Student org talks life, mental health, and the pursuit of happiness
As a senior in his second-to-last semester at Penn, Jared Fenton, a political science major, was gearing up for his May 2017 graduation. With his sights set on Teach for America, he hoped to start as a corps member the summer after.
But those plans came to a halt after Penn Reflect—a student mental health organization that Fenton started on campus—was profiled in the local news, spearheading unanticipated international exposure. In no time, students and administrators from higher educational institutions across the world were reaching out for advice on how to create their own “Reflect” organizations.
“They were saying, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen anything like this, we think we need it, can you do it for us?’” Fenton recalls. “The question was not exactly ‘Can I do it?’ It became more ‘I have to do it.’”
So, Fenton’s plans pivoted. He decided to stay in Philadelphia to try to expand his passion project. More than two years later, The Reflect Organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is now represented at six universities and growing, helping college students collectively manage their own mental health and wellness, a concept Fenton says is necessary in today’s stressful, anxious, and sometimes overwhelming environment.
The model of the student-run Reflect is simple: Gather once a month at a central campus location over a free lunch or dinner, split up into smaller groups led by trained student facilitators, discuss—and reflect about—what’s going on in life, and, ultimately, Fenton says, “take off the mask.”
“Our mission is to improve students’ mental health and de-stigmatize caring for your mental health,” he explains. “We create a space where hundreds of students at each of our college campuses can feel free to be proud of who they are rather than what or who they think others want them to be, and ultimately build real, true, mutually supportive connections with other students and break down isolation.”
Austin Gwiazdowski, a junior studying computer science, has been attending Reflect meetings at Penn since 2015, when Fenton first founded the program. One of Fenton’s fraternity brothers, Gwiazdowski originally went to show support for his friend.
Now, Gwiazdowski says he goes regularly.
“Outside of Penn Reflect, I see a lot of people have their guard up,” he says. “Everyone is sort of trying to prove something, or keep up an image.”
But during the Reflect conversations, he continues, “It just feels like everyone lets down their barriers. It’s nice to realize everyone here isn’t actually perfect.”
At Penn, the Reflect meetings are held monthly at Heyer Sky Lounge in Harrison College House. Harrison, Fenton’s residence throughout his time as an undergraduate, also serves as The Reflect Organization’s headquarters.
“We love the fact that we are located at a college house because we are all about making caring for your mental health part of your everyday life—at home, at school, everywhere,” Fenton says.
Frank Pellicone, house dean of Harrison College House, adds: “Making these types of conversations part of everyday conversations naturally integrates them without making a big fuss about it.”
Throughout his time at Penn, Fenton was a participant of Penn Civic Scholars, where he was provided resources to do the majority of his research for Reflect. He also was a student of Netter Center Director Ira Harkavy, whose urban studies course taught the theory behind how to solve a problem, which, for Fenton, is the college student mental health crisis.
“The problem on college campuses right now is that 60 percent of students, according to the American College Health Association, report feeling very lonely—not just lonely, but very lonely,” Fenton says. “We know that this loneliness can lead to distress and then crisis. We have to prevent this progression by breaking down the rampant loneliness we see on campus.”
Fenton bootstrapped his first Reflect meeting with money he made from bartending. About 30 people showed up—25 of whom were from his fraternity. Today, hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students attend Penn Reflect’s monthly gatherings. Fenton credits the group’s popularity to word of mouth. Similar growth has been seen at Reflect’s other chapter locations, as well.
“Our chapter at Cornell opened in October, and they had about 100 students at their first meeting,” Fenton says. “By the end of the year, they had almost doubled it, and more than 60 percent were from a minority ethnic group. How does that happen? Because students come to Reflect, they take off the mask for maybe the first time in four years, they feel pride in themselves, they forge these mutually supportive relationships, they break down that isolation, and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, I am totally coming back to this and I’m bringing other people because this is what I’ve been looking for.’”
The Reflect Organization’s current chapter locations, at Penn, Cornell, Columbia, La Salle, Queens College, and Barnard College, have teams of student leaders, all trained rigorously through manuals constructed with the guidance and input of psychologists, scholars, and administrators, says Fenton. The waiting list of colleges looking to establish their own Reflect groups is international.
Although happy to be doing this work, Fenton says one of his goals, ironically, is to put himself out of business.
“Yes, we are providing these very tangible benefits to students, but the ultimate goal is for us not to have to be there,” he says. “The hope is that by expanding the movement, we can empower more and more students to take off the masks, build networks of mutual support, and normalize the true college experience rather than the college experience you see filtered on Instagram.”
For more information about Reflect, such as how to donate, how to get involved, or how to start a chapter, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.reflecteffect.org. To reach Fenton directly, email email@example.com.