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Guest columnist Farah Sayed argues that Penn must do a better job at helping sexual assault survivors who need immediate support. 

Credit: Farah Sayed

Content warning: The following text describes sexual assault and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers.

I never thought that I would have to write this article. Sexual violence pervades Penn’s campus; one in four undergraduate women report unwanted sexual contact. However, I didn’t anticipate having to navigate the system until something happened to me. I didn’t think that I would have to rely on resources for sexual assault survivors. And I didn’t think that I would have to confront what turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare. 

I called Student Health Service the day after the incident. I trusted that a health care professional would be a safe, confidential resource, who could also address my concerns about billing and low appointment availability. I anxiously waited as the phone rang, telling myself that I would feel better once I talked to someone. When I reached the nurse on call, I clearly stated why I was calling. I explicitly said the words “sexual assault.”

But she didn’t acknowledge that. 

Instead, she cut me off mid-sentence, instructing me to contact the billing department or my insurance company, neither of which I felt comfortable calling alone. I asked if she knew of organizations in Philadelphia that offered free health services, which I later discovered do exist — places such as the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center (PSARC) and the Mazzoni Center. But she didn’t know that either of them existed. In that short call, I wasn’t directed to any mental health resource or any on-campus resource for that matter. I felt invalidated and unheard. I left the call sobbing and scared to call back. 

Over the next two days, I called Penn Violence Prevention several times during business hours, but nobody picked up the phone. I tried the Penn Women’s Center, but I was told that confidential resources weren’t available due to staffing issues. The student at the front desk was sympathetic, but the only advice she gave was to keep calling.

It’s mentally taxing to make a call in the first place; nobody should be sent to voicemail or left without help. Penn has a responsibility to employ enough trained staff to meet students’ needs. The lack of response made me feel stuck. Powerless. As if help was unattainable. Someone else in my position may have stopped trying. 

In the meantime, a friend of mine found out about PSARC. We called an Uber to the Center with our own money and on our own time. I spent a few hours there due to the wait, and showed up late to a class in which I was scheduled for a final presentation, one that the professor still expected me to give. Most students don’t have the time and money to make a trip to North Philadelphia on their own. Nobody should have to deal with that stress. I shouldn’t have had to risk my class attendance and academic performance for a forensic rape exam. I rushed back to campus sleep-deprived, in immense pain, and re-traumatized. Prioritizing my medical needs and meeting the 72 hour window for a rape exam was incredibly difficult with no help from the school.

Penn must do a better job at helping survivors who need immediate support. Penn should make information about PSARC and how to get there easily accessible to students. Student Intervention Services can help students navigate academic and work commitments, but researching all of these resources separately imposes a barrier on students in crisis. It’s imperative for the University to streamline information so that survivors can get the help they need.

I was later able to reach staff at the LGBT Center and Special Services, but it took over a month to reach the Title IX office. By that time, the perpetrator had graduated. I expressed concerns from the start about reaching their office, but due to miscommunication between departments, they didn’t schedule a meeting until it was too late. Regardless of what my options were, I could no longer file a complaint. It was never clearly communicated to me that a complaint must be filed before graduation for Penn to have jurisdiction. A degree can be revoked decades later for a violation of academic integrity; it was a surprise to me that the same standard did not hold for sexual misconduct. My options were taken away from me unknowingly. And all because I was under the false impression that staff had contacted the Title IX office on my behalf. 

I shouldn’t have had to take so much initiative in the wake of a traumatic event that I had barely processed. I contacted separate departments for medical, mental, and legal support. It was more challenging than it should have been to figure out who to contact, understand what kind of help they offered, and find the words to call — all while I was a working student. My initial interaction with SHS was almost enough to turn me away from seeking help. A nurse at Penn should be trained to approach what is unfortunately a common form of violence on campus.

It took a while to determine where to call next, as I jumped from webpage to webpage, confused about hours, confidentiality, and types of support that centers at Penn offered. The lack of organization overwhelmed me. As I was writing this article, what I found to be the most helpful guide for on-campus resources took 45 minutes to find. The Penn Police number is posted in almost every hallway in residence halls on campus — what about other resources? The University must make those numbers known. And even if these numbers are made accessible, it’s unacceptable that those lines may not be staffed due to lack of support by Penn.

Survivors already have very little power over what kinds of consequences their perpetrators face. Penn should at least pick up the phone.

FARAH SAYED is a 2023 College graduate in psychology, now working as a research coordinator at the Annenberg School for Communication. Her email is


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