May 13, 2022

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May 13, 2022 |

Love tS atue

This year’s class is keeping it local. Meet ten Penn seniors who are living and working in Philly after crossing the stage.






This pre–med legend reflects on her experiences with resilience, representation, and skydiving.


n high school, she decided to run a marathon the day before it happened. Her formal training? Some pasta the night before. And that’s not the first time she found a challenge to overcome. Alejandra Bahena (C ‘22) spent her childhood in Mexico City. At the age of 12, her mother moved her and her sisters to Kissimmee, Fla., a place “only known for Disney and whatnot,” Alejandra shrugs. But it makes perfect sense that she lives next door to the so– called happiest place on earth— it seems like her personality revolves around positivity.


“When we got to the United States, we were really starting the American Dream with nothing,” she says. Her family immigrated with no money, struggling to find housing. Coming from a low–income, Latino community of color springboarded her into her passions today, such as increasing diversity in medicine. Alejandra is a pre–med student majoring in biochemistry, with minors in French and chemistry, and she wants to use her trilingual abilities to break down the language barriers in health care. “We deal with people from all over the world who come here in search of better opportunities, and I think it’s really special for physicians

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and other types of health care providers to be able to communicate with them in their native languages,” Alejandra says. “It makes their whole experience feel less stressful and more welcoming.” Like those who experience difficulty communicating within the American health care system, Alejandra understands what it’s like to enter uncharted territory. When she first got to campus, Alejandra felt intimidated. A QuestBridge scholar, she lacked the family guidance that she felt that most of her peers had. “I wasn’t too aware of what it took to get into college,” she says. She was excited when she first matched with Penn, but

struggled to find her community once she started school. The financial burden overwhelmed her, and the academic rigor wasn’t familiar either. “In Mexico and Florida, there was of course a huge Latinx population, so coming here and seeing people from all over the world was really awesome,” she says. “But I also sometimes felt like it was hard to find my community.” Then she joined the Johnson Scholars program, and everything changed. All at once Alejandra was surrounded by an abundance of peers, guides, and clinical opportunities within the Perelman School of Medicine. During her sophomore year, when Alejandra was

particularly struggling at Penn, her mentors from the program acted as her support system. Finally, she felt that she had a place for her on campus. “They really shaped my time here and made me feel that I belonged and that I could do it,” she says. Gone were the days of not having a community to rely on. Inspired, she took on leadership roles in Latinx organizations, like MEChA de Penn and Lanzando Líderes. It was time to give back. Her journey toward making the field of medicine more accessible to everyone didn’t stop there. Two years ago, Alejandra founded the National Pre– Health Community (NPHC), a nonprofit dedicated to help-


ing students from underrepresented backgrounds pursue careers in health care. It was a daunting endeavor. “When it first started, we didn’t know how big it would become or how much support we would receive,” Alejandra says. She didn’t have much experience in running an organization of that kind, but soon realized that she could seek out the resources she needed. With support from a litany of organizations, including the Johnson Scholars program, Kaplan, and the American Physician Scientists Association, NPHC has grown into a group of over 2,000 students. Over time, it has provided over $3,500 in test prep aid to students in need. This August marks the third annual NPHC conference, a completely free and virtual three–day event for anyone interested in joining the medical field. Alejandra and her team meticulously constructed the perfect curriculum to emphasize the topics most important to attendees, starting with talks on the first day from professionals in different areas of medicine. “Seeing how willing physicians were to contribute to this goal and make it big was amazing,” Alejandra says. Over the next two days, members work on medical school applications and engage in equity and inclusion workshops. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child—and NPHC is definitely Alejandra’s child. “I’d say it’s the thing I’m most proud

of from my time here,” she says. As the story of her life goes, Alejandra used that momentum to keep conquering anything standing in her way, all the way to the Penn Digital Neuropathology Lab. She joined the lab

If I were to say my life had a theme, it would be resilience.” after her first year upon discovering her fascination with brain behavior. “[The lab's] big goal is to be able to diagnose neurological disorders better,” she explains. Next year, Alejandra will be staying in Philly to juggle her lab work with studying for the MCAT and applying to medical school. “Joining the lab full time is a great opportunity for me because I already have a lot of experience there from the digital aspect [of the research],” she says. The lab has grown to become a place Alejandra calls home. Her smile lights up as she excitedly anticipates experiencing the “wet–lab side of things.” Brain slabbing, processing, and staining are all terms that go over any non–STEM major’s head, but they’re music to Alejandra’s ears. “We have access to actual post–mortem brain tissue, so it’s a very rare and valuable honor,” she says. Like a kid in a candy shop, she says, “It’s just so exciting to learn about

the brain and different diseases within it.” To Alejandra, life is also about having a good time. She tells me that her worst habit is how often she takes Panera by storm. “I have the coffee subscription, but I always end up buying food, too. I’m really falling into the marketing trap there,” she laughs. She rightfully prides herself on it. “I think people would describe me as spontaneous,” she says. When she was in Florida one time, she decided to go skydiving—and she only realized what she signed up for a few hours later. “It only hit me once I was on the plane, like, ‘I’m literally jumping off right now,’” she jokes. Saying no to something clearly doesn’t come easily to Alejandra. What’s most inspiring about her, beyond just the fact that she jumped out of a plane, is that surrender is never an option. “Sometimes stuff won’t work out for you, but life is about moving forward,” Alejandra says. She admits that it sounds cliche, but reminds me that everyone has their own journey. At the end of the day, it’s important to stay focused on your goals. “People don’t actually care about your internship or how much you’re getting paid. Everyone’s going to graduate and do their own thing, so do whatever feels right for you here,” she tells me. Grab life by the horns, and then use what you’ve learned to help others overcome similar challenges.

“If I were to say my life had a theme, it would be resilience,” she says. And she attributes it all to her family in both Mexico and America. “I could not have done this without them,” she says. Her heritage comes hand in hand with her dream to help others. Coming from an underrepresented background pushed her to craft her own path—and help others craft theirs. Especially after working so hard to increase diversity in the medical field, a profession often blocked off to those from lower–income families, Alejandra has come to know that there’s nothing more important than following your passions. Successfully overcoming her challenges once she got to Penn’s campus only inspired her to share that drive with those around her. When it doesn’t seem like there’s a space for you, you can make the space. However elusive the feeling may be, Alejandra wants you to know that you’re here for a reason. So be bold. Take that class. Spend more time outside. Venture off campus with your friends. “Even get some food that’s not Distrito or Panera,” she laughs. As Alejandra now finds herself wrapping up her career as a college student, she knows there’s so much more out there just waiting for her. And whether it’s processing brain tissue ten months from now or running another marathon tomorrow, there’s no doubt she’ll be ready for it.

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This engineer and climate activist has mastered the art of growing your knowledge without growing up.


always enjoyed being the big little kid in the room,” says Ari Bortman (E ‘22). Even if he didn’t say it out loud, it would be obvious within minutes of meeting him—from his boyish grin as he talks about climbing to his infectious enthusiasm as he proclaims that Penn should embrace silliness, Ari is the biggest little kid you can imagine, despite him being older than most students in his graduating class thanks to two gap years. “College is just kind of an


extended opportunity to be a kid, and to do things that move you,” he says. For Ari, that means a healthy combination of the silly and the serious: He’s a mechanical engineer, but also president of the Penn Outdoors Club. He’s a coordinator for Fossil Free Penn (FFP), but also an ultimate frisbee player. He imbues even the most quotidian of things with a sense of fun, like sending hilariously surrealistic mass emails to club listservs and finding ways to weave jokes into conversations about climate justice. “Penn is not silly,” Ari says. “It’s really serious, and I feel like something Penn loses in selecting all of the people who

