Bearing witness

Through art, poetry, and the written word, fourth-year student Deborah Olatunji embraces vulnerability.  

Deborah Olatunji stands next to a sign reading, "The Kelly Writers House"
For Deborah Olatunji, Kelly Writers House is her “third place.”

Deborah Olatunji can often be found at the Kelly Writers House. The fourth-year student from New Castle, Delaware, started at Penn intending to go into nursing and later switched into psychology, with an emphasis on using the creative arts in research. The shift was a surprise for Olatunji, as it was for her family. “I come from a family of nurses,” she says. “My dad’s a nurse, my mom’s a nurse, my older brother’s a nurse, so, it was always kind of clear from the beginning.”

Until it wasn’t. Olatunji, like the rest of the Class of 2024, started her first year taking classes online during the pandemic. She has used her time on campus to explore identity and emotion, pushing herself outside of her comfort zone she says by creating a podcast, studying abroad in Cape Town, learning African dance, going to therapy for the first time, meeting new friends, and changing her major.

Karen Detlefsen, vice provost for education and professor of philosophy of education, taught Olatunji in an Academically Based Community Service course called the Philosophy of Education during the spring of 2021. “That’s one of the best groups of students I’ve ever taught, which is really saying something considering it was a Zoom class,” Detlefsen says.

Collectively, she and the students considered how to build an intellectually rigorous online community and create a meaningful public philosophy course without being able to physically go into public schools or partner with other communities in person to do the public engagement component of the course, Detlefsen says.

“Deb was a thoughtful interlocutor and worked really hard to get us to think about features of questions we hadn’t thought about, and she did this in a very collaborative and generative way,” says Detlefsen, noting that Olatunji completed a group project on generational differences on people’s approaches to philosophical questions. “I also got the sense that Deb herself had a transformational experience in her first year, in part because of her participation in that class.”

The class led Olatunji in a new direction in her undergraduate studies.

The discussion of this decision is now the most popular episode on her “Voices of Disruption” podcast, Olatunji says, which she started in October 2020 in her Rodin College House room. In the episode titled “How to Handle the Big Changes that Make Us Grow,” Olatunji talks about how she assumed that nursing would be a steady constant in her college studies, not a life path she would change.

Not to say that there weren’t signs. Before coming to Penn, Olatunji did a 10-day creative writing summer program at the Kelly Writers House, what she calls her “third place at Penn.” She also wrote a book on education transformation, personal development, and youth empowerment in high school, called “Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned.” “I’m a writer first,” Olatunji says.

In 2022, she was awarded the Imagining America/Joy of Giving Something Fellowship, which is given to eight students nationwide each year and includes funding for a yearlong project. She used the time to create the Black Storytellers Collective, a transnational project that connects Black writers across the diaspora, which was inspired in part by her study abroad experience in Cape Town, where she took a class on African dance, performed spoken word poetry at open mics, and explored curated art shows and exhibits.

The decision to fly to South Africa was “a big leap of faith,” Olatunji says. No one from Penn had gone to Cape Town to study abroad since 2019, but since then, five students have pursued study abroad experiences there, she says, noting that her study abroad adviser calls her an honorary Penn Global ambassador. “I definitely consider myself an advocate for studying abroad on the continent in general,” she says. Olatunji, whose family is from Nigeria, hopes to visit all 55 African countries by the time she hits 30.

Reflecting on her time as a student, Olatunji notes how she used her four years on and off campus to explore identity and vulnerability, pushing herself outside of her comfort zone by going to therapy for the first time, taking classes in disciplines outside of nursing, and meeting new friends. These spaces, full of emotional connection and community building, led Olatunji to her passion for mental health advocacy and to change her major to psychology.

Olatunji wrote her honors psychology thesis on Black grief experiences in Philadelphia. Using qualitative methods, she analyzed 98 responses across three area universities (Penn, Temple, and the Community College of Philadelphia) about their grief experiences and methods of coping. The survey also asked participants to share sources of support that would be helpful in the future.

She found that while most studies on Black grief tend to focus on homicide and violence, 93% of grief experiences are “relatively normative,” Olatunji says, including her own grief after her grandfather’s death when she was in high school. “Nobody has a good measure for understanding grief,” she says. She also found that 46% of student responses reflected a remaining need for support, including therapy and spaces to talk. “That’s important for colleges and communities to know,” she says.

Her thesis also includes a visual arts component, a pop-up gallery installation called “Bearing Witness: An Art Project Exploring Childhood Grief and Loss” that will open at 6 p.m. on May 11 at the Arts League at 42nd and Spruce streets for one night, funded in part by her fellowship appointment in the SNF Paideia program.

She recruited Black artists across the Philadelphia area to participate, with some submitting visual work and others sending audio stories. “The vision for this gallery was to have space for people to process and witness grief together as a community and center Black artists’ vulnerability, she says. Olatunji hopes to continue the Bearing Witness gallery as a traveling exhibition wherever her explorations take her next.

Deborah Olatunji sits on a bench in springtime outside the Kelly Writers House