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Student leaders convened after a Wharton fireside chat with vulnerability expert Brene Brown.

Credit: Lucy Curtis

An expert on vulnerability visited Huntsman Hall Monday night to advise students on how to find belonging in a culture that seems to expect excellence. 

“Whenever perfection is driving you, shame is riding shotgun,” said Brene Brown, a professor at  the University of Houston who has spent the past 16 years studying vulnerability. Her TED Talk titled “The Power of Vulnerability” is the fifth-most-watched TED Talk online.  

Brown spoke with psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman at the first of the Wharton School's "Fireside Chats" this semester.

“True belonging is not something we negotiate with groups of people,” she said. 

Brown compared "Penn Face," the tendency of Penn students to pretend they are happy even when sad or stressed, to “armor,” explaining that while vulnerability may not be able to get through, “none of the things that bring meaning to life can get through either.”

College senior Serena Bian, a psychology major who created a project called “Space Gatherings” to foster authentic connections among students, helped organize the event because she hopes to promote a campus culture of honest and meaningful communication. 

“I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that happens on campus where we all kind of think that everyone else is having a good time,” Bian said.

Audience members asked questions at the end of the talk. Many of these questions related to navigating authenticity and happiness as a student.

“I have 25 wonderful people who work for me, and I have never once looked at [any of their] GPAs,” Brown said in response to a question about prioritizing happiness alongside grades.

Brown noted the roles vulnerability and self-worth play in creating real and meaningful connections.

Several student leaders attended the talk and a more intimate conversation with Brown and Kaufman afterward, during which they discussed how to make student organizations more inclusive. 

“I think that everyone deserves to have a home at Penn,” said Allie Rubin, a College senior who is chair of the Nominations and Elections Committee as well as a leader in PENNacle, a pre-orientation program focused on student leadership. Rubin said it is important to be vulnerable as an upperclassman in order to show freshmen they are not alone in feeling isolated at Penn. 

President of Hillel and Engineering senior Maddie Gelfand agreed that upperclassmen should be honest about their experiences. 

“I don’t know what I’m doing! Let the record show, I don’t know!” she said, emphasizing that no one truly has it all together.  

Brown made a similar point about living authentically.

“It’s okay to be vulnerable and afraid,” she said. “I think it makes you amazing.”

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