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Ben Bolnick started Penn Wellness while he was a student at Penn and continues to work with the organization now as a graduate.

Credit: Dan Hayes

Ben Bolnick was a few weeks away from graduating in the spring of 2016, and although he had been accepted to Penn Law School, he deferred enrollment for a year and had no idea what he’d be doing in the meantime.

One day, he was having brunch with several student leaders and administrators from the Vice Provost for University Life’s office. When he told Vice Provost Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum that he didn’t know what he would do during his year off, she offered him a job.

Bolnick had founded Hillel Wellness in the fall of 2015 to promote mental health in the Jewish community. This eventually led him to become the founder and chair of Penn Wellness, an umbrella organization that aims to bring groups together to address mental health across different communities at Penn.

After graduating in 2016, he is back at Penn for a newly created year-long position with VPUL as the Student Wellness Communications Coordinator.

Some of the initiatives started during his time as Penn Wellness Chair include Freshmen Reflections and a consolidated mental health resource list on Penn Wellness’ website. The group also facilitated a mental health "town hall" event where students could ask administrators questions. The event cleared up several misconceptions about Counseling and Psychological Services, such as session limits on CAPS appointments or months-long waiting times.

Through his position this year, he will work on both administrative and student initiatives, and hopes to continue to foster collaboration between the two. For example, when Penn Wellness received an $8,000 grant, he worked with Peter Moon, College senior and current Wellness chair , and Meeta Kumar, the CAPS director of outreach and prevention, to decide how to distribute it.

His role in the administration also puts him in a better position to work on projects that he started as a student, like Freshmen Reflections, which creates “micro-communities” with trained upperclassmen facilitators to create a support system and opportunity for freshmen to talk about issues.

And when the College Dean’s Advisory Board reached out to him looking for ways to improve the student experience, he was able to put them in touch with people working on Freshman Reflections as well as Penn Reflect, a student discussion forum, which could help provide feedback on challenges students face.

“A lot of it ends up being just making connections between different parts of the university,” Bolnick said.

Bolnick also hopes to promote wellness in more communities at Penn by involving more student groups and expanding and improving the marketing of Penn’s resources.

One of the projects he wants to market is the new Wellness Feedback Box on the Penn Wellness website, where students, faculty and parents can anonymously submit comments or complaints that go straight to Bolnick and Moon.

“It’s a lot of fun working with both the administration and students,” Bolnick said. “People are very very passionate about this topic and there’s so much going on and there’s so much to do and there’s so many people who want to do more. That makes my job very very dynamic and exciting.”

Administrators are still unsure whether or not another student will fill the position once Bolnick’s year is up, but both students and staff are pleased with his role.

“It was great for us to have a young alum’s student perspective to really fill a staff role,” Kumar said. “The challenge is to really have continuity for all of the student initiatives and ideas. Sometimes they start and then they graduate, so it’s really great to have him continue the work that he started.”

Moon also believes Bolnick serves as a helpful liaison between students and the administration.

“It’s very useful to have someone who knows both the mental wellness group student side but also is now working in the administration, and actually has a better sense for what VPUL can actually do, who’s in charge of what,” Moon said. “Rather than reaching out to someone who I see as a Penn employee first and someone I know second, I’m reaching out to Ben, who is someone who was a student and is still very much in touch with that student mindset of what it’s like to actually be going to Penn. That’s easier to connect with on both sides.”

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