Philly Faces: Jared Fenton Wants to Facilitate Honest Conversations

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Jared Fenton
Jared Fenton on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, where he founded The Reflect Organization (Photo by Lyndsi Burcham)

Jared Fenton, 24, is the type of person who, unprompted, praises his parents at length for the example that they set for him when he was growing up.

He is a certified spin instructor and Hebrew school teacher, not because he was particularly drawn to either field, but because he simply had the opportunities. He is genuinely, earnestly and deeply invested in the simple power of problem-solving and reflection. He is not shy about sharing his deepest life goals (raising a happy family, if you’re wondering).

Fenton is, above all, committed to community service. The University of Pennsylvania Civic Scholars graduate is the founder and executive director of The Reflect Organization, a nonprofit mental health group he started as an undergrad in 2015. At graduation, in 2017, he was the sole employee, unsalaried; now, The Reflect Organization has several full-time staff, interns, office space and a presence on campuses beyond Penn’s.

“We’re growing, and our impact is growing,” he said.

Fenton grew up in Philadelphia and attended Harriton High School. His parents, Bruce and Aeryn, both lawyers, co-founded and continue to run a community engagement nonprofit for grade school students called The Starfish Project for Children. Fenton credits his parents’ insistence that he and his two sisters work to be their best selves — not what they were expected to be, nor who others wanted them to be — with his service mindset.

“That really set the groundwork for the work that I do today,” he said.

It’s only natural, then, that Fenton should have founded a nonprofit dedicated to the students they didn’t cover; The Reflect Organization, as it happens, is primarily geared toward college students.

Though the genesis of the organization’s founding goes back much further — Fenton swears he remembers a formative conversation about Race for the Cure with his mother, when he was 3 — the most obvious place to start is with his college application process. Fenton wanted to attend a school where he could focus on service, along with academics. Penn’s Civic Scholars program, which integrates community service and civic engagement into a student’s academic experience, couldn’t have felt like a better fit.

Besides requiring a high academic standard, Civic Scholars at Penn are required to produce academic research based on a minimum of five semesters in some sort of civic engagement or social advocacy organization and, ideally, doing it as a leader of that organization. There are internships to be completed, capstone projects to present, special seminars for the freshman and sophomores. It’s a tall order for anyone, let alone a high school senior trying to imagine their college experience.

It was all that Fenton could have asked for. Besides introducing him to a sprawling network of people as enthusiastic about service as he was, the program gave him the confidence and the resources to confront a major issue at his school: something that’s come to be known among students as “Penn Face.” Penn Face (n.): students who appear to be effortlessly brilliant and socially fulfilled, but are masking deep anxieties.

To Fenton, if anything was going to change among his peers, or among anyone feeling similarly, it was going to start with deep reflection and honest conversation, meant to break down barriers real or imagined. He started The Reflect Organization as a way to facilitate such conversations among Penn students, through “Reflect Dinners” and “Reflections.”

Suffice it to say, it caught on. Fenton was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award by Barack Obama, and now that he’s left undergraduate life, The Reflect Organization has become a 501(c)(3) and expanded to Cornell University, Queens College and Columbia University, among other schools. It’s been a big year for Fenton and his team.

“I’m always very grateful when there are opportunities for me to learn and grow and, ideally, help people,” he said.

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