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work really hard to get really good grades, [is that] you select out a lot of silly.” So how did someone so enamored with frivolity end up as an activist–type STEM major? Ari’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a joke: “I was bamboozled by the idea of mechanical engineering.” After growing up watching his dad install solar panels for a living, Ari knew he wanted to build things. Mechanical engineering seemed like the logical way to get there. “I thought it was cool. I didn’t realize how much math I’d be doing,” he quips. But rather than commiserate about the difficulties of

partial differential equations, Ari prefers to talk about all the things that made him feel fulfilled during his time here— even if he has complicated feelings toward Penn itself given its history of gentrification and investing in the fossil fuel industry. “It’s still a ridiculous fight we’re having that Penn refuses to say that destroying lives and homes and communities for profit is bad,” Ari says. “[But] it’s a success in so many ways that new organizers see that this campus can be activated with a strong call to action.” Ari’s own activist journey started like many other Penn students’. He wrote about climate change for his high

school’s newspaper, attempting to raise awareness about climate change’s effects on the planet. Helping his dad install solar panels instilled in him an impassioned but narrow focus on green energy. “I came here with a very white liberal environmental framework that less carbon in the atmosphere is the be–all and end–all,” he says. Ari cites learning about climate justice and the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color as one of the most important takeaways from his time at Penn. “[Even if ] the source of energy emits less carbon at the point of production, if it’s extractive, if it’s exploitative, then it’s not


sustainable, because sustainability means sustainability for everyone.” He hopes that this lesson sticks with the new generation of FFP coordinators who’ll be taking the helm, emphasizing that the fight for climate justice can’t succeed without understanding that all of these struggles are linked. “Now that so many people know what divestment is, our next job is to make sure that we continue to push campus’ understanding of climate justice and bring community voices onto campus,” he says. But student activism comes in waves, just like in the real world. The summer of 2020 was a huge one, sparked after the formation of Police Free Penn, FFP’s blockade of a Board of Trustees meeting, and many other student demonstrations in addition to Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. Unfortunately, that energy didn’t last. “This year, it’s been really hard to activate students to do anything,” Ari says. But, ever the optimist, he follows it up with a list of ways FFP stirred up interest instead: educational campaigns on its Instagram to connect with students, teach–ins to raise awareness of its demands, collaborating with and supporting other activist groups on campus to

protest displacement at the and making graphics and doUC Townhomes, and ulti- ing whatever we need to do. mately camping out on College Green. College is just kind “People were coming and saying, ‘We’re talking about of an extended this, we support you,’” he says, opportunity to be emphasizing that this was not a kid, and to do things only Penn students and faculty but also local community or- that move you.” ganizers. “That was really powerful and affirming.” If the encampment showed Those are the people that I him anything, it’s that the un- go camping with and sleep derclassmen inheriting Penn’s in cars and sleep in bathtubs activist groups are more than at frisbee tournaments with,” capable of pushing for change, he says. “To be part of buildeven if Penn as an institution ing those communities, bigger remains resistant. and stronger than they were “Two days ago, the Roe v. before, [was so rewarding].” Wade brief came out from Just as it seems like he’s the Supreme Court. And in a ready to tie his story into a day, two freshmen who hadn’t neat bow, with childlike exorganized at Penn before put citement, he can’t help but together one of the biggest ac- add another item to his list of tions I’ve seen at this universi- favorite things: the outdoors. ty,” he says. “It was incredible.” Even though the people were While encouraging the next what made his experience as generation of climate activists president of the Outdoors at Penn was one of Ari’s proud- Club, Ari still loves nature est achievements during his more than just about anyone. time here, it certainly wasn’t “Outside has always just the only thing that mattered been where I can breathe. to him. Across all his involve- That’s where I have my deepments—FFP, Outdoors Club, est connections with other ultimate frisbee—he remains people,” he says. “I know some grateful for the people who people talk about the outdoors supported him along the way. making them feel small or “Those are the people I live something like that, which has with. Those are the people that never really been my experiI stay up late with, on mis- ence. It’s just the thing I could matched couches in poorly lit look at forever, you know?” basements, writing documents After graduation, Ari is

holding onto his childhood dream as long as he can by interning at a company in New Jersey that builds interactive children’s museums, which he developed a love for after working with the Please Touch Museum in West Philly. “The combination of building stuff and the hands–on work and getting to talk to designers, talk to kids, prototype and test stuff—it’s really fun,” he says, beaming with excitement at the prospect of finally getting to focus more on building things than doing calculations in a classroom. But his college days might not be totally behind him. “I do have a year left on my master’s,” Ari says. “So it looks like I might do it next year, but if they give me a job offer, maybe I won’t do it next year. … Will I ever return? Who knows?” Whether or not he comes back to Penn, Ari still has the same wide–eyed hopes for a better future as when he first arrived, but now with a list of tangible goals and ways to achieve them. His concluding wisdom? “It’s okay not to know. And it’s better than okay to do pointedly not what you’re expected to do,” he says. “Why do things the way you’re supposed to? Someone already knows how to do that. You’re not figuring anything out.”

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The Hispanic studies major and Penn Persian Society co–president dreams of being a professor in Latin American literature.


n a gorgeous Philadelphia spring day, Natasha Chity–Guevara (C ‘22), wearing a bright pink sundress, leads us from Huntsman Hall back behind McNeil to her favorite spot on campus: the Lehman Brothers Quadrangle. It’s a tranquil area with robins pecking at the cobblestone– lined walkway and bumblebees flying between the overhanging trees. We sit at a wooden bench in the shade as Natasha explains how she found this place. “It ties back to my first favorite class which was my intro to literary analysis Spanish lit class my freshman spring,” she


explains, smiling as she thinks back to the fond memory. “There was one day that my professor was like, ‘We cannot stay inside in this dimly lit room when it’s so nice out…’ We just wandered down and we ended up in this little green area in the midst of all these Wharton buildings.” Unlike most places on campus, this one is relatively remote. The high rise field and even College Green are swarmed with students as soon as it gets warm out, but somehow Lehman Brothers Quadrangle remains peaceful. Natasha grew up in Philadelphia, although she was born in West Palm Beach, Fla. She came into Penn considering

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a pre–med track and chose to major in Hispanic studies with a minor in modern Middle Eastern studies. “I wanted to do cultural studies that reflect my identity … my mom is Ecuadorian and my dad is Iranian,” she says. Although she started her college career wanting to be pre– med, things began to change during her first couple of years, especially once COVID–19 hit. “It was gradual,” she shares matter–of–factly. “I loved [working in my] lab, but I didn’t really like the actual coursework ... I was like, ‘it’s just really wearing down on me and [if ] there’s something else that I love to do that I can see myself doing long term, then why am I sacrificing

parts of my life for that?’” she says. When the COVID–19 pandemic hit, it felt like a sign; Natasha told herself “You’ve been struggling with this for forever, just do it. Just let go.” Throughout her time at Penn, Natasha has taken on multiple jobs, from translation to working with small businesses in the Galápagos during COVID–19 through the Perry World House Galápagos Education and Research Alliance. It’s a major multifaceted project aimed to help the Galápagos communities in terms of conservation, resilience to climate change, and overall health. Natasha primarily worked as part of a small business sustainable consulting pilot program, which became

increasingly relevant after the onset of COVID–19 when many Galápagos small businesses struggled to survive. “I was there [as] a cultural liaison and interpreter working with businesses in the Galápagos and the experts we had on our team to develop marketing strategies and applications for loans. Because it’s a cash economy based on tourism, when the pandemic hit, [their] means of survival [were] very limited,” she says. When asked about what it was like connecting with these businesses over long distances, she replies with a light laugh, “It was kind of messy, not going to lie. Because even my internet connection here is bad … my family is from Ecuador,


so I know firsthand how spotty the internet can be there as well.” Zoom wasn’t an option, so Natasha and her coworkers were forced to audio call using WhatsApp. As someone who grew up in a trilingual household speaking English, Spanish, and Farsi, Natasha has also done work as a translator for the Penn Museum. She worked on a project investigating women’s and neonatal health in the Peruvian Andes. Later in her Penn career, she also did on–campus research for the Dispossessions in the Americas project with professor Tulia Falleti in mapping and researching different Indigenous groups in Latin America with the goal of creating a public interactive database. This past semester, she started working with a Washington, D.C. think tank called the Inter–American Dialogue as part of its education department doing research on training for teachers in Latin American countries. Of all of these work experiences, when asked about what she was most proud of, her face lights up as she takes us back to Perry World House. “We had the opportunity to host the vice president of Ecuador and a bunch of different ministers within the Ecuadorian government,” she says. “We [had] lunch and chatted about the

country and how things are going. And that was a very surreal moment for me, like, ‘Wow, I get to meet someone who my family elected.’” She describes how her family responded when they found out: “They were so excited … they put it all over Facebook and the amount of chain messages and things I was tagged in, it was awesome.” Outside of her work, Natasha was co–president of the Penn Persian Society, chair of the Latin American Honor Society Cipactli, and marketing director for La Vida Magazine. She’s particularly passionate about Penn Persian Society and La Vida as they were some of the first clubs on campus she joined. However, the pandemic made it difficult to keep up club meetings, a common experience for many organizations. “A lot of clubs, especially cultural ones that depend on more social, in–person, interpersonal interactions, had a hard time in the pandemic,” she explains. “I’m really proud that they were able to maintain themselves, especially with the Persian Society because I was president of it for pre–pandemic and post–pandemic. We’re very small. There’s only maybe 25 to 30 Persians in all of the thousands of kids here. Once we’re together, we have to really advocate for our holidays and our events.” Spe-

