground up. We should voice our opinions, and when appropriate, put pressure on the administration to address problems but at the end of the day, we also have to consider what we can do ourselves. If we are unhappy about the "busyness" everyone is caught up in on campus, can we be the one that chooses to relax a little and make time, for ourselves and others? If we are unhappy that others only "care about themselves," can we be the one that reaches out to listen and care? If we are unhappy about the "exclusivity" that permeates some clubs and the social life here, can we be the one that takes a hard look at what we have influence over, and choose to be a little more inclusive? We must not forget that the Penn we want is also the Penn we build.

Spencer Swanson | Spencer's Space

The most pressing issue facing the Penn community is the ever-increasing cost of providing a world-class education.  In September I wrote about a very relevant question I’d been confronted with: If I’d purposely drive a new Mercedes off a cliff each summer for the next four years, the Mercedes representing the cost of Penn tuition. I had thought long and hard about the costs and benefits of an expensive U.S. education during my gap year during which I’d faced the same question in a variety ways. Europeans asked why I, as an E.U. citizen, would not take advantage of an excellent free university education in Europe. My coworkers in Berlin and many New Zealanders and Australians asked why I’d even bother going to college, as I seemed to be doing quite well in my internships. I’d concluded that not only was university worth it, but the exceptional aspects of living within an exceptional community made paying for a Penn education 100% worthwhile.  I do maintain, however, that America does need to revisit the cost of higher education. The fact that Congress is considering egregious steps that would make university education even more unattainable for the majority of Americans is shortsighted and these changes must be prevented. Throughout most of the rest of the world, broad access to higher education is considered not only an inalienable right but also a non-negotiable investment in the future of a nation. We at Penn must all let our legislators know that America’s future depends on making sure the access to superb education is protected. 

Lucy Hu | Fresh Take

From the task force, to the tragedies, to the Campus Conversation, to the amazing speakers, to New College House West, to the Philadelphia election, to CIS 160, to the meme page, to course registration, to election cycles, and everything in between — we’ve all shouldered a lot this fall.

Shoutout to Alessandro van den Brink, our much-appreciated (outgoing) opinion editor here at The Daily Pennsylvanian, for proposing this question to the columnists this week; thank you for reminding us to reflect on what’s been an absolutely hectic semester.

Initially stepping into the role of opinion columnist, I thought this was a good medium to express my views. The semester taught me that the role transcended individual columnists — our voices were vital in representing student opinion and in debating issues crucial to our University. Being a part of the student body that I was commenting on provided new insight into the issues we consider most important.

There is not one pressing issue facing Penn students. There are many, and they differ for all segments of the student body. However, at the expense of being trite, I must advocate for mental health as the number one issue faced by Penn students. Discourse on mental health issues and how to address it will always be welcomed, and is crucial. The great divide is issue number two — divisions between Penn students along political, economic, and social lines. We are a very segregated school; addressing fundamental structural differences more openly is required for more unity.

So, for you, the reader, I hope that our student newspaper has been something that has attempted to address these issues, and your own. I hope that you have found solace from reading stories on mental health, or found solidarity in a paper that seeks to unite all parts of our multifaceted campus.

Amy Chan | Chances Are

To me, mental health on campus is and always will be the most pressing issue Penn students face, because it impacts students' performance, well-being, and just general happiness. And also because it's ingrained into the culture here and that's something that won't fade with time. 

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