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Penn Benjamins are a student-led group that looks to offer counseling by students, rather than professional counselors, as they are often able to relate more directly.

Credit: Courtesy of Emily Derecktor

As the school year gears up, Penn Benjamins Peer Counseling is hoping to expand.

The group, Penn’s only peer counseling service, was founded last fall by group of students who realized the power of open discussion, offering casual peer listening and referral services to undergraduates.

College senior Roy Lan was moved to help found the group after observing the need for a student-run support group on campus.

“After an acquaintance of mine passed away due to suicide, I started calling up the presidents and leaders of peer counseling organizations from other schools...” he said. “I created a spreadsheet of all the information, and then sent it to Amy Gutmann who told me to cancel my classes for the rest of the week to meet with the head of Counseling and Psychological Services, Bill Alexander. He then put me in touch with a couple other students who wanted to start the organization, and we got started from there.”

Penn Benjamins counselors refer to themselves as “Bens” and are as approachable as their self-given nickname applies. Unlike the counselors available at CAPS, Bens consist of peers who are experiencing many of the same issues as the students they counsel.

Training to become a Ben lasts an entire semester. Potential Bens meet once a week for three hours to discuss and practice their counseling skills using in-person role play. Students must pass multiple written exams in order to complete their training. This fall’s training class will select sophomores and juniors, while this coming spring a larger group including freshmen will be selected.

“We have an advantage in that our experiences as peers let us empathize and relate more than an adult counselor with no experience at Penn,” said Nursing sophomore Morgan Shick, who went through training last spring. “Coming to talk to the Bens is really a great way to get things off your chest, and everyone is so easy to talk to. You know that nothing you say will be repeated, you won’t be judged and you have the Bens on your side.”

Penn Benjamins’ model is based on facilitating honest one-on-one conversations. In one of their three locations the Bens provide a variety of snacks and coffee and a safe space for students to try to put their issues in perspective. If a Ben finds that a student could use further professional support he or she will provide a referral.

Students come in to discuss any number of problems.

“I went into Penn Benjamins last spring because I was thinking a little bit obsessively about what I was eating,” said a College junior. “I went and talked and felt a little better, like it’s not just a problem that I am dealing with. They referred me to professional support and I am now happily on the road to recovery.”

Engineering junior Max Schechter became a Ben last year when he recognized the stress of simply being a freshman.

“Penn can be overwhelming, especially for freshman, and it’s just always great to be able to talk to somebody who’s been through it,” he said. “We’re hear just to listen and to talk. It can be about any subject or issue, no matter how big or small.”

Students interested in becoming a Ben can find the application on Penn Benjamins Facebook page, due Sept. 14.

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