A campus conversation, for the entire Penn community

Text by Lauren Hertzler, photos by Eric Sucar

Students, faculty, and staff gathered on Monday to discuss recent, tragic events and how we can better support each other during such tough times.

Campus Conversation
Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett and President Amy Gutmann, with Undergraduate Assembly President Michelle Xu.

A “wrenchingly disorienting” period, as Penn President Amy Gutmann described it, the University community has been profoundly shaken by recent events.

We’ve seen natural disasters devastate the nation, and racism, anti-Semitism, and other bigotry on display in Charlottesville. We’ve heard anti-Muslim rhetoric, and witnessed political uncertainty challenge DACA students and those that travel to Penn from across the world. This and more, we also grieve the tragic deaths of four Penn students in just two months.

“There is nobody in our community I think who is immune from feeling the sense of disorientation,” Gutmann said to a crowd of about 400 in the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theatre. “And it manifests itself in different ways. Anxiety, depression, feeling that the community isn’t doing enough. We need to do more, which I think is always the case.”

Gutmann and Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett hosted a two-hour “Campus Conversation” on Monday, Oct. 30, as part of the University’s ongoing Campaign for Community. The goal of the evening event was to bring students, faculty, staff, administrators, and even parents, coaches, and alumni together, to strengthen and support the Penn community during this challenging time.

“For me, Penn is a beloved community, and I think you know when a community is a beloved community most when you are in times of adversity,” Gutmann said. “Coming together is really important. Not only in something like this, but in our day-to-day actions.”

Gutmann and Pritchett got personal in a conversation moderated by Undergraduate Assembly President Michelle Xu. Gutmann talked of the sudden death of her father when she was in high school; Pritchett told of his challenges with an ill parent while balancing work. They also talked about their most trying times at Penn.

“The most heartbreaking thing any University president can do is talk to parents who have lost their children,” said Gutmann. “Every student death leaves mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, teammates and classmates, everybody bereft, and it’s a gaping hole in our community.”

Charles “Chaz” Howard, the University’s chaplain, said in a panel discussion following Gutmann and Pritchett’s conversation, that their openness should remind us, “Wow, we’re not the only ones feeling this, in fact the leaders of our community are feeling this too.

“Their vulnerability allows us to all be vulnerable together, which I think is the blessing and grace of a gathering like this,” he added.

Campaign for Community
A panel discussion included moderator Michael Delli Carpini, Jody Foster, Charles Howard, Maria Oquendo, and Angela Duckworth.

Moderated by Michael Delli Carpini, the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, the panel consisted of Howard; Angela Duckworth, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences; Jody Foster, the chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital and clinical professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine; and Maria Oquendo, the Ruth Meltzer Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at Penn Medicine.

Bringing a variety of perspectives to the table, both personal and based on scholarship, they discussed different ways to deal with stress, the feeling of fragility during this particularly tough time, asking for professional help when it’s needed, lending an ear to friends, how resilient humans have grown to be, and much, much more.

They also shared their feelings of hope.

“It’s such a painful season on campus and in our country, yet I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more generous, loving season on our campus at the same time,” Howard said. “And that gives me hope. There’s a lot of pain but a lot of love.”

Foster added, “There’s an endless supply of people who care. When you think it’s not there, all of a sudden you find out there are 50 groups doing just this thing that the place needs.”

After the panel, the attendees broke out into five different discussion groups, led by faculty, staff, and student facilitators, who have been trained in Counseling and Psychological ServicesICARE program.

For Miles Owen, a master’s student in the School of Design and Fels Institute of Government, as well as president of the Graduate and Professional Students Association, the group discussions made it evident how important it is to talk about mental health on campus.

“Mental health is such a personal and raw subject, and people really opened up, even though it took some people until the middle of the session,” he said, chatting after the event. “It’s a topic a lot of people are very passionate about, and everyone is excited to keep the conversation going.”

Members of the Penn community were encouraged to submit reflections and ideas for the University, either via hard copy at the end of the event, or through an online forum. Pritchett said he and Gutmann would be reviewing the input and sharing the insight.

These conversations are ones that Pritchett promises will continue, “in many different forms across the campus,” he said. “In college houses, cultural centers, fraternities, sororities, and, no doubt, the classroom.”

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