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After a 39-year intermission, Stephen Dansiger will graduate from Penn alongside the Class of 2022 (Photo from Stephen Dansiger).

Stephen Dansiger left Penn in 1981 during his junior year after what was supposed to simply be a one-year medical leave of absence for heavy substance abuse. Thirty-nine years overdue, he will be walking at graduation to receive a master's degree in health care innovation.

Dansiger came to Penn in 1979 as an English major in the undergraduate Class of 1983 but withdrew after substance abuse issues landed him in the University's hospital. Over the course of three decades and enrollment in three different universities, he played in multiple punk rock bands, authored several books, and founded a rehabilitation center.

Dansiger will return to Penn on May 15 to graduate in the third cohort of students in Penn’s online Master of Health Care Innovation program.

The MHCI program, which was launched in 2017, was Penn’s first online master’s degree and is hosted by the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy. The degree is designed to be earned in 20 months or with a three-year extended track option — Dansiger opted for the latter. 

Dansiger was focused on giving back and helping others in the more than 30 years between when he left and returned to Penn.

He works as a senior faculty member at the Institute for Creative Mindfulness, where he is a therapist of the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing method that treats post-traumatic stress disorder. Dansiger set up a rehabilitation center in 2015 called the Refuge Recovery Center, where he instituted a trauma-focused treatment system that uses Buddhist mindfulness and EMDR therapy to treat addiction. 

Dansiger also authored several books discussing mental health and mindfulness and is part of startup initiatives that bridge the gap between technology and therapy. 

Dansiger said he has been in recovery from substance abuse for over 33 years, a problem which began in high school and worsened in college. He said that during his temporary medical leave of absence from Penn, his drumming career took off, prompting his permanent departure from Penn.

“When I left [Penn], it was through the University hospital, and the inciting incident that got me to the hospital was my friends caring about me and saying, ‘Look, this is non-negotiable, and this is above our pay grade,’” Dansiger said.

Dansiger said that, for many years, he was proud of being called an “Ivy League dropout” until he had a sudden change of heart after his father's death in February 2019.

“My dad had passed away, and I was just so grief-stricken," Dansiger said. "I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that whole Penn thing was never fully rectified completely. That’s nothing to be proud of. How disrespectful of me to waste all of [my father’s] money.'"

He said that he decided to enroll in the online MHCI program as a "closure exercise." Dansiger’s MHCI coursework focused on learning more about health care policies and innovation strategies that could be applied to mental health initiatives.

“The [MHCI] program gave me the tools and inspiration to know and to then plan and implement bringing mental health out of the shadows and into the center of health care,” he said. 

Dansiger will be working in Ireland to train therapists in a health care incubator, which helps startups and researchers earn funding for health care-related ventures, following his graduation.

Dansiger said he is excited for his daughter to attend his graduation and watch him receive his degree. 

“My daughter has witnessed this part of my education from age 9 to 12 through a pandemic — her being upstairs in her Zoom and me in my Zoom," he said. "She understands the significance of having left [Penn] all those years ago and finishing now."