cifically, she mentions how the Penn Persian Society used to

You never know where you’re going to find your calling. You never know where you’re going to find your people. Because if you don’t, it’s really easy to get stuck in your own little bubble. Put yourself out there so you can find your communities, your people, your spaces, and really thrive.” do a huge event for the Persian New Year, called Norouz, where Persians from all over Philadelphia would join and celebrate. “Pre–pandemic, it was one of the most important memories that I had of my freshman year. It was amazing to have that sense of community that I just didn’t think I would find in college,” she says. Fortunately, this year they were finally able to bring it back to campus. Aside from her impressive academics and extracurriculars, Natasha is an avid baker of gluten–free treats. She also enjoys going on runs, specifically along

the Schuylkill and down Kelly Drive. She laughs as she mentions how she used to be really into reading classic novels: “I like modern things, too, but when I was younger, I was that 8–year–old who was in love with Pride and Prejudice, and [people] were like, ‘Why does this 8–year–old know what Pride and Prejudice is?!’” Now, she’s also a huge advocate for Latin American literature. Looking forward, Natasha plans on working as a teacher at The Taft School, a boarding school in Watertown, Conn. while simultaneously getting her master’s from Penn’s Graduate School of Education. At some point in the future she hopes to get her Ph.D., but for now, she’s happy to not jump right into it. She speaks warmly about the friends she made at Penn and how she’ll miss them most of all. As our conversation comes to a close, I inquired what advice she would give to incoming first years. “Try everything,” she says. “You never know where you’re going to find your calling. You never know where you’re going to find your people. Because if you don’t, it’s really easy to get stuck in your own little bubble. Put yourself out there so you can find your communities, your people, your spaces, and really thrive.”

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For Barbara, nursing is the perfect union of interpersonal attraction and STEM.


s I nervously wait for her to join the Zoom, Barbara Chrem’s (N ‘22) wide smile comes into view and eases all tension. A screen doesn’t do her energy justice. She’s immediately interested in how I’m doing amid a seemingly endless final exam season. Barbara grimaces as I give her a strained smile—she’s been there. Luckily, senior year is almost over, and she’s coasting along to graduation. Our introductory interaction highlights an indisputable fact about Barbara: First and foremost, she’s a people person. Barbara’s a force to be reckoned with. From nursing to a


cappella, she does it all with contagious enthusiasm. If you catch her between classes, chances are she’s on the phone with her parents, whom she “calls every day.” In the evenings, she’s likely having a home–cooked, Syrian and Egyptian–influenced dinner with her roommates. Wherever she goes, one is sure to find a strong community waiting around the corner. Barbara learned how to build community at home. She grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey in a close–knit Syrian–Jewish community. Faith and culture kept them well connected and deeply supportive. From a young age, her parents tried to foster excellence.

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Nothing was out of her reach. In fact, they made an early effort to demystify the idea of untenable prestigious colleges. Smiling, Barbara proudly says, “My family was extremely supportive, and my parents actually started taking college road trips when I was a sophomore or a junior in high school. My uncle … and sister even came for some trips. Everyone was very into finding me the best place.” Although Barbara applied to Penn, her “dream school,” she was rejected. Instead, she went to Hunter College, a public university in New York. Since she commuted to Hunter, it was “difficult to be involved with school life and the student

body.” Most would shy away from this detail in their grand narrative, preferring to ignore the disappointment of a rocky start. Instead, Barbara freely admits, “I ended up applying [to] transfer after my first year in Hunter. [Penn] was the only school that I applied to transfer to.” Even though Barbara’s family wasn’t constantly around at Penn like they were at Hunter, traces of their influence are prevalent in everything she does—especially her major. Barbara has always had a deep fascination with genetics and its influence on health. She’s seen firsthand how genetics can irrevocably alter someone’s life. Barbara’s eyes shift downward

as if lost in painful memories. “My grandmother tested negative, but many of her siblings have the BRCA2 gene. Unfortunately, a lot of them got cancer and died at a young age, too.” Initially, she wanted to dive full force into genetic engineering and lab research. “I did a summer genetic engineering program at Cooper Union [a private college in New York] going into my junior year, and I really liked it. But I realized I kind of needed more of that interpersonal interaction.” Specializing as a pediatric oncology nurse offers the perfect opportunity to “do her part” and connect with others in a meaningful and personal


way. “I know that I might not be able to change the outcome. But I can change a person’s experience. And just to add a little bit of hope and positivity along that journey makes a really big difference.” Barbara easily brings forth enough energy and enthusiasm to last through a long day’s work at the hospital, but she’s careful to not over–exert herself. Deep talks with current nurses have revealed a host of salient tips and tricks. Surprisingly, she reveals that many nurses say the first thing a new nurse should do is to “get a therapist.” Burnout is real and rampant. A nurse is constantly exposed to life’s triumphs and tragedies. On her first clinical rotation, Barbara was thrown into the obstetrics unit—think nervous moms, screaming babies, and terrified new dads. Barbara grins, mentioning, “I got to do the footprints for a baby girl.” But for every cute moment, there’s a stark, unforgettable experience on the horizon— and it refuses to wait. Barbara is no stranger to end–of–life care. She’s visited the bedside of several family members as their time comes to an end. Even so, taking care of the sick doesn’t get easier. One of the most jarring moments from Barbara’s clinicals

was helping another nurse transport a sick male patient around 11 or 12 years old through a “long, bland underground tunnel system.” “His upper extremities were emaciated and lower extremi-

I know that I might not be able to change the outcome. But I can change a person’s experience. And just to add a little bit of hope and positivity along that journey makes a really big difference.” ties were edematous. … The patient was at the end of life.” The emotion is palpable in her voice, but she doesn’t falter. “They were getting radiation as palliative care but they were in a lot of pain. … It was really rough for the patient.” In moments like that, you want to help, but “at a certain point, it’s out of your control.” You do what you can and try to keep going as best as you can. Every nurse needs an outlet, somewhere they can process their emotions. Some nurses vent to a therapist, others find

simpler ways to vent—including exercise, music, art, and anything else that preoccupies the mind for a little bit of time. Barbara loves to express herself through art and music. Some things don’t have to be shared with others for money or notoriety. In the swirls of paint and dab of a brush, Barbara finds quiet. “It’s a good emotion and stress relief. It allows me to lose myself so I won’t be thinking about a million things.” Music brings the same quiet. She loves to take some time to mess around on the keyboard and play with lyrics, although she’s “not very good at it.” It’s difficult to tell if she’s being humble or is genuinely underestimating her ability. Her clear tone and strong belt tempered by just enough vibrato are good—really good. Luckily, if you buy a ticket in time, you can see Barbara perform with Dischord, a co–ed a cappella group on campus. In Dischord, Barbara loses some of her shyness—if only for those three to four sacred minutes of peace—and explores her craft with her community cheering her on. “[Singing] “Love On The Brain” with Dischord was really fun. It pushed me because I usually sing more mellow, soft songs, not so

much with attitude or edge.” Undoubtedly, Barbara’s sweet soprano voice and the thunderous background vocals of the rest of Dischord were a sight to behold. But magical moments like that performance can’t come without hours of dedication. Music theory is surprisingly difficult despite many of us listening to music on a daily basis. “It took me a bit longer than some other [Dischord] members. I definitely have to put in more time outside of practice.” Eventually, after hours of practice, a magical moment happens when everything clicks. “It’s an incredible thing to see that I’m more comfortable reading sheet music and learning music theory.” Although it’s difficult, Barbara still does it because she “loves it.” Throughout her college experience, Barbara has been motivated by this ethos. It’s rare that the things you love are easy. Nursing is certainly not for the faint of heart. Music and art take hours of practice and dedication. But difficulty is no excuse to avoid trying. At the end of our conversation, Barbara, bubbly as ever, insists, “As long as you find the balance and give yourself a break, pursue what you love.”

