“PennFaces” Website Aimed at Curbing Ivy League Isolation

The message? "It's OK to be who you are."

Emily Hoeven. This is not her "Penn Face."

Emily Hoeven.

Have you heard about the “Penn Face?”

It’s the face that Philadelphia’s Ivy League students wear out into the world, projecting happiness and resolve in the face of overwhelming schedules, competition, and pressure to succeed. And to hear Penn students talk, it’s a real problem — it’s even been discussed in connection with a series of suicides that have received attention on campus the last few years.

“Everybody puts on this mask all the time,” says Emily Hoeven, a Penn sophomore from California.

That’s why Hoeven is spearheading a forthcoming “PennFaces” website that will feature pictures, stories and more from students, and is aimed at helping isolated students know they’re not so alone as they may think. The website, after a year of planning, is expected to debut in April.

The message? “It’s OK to be who you are, talk about those times you’re tired, struggling with a test or having a fight with your friend,” Hoeven said. “We’re all college students and we’re all going through this time together. It’s good to bring that to light.”

Hoeven said she dealt with the Penn Face phenomenon while experiencing a bout of culture shock as a freshman from the opposite coast.

“Switching coasts, switching friends, switching living locations was shocking to me,” she told Philly Mag. “I felt people around me didn’t act like they were going through those same struggles, or they wouldn’t talk about it to me.”

The website is being produced in conjunction with the university’s Weingarten Learning Resources Center.

“The things we post on social media tend to always highlight the positive aspects or successes of our lives, so whenever one goes on social media, one is struck by how glossy and beautiful and perfect everyone else’s lives seem — when in reality, everyone’s life is so much more nuanced than what they choose to post on Facebook,” Hoeven said. “I hope PennFaces will be a place where people can be more real, where those nuances and complications and ups and downs are explored, where people can share both successes and failures. “

Hoeven said she hopes that prospective students will look at it to get a realistic idea of the challenges that lay ahead.

“This website is a way for people to see that there are times we all feel crappy,” she said. “You will come out stronger, and you can survive until then.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention