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Penn Benjamins director Emily Derecktor and organizer Diego Fiori.

Credit: Courtesy of Emily Derecktor

Next fall, Penn students will have the chance to share their feelings and concerns with Penn Benjamins, a new peer counseling group led by student counselors who are trained by CAPS therapists.

College juniors Emily Derecktor and Diego Fiori, College senior Jordan Lidsky-Everson and College sophomore Roy Lan are the leading forces behind the new group. This semester, the group will focus on training counselors. It will begin counseling students next fall.

In light of the several student deaths over the past year and increased focus on mental health throughout the University, the Penn Benjamins founders shared their motivations behind the establishment of the group.

Derecktor was inspired by personal experience. “I certainly was affected by the events from last year, but I actually approached CAPS last fall before anything had happened,“ she said, adding that her college adjustment process made her want to help her peers who might undergo similar experiences.

“Personally, I just had a hard time adjusting to college, so I felt like this sort of resource, when you don’t want to go to a counselor, but just want to go to someone who knows what they’re doing, would be something that would be highly valued,” Derecktor said. “It’s good to have someone who is your peer, and has undergone similar experiences ... There is a lot of power in that type of validation.”

The founders believe that peer counseling can sometimes be more approachable than professional counseling resources.

“You might feel a little alienated when talking to a therapist,” Derecktor said. “Sometimes it’s just better to have someone saying, ‘Yes, I’ve been through this, I’ve been at your age.’”

They also said that they were inspired by similar student counseling groups on other university campuses. With comparable organizations existing at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Cornell, Northwestern, Harvard, Yale and Stanford, Penn Benjamins will bring Penn up to the curve.

“It’s something that’s pretty common on college campuses, so it’s sort of surprising that Penn doesn’t have it yet,” Fiori said.

For Penn Benjamins, just as for any other peer counseling group, issues related to confidentiality and trust are at the forefront.

“I think trust is something that grows with time, and hopefully people can trust us,” Derecktor said.

Penn Benjamins has been trying to collaborate with Penn’s other student-run mental health groups such as RAP-Line. At the same time, it also has to try to distinguish itself.

“Active Minds is more of an awareness group. Ours is more targeted towards students, and actually talking to them,” Derecktor said. “What really distinguishes us is that we are really focused on providing high-quality service and are trained by CAPS.”

Fiori also mentioned that Penn Benjamins will be the first peer counseling group that is open to everyone.

“Organizations such as [the] LGBT center and Women’s Center have resources like this, but ours is the first organization that is generally targeted towards everyone,” Fiori said.

For Derecktor and Fiori, one of the group’s main goals is to make Penn Benjamins welcoming and ensure that students are comfortable.

“We didn’t want our name to be something intimidating like ‘Penn Peer Counselors,’” Fiori said.

According to the founders, CAPS is an essential part of establishing Penn Benjamins. With a well-established curriculum, CAPS will train Penn Benjamins in the basics of interpersonal therapy, how to help students when they’re stressed and how to give them concrete ways to deal with their problems. The Penn Benjamins will also foster a connection to CAPS.

“If it’s something that’s beyond us, we’re also going to have the contacts and the resources to help [students] out [by referring them] to CAPS or somewhere else that can better help them,” Fiori said.

Penn Benjamins emphasizes, however, that it is not an alternative to CAPS, but rather a supplement.

“The goal is not to try to change the world — the goal is to help people out and do whatever we can, whether that’s talking to them or whether that’s helping them find the help they need. That’s our spirit,” Fiori said.

Penn Benjamins is still recruiting interested members until the end of this week. Interested applicants can send their emails to

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