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Maddy envisions a world where being honest about mental health isn’t scary.


addy Fair (C ‘22) is exactly what comes to mind when you think of a psychology major. She is a mental health advocate, works at a text crisis hotline in her free time, and wants to be a therapist after school. However, Maddy has taken her passion for psychology beyond the pages of her textbook. Before completing her undergraduate career, Maddy has worked in several labs, marketed a mental health outreach app, and still managed to prioritize self–care. For Maddy, her first–year psychology class at Penn was not just about taking notes and regurgitating information for exams. This requirement–filler

helped Maddy find her place at Penn, one–in–a–lifetime opportunities, and aspirations for her future career in clinical psychology. Maddy’s ruby red hair and blue eyes are impossible to miss. Upon nervously placing our names and messages to faces, we sat side by side on the benches outside of Van Pelt during a study break. Maddy is well established at Penn, saying hellos to familiar passersby leaving the library. As a legacy student hailing from a Quaker–loving family, high–school Maddy couldn’t imagine herself attending college anywhere else. After applying in the early decision application process, Maddy was

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deferred and then accepted for regular decision … as a visual studies major. “In high school, I was a huge art student,” says Maddy. “I would spend, like, half of my days in the art room either doing photography, painting, or drawing. I figured that when I came to Penn, there was this cool major that combines art and science, and I’d just do that.” When Maddy realized art was a hobby and not a future career for her, she traded her canvases for case studies, pursuing a major in psychology with a minor in neuroscience. During her first semester, Maddy took “Introduction to Experimental Psychology” with pro-

fessor Andrew H. Ward, who became “the reason [Maddy] majored in psych.” At this point in our discussion, a swarm of bees surrounded us. Maddy continued to tell her story, raving about the early days of her psychology scholarship, shooing the insects with manicured hands. After launching into a full roster of psych classes, Maddy watched her lecture notes and lists of diagnoses manifest all around her. At Penn, a prestigious academic institution with too few services for students struggling with mental health, Maddy knew she needed to make a change. While scrolling Instagram during the early stages of the

pandemic, Maddy came across Unmasked, an anonymous discussion–based app where students can post and respond to questions and comments about mental health. The app first launched at Dartmouth College in 2020, making its way to Penn when Maddy pitched her idea later that same year. “I figured that bringing an accessible, easy, literally at–your–fingertips option for mental health [support] would be really helpful for Penn students.” After getting in touch with the executive team at Unmasked, Maddy got to work. She recruited a small team of Penn students to assist with the launch and to market the app. With the help of her


team, Maddy created a tab on Penn’s Unmasked profile for school–based, state, and national mental health resources. Also, her colleagues marketed the app on social media and took shifts posting discussion boards and responding to unanswered questions in the app’s early stages. “We saw a lot of downloads in the first few months of use,” Maddy says. “People were logging on and saying, ‘I’m really stressed about finals, how is everyone else feeling?’ or, ‘I’m feeling left out by my friends,’ or, ‘I didn’t get invited to formals and my friends did.’ It [became] a way for people to bond with each other about very similar situations without having to rely on a friend or worrying about burdening someone else.” Apart from her impact of bringing Unmasked to Penn, Maddy spends much of her free time working as a research assistant for the University. “I have made my way through a bunch of different research labs at Penn,” says Maddy with a laugh. Her LinkedIn profile is a sight to see, showcasing her diverse research repertoire. During her time at Penn, Maddy has worked in several labs as she searched for her psychology niche. Maddy was able to apply her coursework to professional settings, conducting research on everything from mental illness in teenagers to memory of mice. “My first time I did research [at the Song/Ming Laboratory], I didn’t realize until I showed up

on the first day that my research was on mice, where I had to give them injections.” That day, Maddy swore she’d never accept a future research position without confirming mice would not be involved. After this unexpected encounter, a summer of researching through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, and a brief stint working on a internet–based invention for college students experiencing depression at the DeRubeis Lab, Maddy found herself at the Emotion, Development, Environment, & Neurogenetics (EDEN) Lab, where she currently works. At the EDEN Lab, she had daily meetings with 5– to 6– year–olds experiencing conduct disorders and their caregivers. The study sought to see if a social skills board game would reduce conduct problems relative to a math board game or no game at all. Maddy invested a year into this study, ultimately using her research to piece together her honors thesis. We took a moment to celebrate her submitting the paper the night before. Since the start of her psychology academic career, Maddy wanted to be a therapist. We agreed that the idea of seeking mental health support as a college student is daunting and uncomfortable. Maddy will continue working to fight the stigma surrounding mental health that festers all around us: “Penn Face,” the inaccessibility of Counseling and Psycho-

logical Services at Penn, and the sheer amount of courage it

I’ve always wanted to be a therapist, but it’s hard to be a therapist when you don’t know what it feels like. So to be able to really put myself in other people’s shoes through these experiences has been really impactful.” takes to start the process to get help. “So many people [at Penn] are struggling with mental health because a lot of students came from being the top of their class in high school,” says Maddy. “Then, you come to Penn and some people swim, but a lot of people sink, especially because it’s such an academically rigorous institution. But people really don’t like to share the fact that they’re struggling with [mental health].” When I ask Maddy about her personal experiences with mental health, she tells me she is fortunate to not deal with debilitating mental health challenges. She credits her work in psychology in helping her to understand the complexities and implications of mental illness. “I’ve always wanted to be a therapist, but it’s hard to be a therapist when you don’t know what it feels like. So to be able

to really put myself in other people’s shoes through these experiences has been really impactful,” Maddy says. As a proponent of mental health awareness, Maddy is a big fan of self–care. On a sunny day, you can find her crossing the South Street Bridge to her favorite spot in Philly, the dog park by the Schuylkill River. On lazier days, Maddy loves to read and binge stupid reality TV shows and “every baking show in the book.” Maddy proudly brags that she’s seen every episode of The Great British Baking Show. After graduating, Maddy will work as a research coordinator for two years before applying to Ph.D. programs for clinical psychology. She plans to live in Center City and work in the West Philly area, making the trolley commute to her nostalgic college stomping grounds. Though Maddy plans to spend the next year living in Philly, she mourns the ending of her time at Penn. She looks forward to picking up a veggie burger from Magic Carpet when she misses her undergrad years: Shabbat dinners with her Sigma Delta Tau sorority sisters, doodling flowers in the margins of her notebooks during class, and getting lost in a Colleen Hoover novel when she should be studying. Maddy will also hold onto her love of psychology that she discovered at Penn: the random class she decided to take, the driving force for her future career, and the gift that keeps on giving.

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page 02 ALEJANDRA BAHENA on This pre–med legend reflects ce, ilien res with s nce erie exp her ng. representation, and skydivi


This engineer and climate activist has mastered the art of growing your knowledge without growing up.


The Hispanic studies major and Penn Persian Society co –president drea ms of being a professor in Latin American literature.


For Barbara, nursing is the perfect union of interpersonal attraction and STEM.

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Maddy envisi ons a world where being honest about menta l health isn’t scary.


, Things Serena loves: her grandma and , kets mar ers’ farm , Pottruck choosing herself above all else.

page 16 SAM PANCOE

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Whether he’s wearing his scrubs or his barista hat, love and care are at the heart of everything Chris does.


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Emma goes with the flow, whether that’s attending Penn, surviving cancer, or starting the career she never kne w existed.

STAFF Features Staff Wr iters: Sejal Sangan i, Jiahui (Emilee) Gu Avalon Hinchman , Focus Beat Write rs: Sheil Desai, Co nnor Nakamura, Sruthi Srinivas Style Beat Writers: Anna Hochman, Na ima Small Music Beat Write rs: Derek Wong, Gr ayson Catlett, Kate Ratner, Samara Hi mmelfarb Arts Beat Writers: Jessa Glassman, Em ily Maiorano Film & TV Beat Wr iters: Jacob A. Po llack, Kayla Cotte Julia Polster r, Ego Beat Writers: Anjali Kishore, Vid ur Saigal, Grace Busser Staff Writers: Na talia Castillo, Emma enigmatol Marks, Shahana Banerje e ogy Multimedia Asso ciates: Roger Ge, Max Mester, Derek Wong, Andrea Ba rajas, Rachel Zhan g Audience Engage ment Associates : Kayla Cotter, Yam Frej, Vidur Saigal, ila Caleb Crain, Kathe rine Han, Emily Xiong, Gemma Ho ng


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By kira wang


Things Serena loves: her grandma, Pottruck, farmers’ markets, and choosing herself above all else.


erena Gandhi (E ‘22) thinks that we’re all living in a simulation. But instead of ruminating on the potential insignificance of life, she just finds it fascinating. “It’s kind of nice, because everything I do is pretty inconsequential,” she says. “[My best friend] could have picked anyone on this floating rock, but she’s my best friend.” This sense of wonder and love underlies everything that Serena does, especially at Penn. On top of a rigorous major in digital media design and founding Penn’s

chapter of Women in Animation, she teaches six fitness classes at the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center per week, from spin to cardio kickboxing to weightlifting. She started working out at Pottruck due to a fear of the “freshman 15,” but the gym quickly became Serena’s haven from the stresses of her engineering courses. She now considers Pottruck her second home at Penn. She says, “[It provided me with] this way to focus my body on something else, like a way to shape my routine and a way to think about the things that my body can do and how strong it is, [rather

