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Photo from Haley Pilgrim

Sociology Ph.D. candidate Haley Pilgrim was elected to be the president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly on April 4, marking the group’s first black female president in its 70-year history.

Pilgrim, who will take up the post on May 1, is the current co-president of the Black Graduate and Professional School Assembly and chair of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership Council. Pilgrim is also the first IDEAL Council representative to be elected president of GAPSA.

Pilgrim said that “the most exciting thing” after winning the election was being able to celebrate with the BGAPSA community.

“It was such a major win for all of us, and we all got to rejoice in that together,” Pilgrim said. "I want to expand the number of students who feel like they are benefiting from GAPSA."

Brie Starks, a BGAPSA member who is graduating this spring from Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, said she was “overjoyed” with Pilgrim’s “monumental” election. 

“It sets the tone for a culture shift that Penn needs as a university,” Starks said. "Having the first black, female president of GAPSA makes me feel just a bit relieved."

In a joint emailed statement, the outgoing GAPSA Communications chair, Octavia Sun, a second-year environmental studies student, and incoming chair Emily Dupont, a second-year doctoral candidate at the School of Veterinary Medicine, said that Pilgrim has been “a catalyst of positive change” during her time at Penn.

According to the statement, Pilgrim helped increase BGAPSA membership numbers to over half the black graduate school population while co-president of the group. In her position as chair of GAPSA's IDEAL, which became a council this past year, she has campaigned for a centralized diversity office and the development of a University-wide bias reporting system.

“We are proud that Haley has made history," the statement read, "and we are lucky to have her passion and vision for GAPSA and the graduate and professional community here at Penn."

BGAPSA member and Graduate School of Education master’s candidate Tinuke Oyefule said that during the election, so many students volunteered to speak in favor of Pilgrim becoming president that the GAPSA Executive Board had to move on to voting even though not everyone had had a chance to speak on her behalf.

Oyefule added that IDEAL Council chair and sociology Ph.D. candidate Leslie Jones, the former BGAPSA president whom Pilgrim called her mentor, postponed a trip out of Philadelphia to stay for the election. Several recent Penn graduates also returned to campus to give Pilgrim their support.

“I think many people gravitate to Haley because she always expresses empathy for the needs of [students],” Oyefule said.

Third-year graduate student Akudo Ejelonu, a BGAPSA member studying public health and environmental studies, said she hopes that Pilgrim’s election, like the 2016 election of College senior and Penn’s first black female undergraduate Class President Makayla Reynolds, are indicative of a shift in the University.

“It kind of shows how women of color are stepping into leadership roles because they’re finally getting the support to do so and the space to really express their thoughts and feelings," Ejelonu said. "[They can] really shed light on some issues that are important to the larger community."

Pilgrim, for her part, is excited to start her year-long term serving as president.

“It is an honor to be part of the continual wave of black women breaking down ceilings,” Pilgrim said.