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Medical student David Fajgenbaum participates in a recent Boot Camp 2 Beat Cancer event. He first organized this type of fundraiser soon after his mother died.

Credit: Chris Watters , Chris Watters

Each year, roughly a fourth of college students cope with the death of a family member or a close friend. Until recently, many of these students grieved in silence.

However, this has changed on Penn’s campus and on more than 170 other campuses nationwide due to a student support group called Actively Moving Forward. Each AMF chapter holds bi-weekly meetings and hosts fundraisers for research on the diseases that have affected their loved ones.

The group’s first chapter was created in 2004 by then-Georgetown University undergraduate David Fajgenbaum, who is a now a Medical student at Penn. Fajgenbaum personally realized that there was an unmet need for support during his freshman year at Georgetown while dealing with his mother’s sickness and passing.

“I was pretty silent on campus,” he said. “I pretty much went home every weekend and struggled.”

But he recognized that there must be other students who were in positions similar to his, so before his mother’s death, he promised her that he would create an organization that would bring together grieving students. Soon after, he started talking with faculty, staff and other students about his idea and realized that many students — even some of his friends — had also been silently suffering.

“Even though there were many of us going through a similar experience, because no one was talking about it, we decided that we needed to start some sort of program that would serve as a forum for sharing about grief or loss,” Fajgenbaum said. In his view, students needed to know that they weren’t “strange or alone.”

Soon after the Georgetown chapter launched, a student from the University of North Carolina reached out to Fajgenbaum because of his own interest in starting an AMF chapter on campus. The result was a national organization based on the Georgetown model. Today, Fajgenbaum is the board chair of AMF.

Upon his arrival at the Perelman School of Medicine, he founded an AMF chapter on Penn’s campus and has remained an active member.

“The students in the [Penn] group are so compassionate and are such anchors for one another,” he said.

“And I’ve been really impressed with the campus’s commitment to community service,” he continued. Earlier this year Penn Students of AMF participated in a national campaign called Give a Spit About Cancer to register people for the national bone marrow registry. They registered more than 320 donors and won.

“That speaks volumes to the AMF group and their ability to take really difficult experiences and channel their grief towards helping others,” he said.

Director of Counseling and Psychological Services William Anderson has coordinated with Fajgenbaum, and the two groups have been able to cross-refer grieving students who reach out to them.

“It’s a great support group, and we’ve definitely recommended AMF to some of our students,” Anderson said.

Anderson explained that feedback from students has been positive due to the supportive nature of the group.

“When I talk with directors on other college campuses I get the same feedback. Everybody responds pretty favorably,” Anderson said. “This was a niche, and nobody was addressing these needs.”

College and Wharton senior Megan Schoenberg explained how she initially tried managing the grief associated with losing her mother through CAPS, but felt that “it just wasn’t very helpful.”

“AMF can be a great alternative,” she said.

Schoenberg said that, in addition to gaining close friends, she particularly benefited from being able to listen to the experiences of others.

“Everyone’s at a different stage in the grieving process. There are people who are dealing with the sickness and people who are dealing with the loss. But then there are people who are dealing with the one-month loss, and the five-month loss, and the one-year loss,” she said. “You learn about yourself through other people.”

Nursing junior Danielle Wasserman had a similar experience after losing her grandmother the summer before her sophomore year.

“I called CAPS at one point for the preliminary interview, but I realized that I didn’t really want counseling per se; I just wanted to talk and relate with others who were going through the same thing,” Wasserman said. “I don’t like to burden my friends with these things. But people at AMF get it.”

This article has been updated to reflect that David Fajgenbaum is the board chair of Actively Moving Forward, not the executive director.

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