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than] how it looks and what it can’t do. It gave me a sense of agency and power.” This assured, almost contagious self–confidence that Serena exudes has been imbued in her since childhood. Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, Serena comes from a multigenerational Indian household that shaped her perceptions of love and loss. Soon after her move to Fort Worth, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia. Her dad lived in and out of the hospital to be with her mom, meaning that she was primarily raised by her grandma, whom she remains close with to this very day. Her mom’s cancer went into

remission after a couple years, but then quickly came back. She passed away when Serena was 8 years old. The impact of her mom’s death didn’t fully hit her until she was in high school. “I started getting older and realized that there was something missing,” she says. “I realized that I’m [going to be] graduating high school, and my mom’s not going to be there … I became very depressed and very self– harming." She gained her footing after she started going to therapy. “That’s when I started going by the mantra of ‘choosing me,’” Serena says. “If something hurts too bad, I come first. Because at

the end of the day, all I’ve got is me.” Serena’s grandma has served as a significant maternal influence in her life. Shortly after the death of Serena’s mother, Serena's grandpa passed away—but her grandma’s response to loss further inspired Serena’s mantra to always choose herself. She speaks fondly of her grandma, saying, “She works out and has all these creative outlets. She loves cooking for herself and takes naps when she wants to. She is the prime example of choosing herself, and that has inspired me to do the same. When she takes care of herself so much, she has so much love


to give to everyone else.” And just like her grandma, Serena has endless amounts of love to share. The summer before her senior year of high school, her grandma had knee surgery. Serena quit her job to go home and take care of her. “She was a huge diva. She wanted Indian food only. She couldn’t cook— she could barely stand. She didn’t trust anyone in the house to make Indian food. In fact, she didn’t want a restaurant either. The only person she trusted was our priest’s wife,” she laughs. In accordance with her grandma’s wishes, Serena drove to her priest’s house to get the food, then to her grandma’s wellness center, and then back to her priest’s house to drop the dishes back off on a daily basis. It was an incredible labor of love, but Serena just finds it comical. Serena’s love doesn’t just extend to her family—her friends have called her a “serial dater” as well. And she’s learned a lot from it. She’s dated an engineering guy, a football player, and the girl who lives in the building next to her, among other characters. Her top three red flags in a partner are an overeagerness to enter your room, video gaming that’s a bit too advanced to be normal, and doing drugs every day. “Like, ‘Let me hit the bong, shower, and then eat breakfast.’ No, that’s a

red flag,” she quips. She’s warned her cousin about her current boyfriend who likes LSD a little bit too much— and in my opinion, she’s completely correct. But according to Serena, she might be retiring from dating very soon. “I think hookup culture can get exhausting, especially because I’m the kind of person who loves people in general. I will always find the good in people, so if they can’t reciprocate a generous energy to me, it kind of bothers me. … Reciprocity is everything in a relationship. One person constantly being drained of everything they have—that’s not love. That’s not a relationship,” she says. Per Serena’s mantra, by distancing herself from Penn’s notorious hookup culture, she’s choosing herself once again. And her choice to choose herself again and again translates into the spaces that she navigates. “In computer graphics, where there’s so many people trying to drown out other voices, you just have to establish right away that: ‘I don’t want that to happen. Thank you very much.’ That’s the only way to let it stop,” she says. “I’ve always felt like being honest and vulnerable about how you feel is important.” Similarly, when it comes to her passions for upcycling, knitting, quilting, sewing,

and crocheting (all “granny hobbies” that Serena says she got from her grandma), she makes sure that she forges a space where she can simply create. “People always say that, ‘Oh, you should sell your work.’ But I’m like, ‘Absolutely not.’ As soon as you monetize your hobby, it’s not for you anymore. It’s not as fun—it loses something.” Serena is beginning to

[Pottruck provided me with] this way to focus my body on something else, like a way to shape my routine and a way to think about the things that my body can do and how strong it is, [rather than] how it looks and what it can’t do. It gave me a sense of agency and power.”

forge a space of her own in Philadelphia, starting with health and food. Post–graduation, she’s excited to use the extra free time she has as a grad student in computer graphics to more deeply explore Philly’s food scene. “I love the farmers’ markets so much. I love the food scene. I’m a huge foodie … what did I do all spring

break? I went to the farmers’ market. I bought groceries. I cooked. I ate. That’s all I did,” she tells me as her face lights up. “I could just eat forever in Philly.” Despite her pursuit of a master’s degree prolonging her stay at Penn, Serena reflects on her undergraduate experience by appreciating the smaller moments during her three years here. She describes a time where she drank tea with a friend and “talked about [their] dead parents for four hours,” finding it incredibly cathartic to vent to someone who has shared similar losses. Contrary to my original perceptions of what it means to love yourself and others, Serena effortlessly proves that it’s possible to choose yourself constantly and be completely unselfish at the same time. She can drive for hours to bring food to her grandma while also setting boundaries in spaces where she feels that her voice is being drowned out. She can politely ward off 3 a.m. “I love you” calls from flaky situationships while encouraging her students to love themselves and their bodies the next morning in spin class. But despite the complexities that live within her, Serena’s aspirations are simple. “I really hope I’m happy. I hope I’m still in fitness— I really don’t want [to lose that part of me]. It makes me very happy.”

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By walden green


Sam’s proudest achievement—helping communities feel like themselves; their biggest shame—knowing too much about funding at Penn, like, way too much.


nything you can do, Sam Pancoe (C ‘22) can do better. A Philly– born–and–raised student in the Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences Scholars program, Sam describes their major as “I do biochemistry and I submatriculated into chemistry,” which is a nonchalant way of saying that they’ll be graduating with both their master’s in chemistry and their bachelor’s in biochemistry. They don’t like to count the number of student groups they’ve led at one point or another because “if you look too hard it gets scary,” but the list includes Spice Collective, Penn Association for Gender Eq-

uity (PAGE), and the student branch of Philadelphia Alliance for Labor Support (PALS). Our original plan is to meet at Mina’s World, a queer and trans POC–owned coffee shop in West Philadelphia known for housemade samosas and fair worker compensation. As I walk up Spruce that morning, the street numbers get higher and the traces of Penn’s geographic reach—first the off–campus frats, then the Campus Apartments signs—start to disappear. For Sam, who waxes poetic about Lorenzo’s’ $5 face–sized slices of pizza, Rita’s water ice, bullying people about Wawa “even though the campus Wawa is objectively the worst,” and a recording of when Philly won

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the Super Bowl that their family watches every Christmas, it feels like home. “The whole joke in my life has been that I’m just gonna stay in Philly ‘til I die. And I stopped saying that because people are freaked out. But it’s true. I will just be here forever,” they say. The next step in that journey: medical school at Thomas Jefferson University, with an eye on a potential career in obstetrics and gynecology. It’s another decision that’s linked to their given and chosen home, which has one of the highest race–based maternal mortality rates in the country. In their work with PALS, which trains Penn students and community members as doulas, Sam has seen Philadelphia’s birth in-

equities firsthand. For someone who’s had their hand in the past four years’ most notable gender equity– and inclusivity–related projects, Sam understands the gravity of their work, but can also stay casual when talking about it. This is the same person who lists off four different “greatest shames” as a running bit during our interview. These range from their unabashed love for the second floor of Pottruck to “the hold Smokes’ Sink or Swim has on me.” When Sam talks about their decision to study under the notoriously rigorous Vagelos program, it sounds like they did it on a whim. But what they ended up finding was “a group

of friends to do school with, and not in a casual way.” Sam knows it sounds weird coming from a STEM major, but they’re emphatic about what an asset this community has been: “It’s exciting to talk and have intellectual conversations with people.” Apparently some of these conversations take place in the Hamilton Court hot tub, where the group chats about recent scientific papers. It feels absurd to imagine a bunch of college students lounging in a hot tub, debating the relative merits of journal articles published in, like, Nature. But it also perfectly exemplifies how Sam is a magnet for people who are just as dedicated and enthusiastic as they are.


