When the Class of 2020 walked onto campus for the first time in 2016, nobody could have predicted how their senior year would unfold.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, students were forced to cut their spring semester on campus short and transition to online learning. Instead of spending their last few months at Penn celebrating with friends, seniors sheltered in place around the globe and grappled with the fact that their time at Penn had ended so suddenly.
While COVID-19 will certainly be the defining feature of the 2019-2020 school year, a lot happened even before Penn instructed students not to return from spring break.
Campus buildings underwent a series of name changes this year. New College House was renamed Lauder College House after a major donation from the Lauder family, whose members are prominent philanthropists and have made major donations to Penn in the past. A $3.3 million donation from Penn Medicine led SEPTA to rename University City station Penn Medicine Station.
Several campus buildings' name changes were more controversial.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School was renamed the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School in November, following a $125 million donation from the W.P. Carey Foundation. The donation is the largest single gift to any law school, and prompted the school's shortened name to change from "Penn Law" to "Carey Law." But later that month, following significant backlash about the name change and a petition signed by hundreds of students and alumni, the administration decided to change the school's shortened title from Carey Law back to Penn Law.
Design students spoke out against Penn's decision to rename the School of Design the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, following a donation from 1963 Wharton alumnus and fashion icon Stuart Weitzman. Although the donation freed the school from longstanding financial issues, design students feared the new title would misrepresent the school, which currently does not offer courses in fashion design.
Construction on New College House West, Penn's newest dorm located in the high rise field, continued this year, and despite Philadelphia's shutdown due to the virus, remains on track to be finished in time for the 2021 fall semester. But noise from the project continued to upset undergraduates, especially those living in dorms near the site.
A history of alleged mistreatment and formal grievances in the Penn women's volleyball program erupted in November, when the team's season was cut short after the discovery of what the administration deemed "vulgar, offensive, and disrespectful posters" in the locker room. Head coach Iain Braddak eventually resigned, and was replaced by Meredith Schamun.
Athletes were devastated after their seasons ended in response to the coronavirus. All Ivy League spring sporting events after March 11, including the Ivy League Men's and Women's Basketball Tournaments, were canceled. Teams coped with this unexpected loss by attempting to connect and honor senior teammates virtually.
The Penn Relays was also canceled for the first time in the event's 126-year history. In lieu of the in-person events, the first-ever Digital Penn Relays offered spectators the chance to watch athletes participate in Minecraft races, accompanied by various commentators.
On-campus political groups spent much of this year campaigning for the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries. Penn for Bernie and Penn for Biden sent members to canvass in New Hampshire the weekend of the state's first-in-the-nation primary in February.
Former Vice President and Penn Presidential professor of Practice Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee in April, after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ended his campaign. Now, two Penn affiliates will face off in November: Biden and incumbent 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump. In December, Trump became the third United States President to be impeached, but was acquitted by the Senate in early February.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.), who taught at Penn Law from 1987 to 1995, had also faced off against Biden for the Democratic nomination. She dropped out of the race in early March.
Penn Democrats endorsed Biden for president in late March, even though the group was split, with some members still supporting Sanders in the primary. Penn Dems was shunned by the Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault, following its endorsement. CAFSA kicked Penn Dems out of its alliance due to its support for Biden, who faces a sexual assault accusation from one of his former Senate staffers.
Student activism made waves on campus this year.
Fossil Free Penn continued to hold weekly sit-ins in College Hall and protest Board of Trustees meetings. The group shut down one meeting in November, and blockaded another in February, forcing most trustees to leave the Inn at Penn through the fire exit.
When Penn announced in February it would not invest in coal and tar sands industries, Fossil Free Penn celebrated a small victory. But the group said there is more work to be done, and that it will continue to protest and hold administration accountable, pushing the University to fully divest from fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.
In October, student protesters prevented former United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan from delivering a talk on immigration policy at the Perry World House. Homan implemented controversial policies many say violated the rights of immigrant families, including the revocation of a policy that had allowed some critically ill, undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States for medical treatment. Homan returned in February and spoke in Houston Hall, while approximately 40 students protested outside.
As campus emptied out after the coronavirus outbreak, Penn's dining provider Bon Appétit was set to lay off 140 workers without pay through the rest of the semester. But after widespread backlash and a student-organized petition that garnered over 8,000 signatures, Penn eventually agreed to support Bon Appétit workers along with University-employed staff during the shutdown.
Gregory Eells, Penn's executive director of Counseling and Psychological Services, died by suicide in September. Eells had been appointed to lead CAPS in January 2019, and began his role that March. He had previously served as the director of CAPS at Cornell University.
Student groups continued to advocate for better mental health resources and general wellness, which they said took on renewed importance following Eells' death. The Undergraduate Assembly worked to integrate CAPS clinicians into more undergraduate schools. The Student Committee on Undergraduate Education released its 2020 White Paper, which listed the ability to schedule CAPS appointments online as a primary goal.
In February, CAPS launched a new behavioral health consultant program to bridge CAPS and Student Health Services resources in order to streamline communication between the two organizations and provide more holistic care for students.
After campus shuttered in March, CAPS launched virtual resources to support students during the pandemic. CAPS shifted all standing and drop-in appointments to confidential video and phone calls, and created a page on its website consolidating strategies to help students cope with drastic changes to their daily lives.
The year took a historic turn in March, when the Penn community evacuated campus due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Students, faculty, and staff were all forced to quickly adjust to social distancing and other restrictive measures, while still attempting to complete their work remotely. The limited availability of on-campus housing during the pandemic left many students scrambling to find a place to stay.
Students struggled with remote learning. Some had difficulty accessing reliable Wi-Fi and technology, while many international students who returned home to different countries and time zones had to attend class late at night.
In response to these challenges, Penn allowed undergraduates to opt in to pass/fail grading, while Penn Law instituted a mandatory pass/fail grading system. Penn had announced its pass/fail deadline to be April 13, the earliest date in the Ivy League. But after student petitions, the University changed the pass/fail deadline to April 29.
Penn announced in April that it will issue pro-rated refunds to students in University housing and on meal plans. Some students are also calling for tuition refunds, citing a lower quality of learning after classes became virtual. Following a nationwide collegiate trend, one Penn graduate student filed a class action lawsuit demanding tuition refunds – but the University called the lawsuit "misdirected and wholly without merit."
Many Penn traditions were altered as a result of the virus. Hey Day, during which members of the junior class are pronounced seniors, was held virtually on April 30. In-person Commencement was initially canceled and commemorated with a virtual ceremony on May 18, but later rescheduled for May 2021.