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Photo from Haley Pilgrim

When she was named the new Graduate and Professional Student Assembly president in May, Haley Pilgrim had a vision for GAPSA, one that she hoped would improve the lives of graduate students at Penn. As she begins her year serving as the first black female leader of GAPSA, Pilgrim plans to embark on campaigns targeting mental health, sexual harassment, and civic engagement.

Pilgrim spent much of her undergraduate career in activist spaces at Northwestern University, where she was a member of the executive board of the College Feminists and organized rallies around sexual assault within the Evanston and Chicago communities. 

“My work at NU ignited a fire in me to ensure that students feel supported on campus,” Pilgrim said. “I grew so much as a critical thinker and activist because of the students I worked with.”

It was this passion that Pilgrim said inspired her in her roles as co-president of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and as chair of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership Council in the past year. 

She said her time in those leadership roles exposed her to many issues facing the graduate community. 

Another focus for Pilgrim stems directly from her history of sexual assault prevention advocacy. After the wave of feedback administration received last spring concerning graduate school sexual assault policy, specifically the lack of standardized and anonymous reporting procedures, Pilgrim established a committee focused on sexual harassment this past summer with students across campus. 

Co-Chair for Penn Graduate Women in Science and Engineering and doctorate student Sophia Reeder said PGWISE supports GAPSA’s executive board goals this year, but finds sexual harassment especially important. 

While PGWISE holds its own sexual harassment awareness workshops, Reeder said. With sexual harassment at the forefront of GAPSA’s goals, she hopes to collaborate in a larger sexual harassment awareness effort.

“I think as a society we’ve become more aware of how much sexual harassment permeates our everyday world with the #Metoo movement over the last year,” Reeder said. “It’s really come to the forefront of our national narrative.”

Pilgrim also hopes to prioritize mental health.

Despite graduate and professional students comprising the majority of Penn’s student population, mental health initiatives have traditionally focused on undergraduates, she said. Last year, Counseling and Psychological Services created four new staff positions to serve four of the graduate schools — the School of Dental Medicine, School of Veterinary Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine, and Penn Law School. Pilgrim said she wants to go further and address “the root” of mental health issues. 

Pilgrim’s GAPSA will launch a graduate peer-counseling group, the Franklins, modeled after Penn Benjamins this month. She said the decision came from the results of a graduate mental health survey conducted last spring, which, according to Pilgrim, found that those in financial distress are “more likely to be depressed, [and] more likely to be anxious on campus.”

Pilgrim also said she plans to appoint a first-generation low-income deputy to specifically address first-generation low-income needs.

The new BGAPSA president and doctorate student David Kirui said this move, along with the continued push for the Centralized Diversity Office, shows a foregrounding of issues that are important to black graduate students.

“Haley is keenly aware of the needs and concerns of black graduate students through her roles with BGAPSA and IDEAL,” Kirui said. “Last year’s GAPSA agenda made no mention of these issues.”  

Pilgrim said she also plans to organize a voter registration drive in collaboration with the Undergraduate Assembly to increase civic engagement among graduate students as the midterm election approaches.

“It’s the first one in recent memory, so it’s exciting,” said Pilgrim. “I really want to build our partnerships with undergrads.” 

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