Take Serena Martinez (C ‘22), who was a PAGE first year coordinator in 2021, when the organization hosted the inaugural session of its first–year pre–orientation program Penn GenEq. The curriculum made an affinity space for students of marginalized genders interested in gender equity, but also strove to have a measurable impact during New Student Orientation and beyond: educating first years about campus sexual violence and bystander intervention. As Sam puts it, “[We were] thinking about what skills we want to give to the first years, how it could feel open without it feeling trauma–y.” Even though Sam was the chair of PAGE during Penn GenEq, they’re adamant that “it’s Serena’s baby.” But it couldn’t have happened without Sam, either. Chalk that up to another source of mock chagrin—“My deepest shame is that I know a lot about funding at Penn—like too much about funding at Penn.” Having the know–how and authority to redistribute even a small fraction of Penn’s massive endowment—thanks in part to their seat on the University’s Social Life Inclusion Fund—is a tool without a price tag in Sam’s arsenal. “Something that I really value about PAGE is that people have ideas, and I got to be the person who pulled the ideas together and made them happen,” they say. As for how the test run went, Sam has reasons to be proud— both serious and silly. The serious: “It’s not gonna change all of campus. But I think it’s really important to celebrate when things work out,” which can feel like a rarity, especially for

student activists. The silly: “We watched Charlie’s Angels with Kristen Stewart who looked hot and they were like, ‘Fuck,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah you’re in college now.’” Another of Sam’s friends– slash–co–conspirators is Claire Medina (C ‘22), and together they dreamed up and executed (along with other members of PAGE and Penn Non–Cis, including Penn 10 alumnus Amanpreet Singh) Penn’s trans– inclusive language guide “in the depths of COVID hell,” meaning winter of 2020 into 2021. The guide was a collaborative effort that centered trans experience with a specific target audience of Penn students. How did the idea come about? Sam undersells themself

The way Penn is set up is ‘here are certain identities and they all have their own group,’ but what happens if you fit into multiple of them? My answer was just do all of them, which isn’t necessarily the best path forward but it’s the one that I chose.” again: “In the way that everyone I know just is pedantic and an English major, we were like, ‘Let’s do a little trans project.’” But the question remains: “What is changing your language without changing the material ramifications of being trans at Penn?” If you’re Sam Pancoe, there isn’t an easy an-

swer, but the operative word to keep going in spite of that is “hope.” This same hope colors their experience as a Penn Anti–Violence Educator where, according to Sam, “there’s been varying degrees of hope and disillusionment in all of us cycling through that all the time.” All of this is an incomplete list of their accomplishments and extracurriculars—barely touching on Sam’s work with Service Link, where they help people register for health care, or their time leading Spice Collective— and you may be wondering why, exactly, they do it all. First off, Sam wants you to know that they joined the crew team when they first came to Penn, and everything else has been a cakewalk compared to that. But beyond witty anecdotes, they’re adamant that this is just what you do “when you desperately need space and the only way to do it is to do all of it.” Sam frames it like this: Penn is set up to tell students, “‘Here are certain identities and they all have their own group,’ but what happens if you fit into multiple of them?” Sam’s answer was to just do all of them, which they’ll readily admit isn’t the best path forward, but it’s the one they chose. And if that space isn’t there for yourself and your community, you just have to make it yourself. When Sam and I meet up, the inclement weather has shut down Mina’s World’s outside tables, and we’re forced to relocate to the wooden swing on the porch of their Pine Street home—a marked improvement from their previous apartment, they assure me. As it turns out,

the porch has been pretty well– trodden lately; there’s been a constant parade of friends through the house, not to mention that Sam and their roommates have also been “throwing a lot of parties quite frankly.” Just the night before, Sam and their roommates “threw a gay Asian party for the gay Asians,” where everyone was welcome, whether they were a close friend or a first year. That last part was particularly important to Sam, who adds, “Having spaces to build communities that are social and that fit within the framework of what Penn knows to be social has really shaped my final year here.” It’s all a part of their senior year ethos, which Sam describes as “living as the other half lives.” This, I discover, translates to “no sleep, a lot of drinking, a lot of seeing people all the time.” But as with everything Sam does, it’s not just some silly diversion. It’s their “project for the year.” So what makes Sam most proud about their time at Penn? “Maybe it’s the language guide, but maybe it’s finding different ways to make communities feel like themselves,” they say, after pausing to think. “There’s something nice about being in a position where I have the tools and the space to take a night off and let people have fun.” So yes, Sam Pancoe can do just about anything better than you, but there’s not a single thing they’ve done by themself. Even one piece of Sam’s final advice is courtesy of their friend Madison: “The first [piece] is: Drink less. The second is: Don’t cheat on people. And the third is: Go to therapy. And that’s what I learned senior year.”

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CHRIS PICCHIELLO By meg gladieux


Whether he’s wearing his scrubs or his barista hat, love and care are at the heart of everything Chris does.


hen Chris Picchiello (N ‘22) walks into Saxbys, a huge smile spreads across his face. As he approaches the counter, he waves at half a dozen people he recognizes in the cafe. He’s come in an hour and a half before his shift starts to talk with me, but he’s already chatting with his coworkers across the counter as he orders his drink, his usual—a cold brew with almond milk. “But that’s not the drink that would represent me,” he quickly says when I later ask him about the Saxbys drink that best embodies him. “I’m definitely a fruity guy,” he laughs.

“Something fun, and a little pretty.” No, if Chris were a drink, he'd be his own pastel–colored concoction that he makes from time to time when he’s on shift: raspberry iced tea, lemonade, cream of coconut, and finally blue butterfly blossom tea “just to make it pretty.” Sweet, fun, an unexpected but lovely twist of flavors—it's Chris in a sip. Even though Chris has spent much of his time at Penn in the Saxbys at 40th and Locust— he's worked there since the fall of his sophomore year save for the ten months they were closed during the pandemic— being a nurse is at the center of his identity as a Penn student and beyond. From clinicals to

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collaborating with the fellow nurses in his cohort, Chris has found a special place in his four years studying in the School of Nursing. “Nursing is teamwork. It’s inherently about working with others,” says Chris. That’s what made him fall in love with it. In the same way he works in step with his coworkers at Saxbys, he loves the rhythm of working on the hospital floor in sync with the rest of the nursing team to care for their patients. The collaborative nature of the nursing profession lends itself to a similar culture within his cohort in the School of Nursing. Because of that, Chris says that he was protected from the competitive nature of Penn

culture. Chris grew up inspired by his mom, who is also a nurse. “I’m walking in her footsteps,” he says with a soft smile. He’s the baby of four brothers with a younger sister who’s also studying to be a nurse. Though he initially wanted to be a surgeon—inspired by watching Grey's Anatomy with his mom—he eventually found that nursing would be a better fit for his love of people and his kind, caring nature. Though he’ll begin full–time work as a nurse at Penn Medicine beginning in the fall, Chris is a proud Long Island, N.Y. native—his accent gives it away, I shouldn't even have to ask. He’s looking forward to going

back after graduation to spend one last summer at home with his family. “We’re a big Italian family, you know the vibes,” he says. “I can’t wait to go back for a little while.” Outside of his nursing coursework, Chris minors in Italian studies. He often finds himself at “L’Ora Italiana” or “Italian Hour” at Williams Hall, enjoying coffee and cookies and speaking the language with other Penn students. And when he’s not practicing Italian or balancing his busy schedule of clinicals, classes, and shifts at Saxbys, he loves watching shows with his roommates like Scandal and Love Island and hanging out with his cat Louie—who Chris shows me


has the honor of occupying the coveted spot as his iPhone lock screen—and is “like a son” to him. But by far Chris’ favorite part of his time as a student at Penn has been the experience doing clinicals, which he calls the “highlight” of his education. “Clinicals have been the most formative part of my nursing career, where I’ve found my passion for talking to people and taking care of them,” he says. Particularly, his rotation in the psychiatric unit opened his eyes to the meaning of patient care and communication. But Chris ultimately found a home in his most recent rotation—the vascular step–down unit at the Pavilion—where he’ll be working full time starting in the fall. “It’s a team—that's what they call themselves," he explains. The feeling he has working with his floor at the Pavilion isn’t unlike the feeling he has with his fellow baristas at Saxbys. “[On the floor,] we all want to work together to just help each other out wherever we can,” says Chris. “I like that energy a lot.” Chris explains that they see a lot of amputees on his floor, and one of his favorite parts of the job is the emotional aspects and talking to patients as they adjust to post–surgical lifestyle changes. “That’s when you really connect with people, when you’re helping them navigate those emotions as they realize how their life is going to change,” he says. Though he likes working with the patients, it’s really the other nurses that he’s met in clinicals that have inspired him. During the height of the

pandemic, Chris’ unit was “the COVID floor” at the Pavilion. “All the nurses—they were like soldiers on the frontlines." He had seen his mom working at her hospital on Long Island through the pandemic—he can only imagine how much worse it was at Penn Medicine in the middle of the city. “Coming back into clinicals, I had so much respect for people knowing what they had just gone through. I was very honored to even be working with them,” says Chris. Of course, Chris is deeply aware of his privilege within the nursing profession. “It’s interesting to be in a female– dominated environment as a male,” he says. “But we all come together, and we have fun.” There’s certainly a stigma that comes with being a male nurse—twice during his clinical rotations, he faced patient requests for a female nurse instead—but he emphasizes that gender in nursing isn’t as big of a deal as many people think. “Being a nurse is already such a special part of Penn. But being a guy nurse—I just feel extra special,” he says. Chris’ goofy, warm personality makes it easy to get along with everyone, and as he moves into full–time work, he's honored to be a part of such a diverse career field and hopes to use his privilege for good in a profession historically led by women and people of color. He’s excited to learn from his team and make change in the nursing field. “There are a lot of crises going on in the workforce,” explains Chris. Mental health among nurses is a major issue, and they’re largely underap-

preciated and underpaid. He hopes to bring justice to the field and learn from his place of privilege to fix things within the nursing profession from

