How to engage academic wellness services

The Weingarten Center provides disabilities services, tutoring, and learning resources for students across all 12 schools.

Students and staff sitting and eating at round tables. A screen in the back reads, "let's talk!"
Ryan Miller (left front) meets with students in August 2019, when the Weingarten Center collaborated with PennCAP to host students participating in the Pre-Freshman Program. (Image: Steve McCann) 

“I’m here to tap into my full potential,” says Niko Simpkins, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. “That’s the philosophy that I live by.” Simpkins envisions excellence, which is why he found himself at the Weingarten Center, poring over past exams with STEM learning specialist Gabriel Angrand. Weingarten is Penn’s hub for tutoring, disabilities services, and academic supports for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students across all 12 schools. Weingarten staff collaborate with campus partners including Academic Advising, Athletics, Counseling & Psychological Services, International Student and Scholar Services, and Penn First Plus.

Academic learning, says Jane Holahan, Weingarten’s executive director, isn’t just about attending lectures and taking notes. It’s about engaging with the textbook, reading the syllabus to see what the professor wants, understanding how tests are graded and where students may be losing points, and for some students seeking counseling or a diagnosis for undiagnosed learning disabilities.

Weingarten looks at student wellness comprehensively, says associate vice provost Sharon Smith. “So, if a student is with us in tutoring and it turns out they are struggling with concentration, we have the resources and expertise to help them with that within Weingarten,” she says. The goal, she says, is to provide multidisciplinary case management and connect students directly with the help they need.

Tutoring services came under the Weingarten umbrella in 2019, at the start of Holahan’s tenure. This enables the Center to centralize and integrate student services, she says. “The mission is to accompany students along their academic journey here at Penn.”

As a former high school teacher, Holahan is all too familiar with the strategies and shortcuts students may use to excel. Cramming and rote memorization may have served students well in high school but don’t always translate to the university setting. Enter Weingarten.

“A learning specialist resembles a personal trainer,” says Holahan. “One who can identify the issues and craft a personalized approach to getting back in shape,” guiding students and strengthening their study strategies.

Hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Simpkins first encountered Weingarten during the Africana Summer Institute, a program designed to acclimate pre-freshmen to the Penn campus. He later returned to consult with Angrand, a Penn graduate and now a STEM specialist who sought help from Weingarten after failing his first chemistry exam at Penn. Angrand “does a lot of his work around erasing the stigma around getting help,” Simpkins says.

Simpkins found that improving his grades “didn’t have anything to do with the rigor of the classes, had nothing to do with how much I understood, had nothing to do with how hard I worked. It had everything to do with how to communicate,” says Simpkins.

Angrand, who graduated from the Graduate School of Education in 2018, coached Simpkins to study the syllabus to understand what professors were looking for and comb through textbooks to process figures and section headings. Simpkins also began participating in study groups and group messages, which he says many underrepresented students don’t have access to because the groups are formed ad hoc: Students meet up with students they’re familiar with, and it can be hard for outsiders to break in. Because Simpkins had attended a predominately white high school, he was able to navigate this dynamic, which was “game-changing,” he says. “I was walking up to people I didn’t know in class, saying, ‘Hey, George, can I study with you?’”

Instead of spending countless hours on his own chipping away at his problem sets, Simpkins learned the importance of forming groups to strategize together and support one another. “It quickly became clear how critical my community-building skills would be to my success at Penn,” he says, “which motivated me to be intentionally inclusive wherever I had the chance.”

Weingarten works to connect students, encouraging them to talk to one another and pool resources, says Ryan Miller, director of the Office of Learning Resources. “What are all of the resources available to you in this course? What are the expectations, and in response, what are the strategies you can put in place?” he asks. Weingarten gives students a space to think about how they’re approaching their learning, to evaluate expectations, and to engage in an ongoing self-assessment process, Miller says.

Because all services are confidential, Weingarten collaborates with ambassadors to spread the word, including Simpkins, who has become “an incredibly compelling advocate for our program,” says Miller.

The ambassador program “involves meetings with leadership and talking about what we want to do with projects,” says Hoang Anh Phan, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate now in her third year. “Every time I have the Weingarten meetings, it’s so inspiring, because I get to see undergrads that I don’t really have that much interaction with, and I get to see what they are passionate about and what they’re contributing to the community,” Phan says.

A table that reads "Fall 2020 tutoring by course, top 20 courses # of interactions." the table is led by MATH 104, with 497 tutoring interactions
Students seek tutoring predominantly for STEM courses that are foundational to their future career goals, says Weingarten ambassador and chemistry graduate student Hoang Anh Phan. 

Originally from Hanoi, Phan wanted a way to give back to the Penn community and found her values aligned with the Weingarten mission, she says. Phan uses her role to help bridge the gap between graduate and undergraduate students, which she observed as a teacher’s assistant in chemistry, where coursework can be challenging and students too overwhelmed to ask questions. Students often enroll in STEM courses as a foundational strategy to achieve career goals, and this added pressure can contribute to self-doubt, Phan says.

“Penn students are the best and the brightest,” says Holahan. “For students who are accustomed to that A, a B can be crushing.”

One of the biggest reactions is shock, Angrand says. “Many students, including myself, come from a high school where you’re in the top 5%, and you come into this space where you fail your first exam or get your first C ever. It’s this dissonance. ‘How is a C acceptable? And if I’ve gotten a failing grade, how do I even deserve to be here’?” he asks. “Some of that really does come from the place of, ‘I thought I was the best, and maybe I’m not.

“We’re here for the empowerment of any student,” says Angrand, noting that this mindset attracted him to working at the Center. “I’m very interested in the personal ministry aspect of it, meeting students one-on-one, engaging them. As an alum of the institution, it’s been nice to tell students what I wish I did.”

Holahan says she needed a place like the Weingarten Center in college, which offers academic workshops throughout the year as an approachable step for students who may be hesitant to reach out. “It’s really important that the student themselves makes that decision to come to Weingarten, she says. “They have to be ready or they’re not going to take suggestions. It normalizes the situation.”

Simpkins says he sees only the benefits for students seeking out services from Weingarten, no matter what their aptitude. As an ambassador, he says. “I’ve built stellar circles of friends, ranging from the most conventionally smart kids in the class to the most free-spirited geniuses I’ve ever met.” He says, “Being a Weingarten fanatic has never hindered my Penn experience.”

“A lot of time, I see hesitance about reaching out for help,” says Phan. “Help is still something that’s being stigmatized, not only mental help but academic help.” Ambassadors help students to advocate for what they need, Phan says. Weingarten is spreading a positive message, she says. “It is OK to seek help, and there are people out there to support.”

“Seeking support is a success strategy itself,” says Angrand. “It’s not an indicator of being less than.” In listening to students’ struggles, needs, and wants, Weingarten seeks to bring their collective story forward, creating the most supportive environment for all to thrive.