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dppennface
Credit: Tyler Kliem

A few weeks ago, the College Dean’s Advisory Board hosted the event “Deconstructing the Penn Face.” A panel of upperclassmen shared advice about navigating “Penn Face” and the challenges they’ve encountered. The design of the flyers promoting the event made the focus clear. The phrase “Penn Face” was in large print at the top, and “discussing mental wellness and how to thrive at Penn,” although arguably more important, was in small font at the bottom. Though a simple example, that flyer represents how we, as a school, view Penn Face: the center of our conversations about mental wellness.

Although no formal definition exists, Penn Face is understood as the tendency for Penn students to act as if their lives, both academic and social, are perfect. Penn Face leads you to believe that a classmate has stellar grades, amazing friends, and great mental health. In other words, they have put on an act that makes their life seem free of stress, anxiety, or challenges.

I was warned about Penn Face before I even stepped foot on campus. Penn Face unnecessarily scares incoming first years and conditions us to conform. A student new to Penn is left thinking: if everyone else will be hiding behind their Penn Face, why shouldn’t I? Instead of using Penn Face to describe what incoming first years should expect, the message should be realistic yet encouraging. Yes, there are going to be challenges during your time at Penn, but there will also be resources available to tackle those challenges.

As Penn students, we like to think we are unique. When it comes to Penn Face, we are not. Stanford has “duck syndrome.” Duke and Princeton have "effortless perfection." People present a façade of their lives. Lack of mental health awareness is a problem beyond college campuses. We do ourselves no favors by attributing this problem to only Penn.

In 2015, the Undergraduate Assembly launched a website called Penn Faces “to deconstruct the Penn Face” by giving students a platform to share their stories and experiences, both positive and negative. Since 2016, the College Dean’s Advisory Board has hosted the “Deconstructing the Penn Face” event annually. In 2017, Wharton hosted a similar event as a “fireside chat.” With each passing year, the message remains the same: Penn Face is bad, but, if we talk about it, things will get better.

In a 2017 sidebar poll, 81% of students responded “no” when asked if Penn is doing enough to combat Penn Face. How can we expect Penn to effectively solve a problem we have already decided is part of who we are? We are binding ourselves to the idea of what Penn is instead of focusing on what Penn can be. If the conversation around Penn culture constantly revolves around Penn Face, it becomes difficult to make progress. Instead of dwelling on Penn Face, we can simply talk about mental health and wellness.

If we want to truly deconstruct Penn Face, we have to start with the name itself. We must be intentional with our language and reframe how we speak and think about Penn’s culture. Penn Face has a negative connotation. It’s associated with feeling inadequate, stressed, or unhappy, and nevertheless, the pressure to pretend those feelings don’t exist. Instead of saying Penn Face, why not talk about the pressure of perfection? Instead of deconstructing Penn Face, why not deconstruct mental health? Penn Face only has the power we give it. Let’s stop giving it power. 

YOMI ABDI is a Wharton first year studying finance from Chicago. Her email is yomiabdi@wharton.upenn.edu.

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