Philly has been so enriching for me. I feel like this is a place where I flourished a lot, and I want to keep flourishing here a bit more—not just as a student, but as a person in society.” the inside. Eventually, Chris wants to go back to school to become a licensed nurse practitioner and go into either community outpatient care or psychiatric nursing. But until then, he feels like Philadelphia is the perfect place for him to be and he’s excited to start on the vascular step–down unit at the Pavilion as a full–time part of the team he’s grown to know in his time there in his clinical rotation. Even as we sit surrounded by the bustle of the cafe, Chris is fully present in our conversation, approaching every word with thought and care— but punctuated with jokes and sweet asides. At one point, Dua Lipa comes on through the Saxbys speakers and Chris pauses, sways his shoulders a bit, and nods with a smile, saying, “I approve.” He explains that when he’s on shift, he’s usually in charge of the music playing a healthy mix of Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Bazzi (he starts singing the song “Mine” as we chat), Adele, and even a

little of the Encanto soundtrack now and then. Talking to Chris even for just an hour can make you feel like you’ve known him for life. Fun, silly, warm, kind, and gentle, he makes you feel like his best friend, a part of his “team.” It’s the warmth and care of people like Chris who give you hope for the health care industry—anyone would be lucky to have him at their bedside in a time of need. One thing’s for certain: Penn Medicine has found a nursing gem. Chris’ favorite spot in Philly—other than Saxbys, of course—is the Schuylkill River Trail. We take a bus down to the riverbank, and as he poses for his photo, half–sipped cold brew in hand, his smile consumes his whole face. The day might’ve just gotten a bit sunnier. “Water is homey to me,” he says. He’s spent many afternoons running along the trail or just going to hang out at the waterfront, spend time in the sun, and people watch. Maybe it’s the Long Island in him that attracts him to the river bank—if he can’t be on the Long Island Sound, the Schuylkill Bank is a decent replacement. Looking out at Center City to the east, the Pavilion and all of Penn Medicine to the west, Chris sees nothing but glittering potential and excitement to freely explore the city he’s proud to call his new home after graduation. “Philly has been so enriching for me,” he says. “I feel like this is a place where I flourished a lot, and I want to keep flourishing here a bit more— not just as a student, but as a person in society.”

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Manoj's Wharton experience hasn’t been about turning money into more money; it’s been about building something from the ground up.


anoj Simha (W ‘22) is not your typical finance bro. He has a thing for really obscure sports, like Norwegian curling, and has played scrabble with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. What he’s most set on me including, though, is that he and his roommates have won a collective $750 from pub trivia at New Deck Tavern, “because we are trivia gods.” But his favorite pub isn’t New Deck Tavern; it’s actually The Victoria Freehouse at Penn’s Landing, which also happens to be his favorite place in Philly. It’s one of the only

British pubs in the city, and the primary Premier League (that’s soccer for us Americans) pub here as well. One of his anecdotes sums up The Victoria Freehouse pub perfectly: “I’ve seen bar fights, but I’ve also seen an 80–year–old British man meet a 13–year–old Liverpool fan from South Philly and become best friends that hang out every week. It’s the craziest thing.” At the end of the night, “you can be a little tipsy, stand by the water, and just take it all in.” It all seems really niche, but these kinds of experiences are right up his alley, even translating into his Wharton education—Manoj wants to learn about as many people and plac-

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es as he can. Through his WH 101 and MGMT 399 courses, he’s gotten to work with educational nonprofits here in Philly. But he’s also done work farther afield, building a financial model for a goat farm in The Gambia in western Africa. “Those kinds of things where you get your hands dirty in the real world are fascinating,” he says. To Manoj, business school was never about banking or consulting. “I don’t come from a family that’s well versed in those things,” he says. He came to Wharton with the intention of “building something, starting something fresh.” In his academics, he’s taken advantage of every learning

opportunity: He’s graduating with a bachelor’s in economics, concentrating in finance and legal studies. “I was originally going to concentrate in public policy [as well], but they wouldn’t let me triple concentrate,” he says with a humble laugh. Oh, and he’s also minoring in history, which he cites as his favorite part of his academic experience. “It’s been my thing since I was a little kid, realizing that we’re just a small part of this grand scheme,” he says. His education has proven handy in achieving exactly what he set out to do here at Penn—building something from the ground up. His biggest commitment on campus is with Cosmic Writers, a 501(c)

(3) nonprofit he founded alongside Rowana Miller (C ‘22) that strives to provide free, accessible, high–quality creative writing education to every child that wants it. Manoj serves as its director of finance and will continue to do so after graduation. Manoj is particularly passionate about creative writing education because of how it helped him during his move from southern India to Seattle when he was 8 years old. He felt left out because he didn’t speak much English, but a patient librarian would sit with him after school, reading him books and helping him write them down, eventually teaching him to write his own little


stories. She encouraged him to submit one of the stories to the writing competition through the PBS show Reading Rainbow, and he won. “I got to meet LeVar Burton, it was the best day of my life,” he says, smiling from ear to ear. “It’s when I felt like I truly belonged in this community, I belonged in this country. I found my voice.” Since then, creative writing has been one of Manoj’s favorite hobbies. He and Cosmic Writers Executive Director Rowana both lived in Kings Court English College House their first year at Penn and became fast friends. “All roads lead back to KCECH,” he jokes. In 2020, Rowana started some summer creative writing camps with a grant from the Kelly Writers House, and in May 2021, she was ready to make it a more cohesive nonprofit. “We were sort of a perfect match,” he says, explaining how he got involved with the project. “Because we understood each other really well. We both understood why writing was important to us, and [we] had really complementary skills. She knew the programming side and the instructional side inside and out. And I knew how to work in nonprofit advisory, how to build and scale a nonprofit.” Since last summer, the team has worked tirelessly to fill out paperwork and get registered for fundraising. “We have a lot of inbound

demand from schools and programs after our launch event, and now we don’t have to say no anymore, because we can afford it,” he says. Manoj is “extremely grateful and extremely proud” of the work they’ve accomplished thus far. Cosmic Writers has reached up to 400 students

I got to meet LeVar Burton, it was the best day of my life. It’s when I felt like I truly belonged in this community, I belonged in this country. I found my voice.” already, and will have another 300 this summer. He says that he can see himself in a lot of the students, and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of what he does. In true finance bro fashion, Manoj describes Rowana as the CEO and himself as the CFO of Cosmic Writers. He explains his role as such: “We have all of this incredible programming that we want to get out there to as many children as possible. But if we don’t do it in a way that’s both financially sustainable and forward–facing, we’ll run out of resources and our scope will be limited.” His main jobs are “fundraising, development, and building new connections to make

sure that [Cosmic Writers has] a pipeline for incoming funds and revenue,” and then “managing resources and community partnerships to make sure expenses are taken care of and that [they] can grow sustainably as a business.” Manoj and Rowana were named recipients of the 2022 President’s Engagement Prize, a huge accomplishment that Manoj describes as a “pipe dream.” The pair knew that the grant would “turbocharge what [they] could do in terms of expanding beyond Philadelphia,” and with the help of their mentor Al Filreis—Kelly Family Professor of English, faculty director of the Kelly Writers House, and director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing— they now have the resources to bring Cosmic Writers to schools across the country. Manoj calls the award “the biggest and most tangible sense of validation,” and is incredibly proud of the whole Cosmic Writers team. “They’ve worked so hard on a volunteer basis … I couldn’t do any of this without them.” Aside from himself and Rowana, their four–person team includes Director of Operations Devorah Bass (C ‘23) and Director of Programs Rebekah Donnell (C ‘24). They’ll soon be opening signups for virtual camps and releasing instructor applications. The stars are aligning for Cosmic Writers. Manoj will

be staying in Philly to work on the project for at least the next year, but he hopes to stay involved long after. “This is by no means like a one–year rental,” he says. “[Rowana and I] have both decided and know that no matter what, even if we do have to take up full–time employment somewhere else, we will stay on the leadership team of Cosmic Writers and continue working on it for as long as time and energy and money will permit. Universe willing, I’ll get to do it full time for as long as possible.” Reflecting on graduation, Manoj says, “I’m a sucker for nostalgia, so I know it’s gonna hit me very, very, very hard.” But then he digs a little deeper: “It’s funny to look back on myself as a freshman, because I’ve changed in really dramatic ways. But also, the thing I’m working on now and who I am now is more in line with what I was expecting when I was a freshman than if you’d have asked me three months ago. I’m really happy with where I am. I’ve made some of the best friends I’ll ever have and learned so much about the world.” Manoj has taken full advantage of every experience, class, and resource that both Penn and Philly have to offer, and he encourages us to do the same. “I didn’t think any of this was possible in the beginning,” he says. “It’s easy to see the parts of the present that you don’t like, but now I can see that we’ve been extraordinarily lucky to be where we are.”

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EMMA VAN ZANDT By anjali kishore


Emma goes with the flow, whether that's attending Penn, surviving cancer, or starting the career she never knew existed.


ike some of the best things in life, Emma Van Zandt’s (C ‘22) journey at Penn began entirely by accident: The now–visual studies major from Annandale, Va. was looking for a place to eat in University City after sitting in on a class at Drexel University. At the time, she was sure that her college experience would be spent at a studio art institution, and her interest in Drexel’s design school brought her to Philadelphia in November of her senior year, “way past all the ED deadlines.” This is the first time I become aware of the quiet force of Emma’s self–confidence;

for a teenager growing up in a staunchly competitive suburban district, it’s undoubtedly gutsy to opt to pursue a career in studio arts. However, things took a turn that November day when Google Maps sent her and her mother in the direction of honeygrow, right next to Pottruck Health and Fitness Center on Walnut Street. As the two were walking to lunch, Emma took notice of Penn’s campus and began to look into Penn’s academic offerings. “I ended up finding visual studies,” she explains. “I wasn’t even aware that it was a thing that I could study, but the second I saw it I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually what I want to do.’ I

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completely changed my entire college list a month and a half before all the RD deadlines and applied to visual studies.” “Being in visual studies is already not as common for the Penn student profile,” she explains, “and being interested in the arts or a more creative field is also not typical, so in the beginning, I became comfortable pretty quickly with just doing whatever I wanted to do.” In her exploration of Penn’s offerings, she landed on consumer psychology. “Psychology courses have been invaluable because they really help you understand yourself and other people better, and how we all function,” she remarks. "I think people are bet-

ter for taking them.” On May 16, with achievements under her belt like president of the Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) sorority and founder of Wharton Undergraduate Founders and Funders Association, Emma will be graduating with a minor from Wharton’s consumer psychology program, alongside her visual studies major in the College. As the raison d'être of her entire Penn journey, it’s understandable that the visual studies program and community have taken on a vast importance in Emma’s last four years, something that’s evident by the contagious enthusiasm with which she talks about her experience in the major. “It’s

very unusual that you get a rigorous studio experience while also being able to understand art and design in context—we do things like art history, perceptual psychology, and neuroscience, but also learn how to actually design. You get the best of both worlds, and that’s really unusual,” she explains. “Because it’s so interdisciplinary, it’s very customizable, so everyone is doing very different things; in visual studies, there’s a bit more diversity in thought.” The diversity of paths within the visual studies program proved to be the perfect environment for Emma, who was coming into Penn with little idea of what might be next for her. Her concentration in art


practice and technology, along with her consumer psychology minor, pointed her in the direction of marketing, which she was able to explore through an internship in her sophomore summer at a Silicon Valley startup. The gendered social dynamics that she noticed in the startup world led her and her sorority sisters to found the Wharton Undergraduate Founders and Funders Association. The club focuses on “helping women who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs or working in VC [venture capital] break through the glass ceiling,” seeking to extend the invaluable network of Penn alumni and professional resources to women who may not see a path forward for themselves in the entrepreneurial world. In her own experience in startups, Emma was able to discover an invaluable application for her design passion, which led to her interning last summer for the furniture company West Elm, experimenting with website and e–commerce design. After graduation, she’ll continue to work for the company remotely from Philadelphia. As much as she’s looking forward to “extending [her] college experience,” the main reason she’s staying in the city is to complete chemotherapy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which she was diagnosed with late in her junior year at Penn. Cue the record scratch— we’ve gotten to know Emma for her infectious passion for the arts and articulate, thoughtful demeanor, and we’d be remiss to forget any of that in

the face of the gargantuan, all–encompassing label of “cancer patient.” But it’s impossible to talk about Emma’s story through young adulthood and Penn without acknowledging the major impact of this “disorienting,” life–altering diagnosis. In reflecting on her battle with the disease, Emma is particularly ruminative, describing it as “an isolating experience—for a while, when I was going through treatment, it really took out the social aspect of Penn, so I’m grateful that if I had to have that experience, it was later in my Penn career when I had really great friends and my community nailed down." She adds thoughtfully, “Nobody owes you anything, and when people go out of their way to be there for you, it makes you appreciate the people that you’ve surrounded yourself with.” Emma’s youth complicates how she grapples with the disease: “It’s very rare for people to have cancer at this age,” she explains. “It’s very morbid, because you see a lot of people who pass away or suffer for a really long time, so it brings you really at peace with life and chance, and shifts your perspective in a way that people don’t typically think about until they’re older.” As challenging as Emma’s experience with cancer has been, it’s also broadened her perspective: “It made me appreciate little things much more—it’s so cliche, but it’s so true. I was in the hospital for three weeks in one room, so the day I got out, breathing the air was like breathing for the first time. You really appreciate being free and feeling good; I wouldn’t recom-

mend the experience, but it has made my life richer.” Since her diagnosis, the community she has found through her sorority has been particularly important: “I’d already been a part of SDT and gotten a lot out of it, but that was the ultimate test of the support system’s strength, and my sisters were the ones that got me through balancing chemo, school, and all these other things.” She describes the community as “a rock, which if you had told me as a freshman that that was the case, I’d be happy to hear it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that. I don’t come from a big 'ra–ra' Greek life family, but it’s something that I felt was worth a shot, and definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made.” Emma’s ability to embrace uncertainty and make her own path through it all has proven invaluable. “The field that I’m going into I had no idea existed,” she explains, “and it’s not a typical thing that you’d expect out of Penn. Sometimes it’s more difficult to do something where the path is less clear, but once you get to the finish line, it’s really worth it.” Speaking on the impact of preprofessional pressure, Emma explains, “Everyone expects you to have it figured out and it’s so stressful, which makes it easy to be like, ‘Ok, I’m gonna go work in [investment banking],’ where there’s a preset path. There’s nothing wrong with that, but even though it’s a messier process, taking the time to explore what you’re interested in is important.” Getting comfortable with unconventionality is something that her art background set her up uniquely well to do—“For somebody that was considering

going to art school, I already had to be like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do whatever.’ I’m lucky I had my crisis before I actually came to college.” But in whatever form it comes in, Emma animatedly encourages people to embrace the same “fuck it” mindset. “I think that it’s important to be confident in what you learned and what you bring to the table,” she says. “You have the opportunity to do pretty much whatever you want here, which is the biggest advantage ever,

For somebody that was considering going to art school, I already had to be like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do whatever.’ I’m lucky I had my crisis before I actually came to college.” and really what I wanted when I came to Penn.” It’s what she wanted, and ultimately, what she got: Four years after her fateful honeygrow run, after squaring up with cancer, preprofessional pressure, and a million other obstacles that pepper the universally difficult experience of growing up, Emma Van Zandt is emerging triumphant. “I remember thinking how old the seniors seemed to me as a freshman, and I just don’t feel that old,” she ponders. “I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t have a full four years of normal school, but I honestly feel like it’s just that you always feel younger. It’s bittersweet for sure—I’m excited to move on to a new chapter and about where I’m going, but I’m going to miss Penn a lot.”

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