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Young Black woman, Mercedes Owens, standing in front of the beach wearing a black top, jean skirt, and white shoes.
Photo by Simisola Afolayan

Black History Month “Past, Present, Future”: Mercedes Owens (C’21)

To celebrate Black History Month, Her Campus UPenn is running a “Past, Present, Future” campaign where we highlight Black womxn who have made significant contributions across time, including those who are ready to take on the future. We are so excited to feature Penn student, Mercedes Owens (C’21), in our “Future” series! Learn more about Owens’ work, leadership positions, passions, and goals below:

Mercedes Owens is a senior from Lexington, TN studying economics and consumer psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. She serves as the President of the Undergraduate Assembly and is excited to be leading the 48th session. Since her freshman year, Mercedes has focused on lobbying for mis– and underrepresented groups and is currently prioritizing 5 main areas: uncompromising activism, effective representation, improved communication, increased collaboration, and total accountability. Outside of the UA, she is a member of SPEC, a Penn Abroad Ambassador, a College Peer Advisor, and a PENNacle Leader. You can also find her doing power yoga, listening to music/podcasts, or watching anime!


How has your experience been with leading the UA, and what are some of the most important values that you incorporate into your leadership position(s)?

“Leading the UA during a global pandemic has been both extremely difficult and incredibly rewarding. The pandemic has definitely shifted the way the UA operates, and we have had to find a balance between increasing grace and flexibility without sacrificing our advocacy efforts. Additionally, it has been challenging to build a sense of community during a time when we are not able to gather physically. Simultaneously, though, the demands from students and administrators have steadily increased. We have had to shift our list of priorities to accommodate the evolving needs of the student body as a result of the overwhelming sense of uncertainty within university life as a whole (academically, socially, financially, etc.). 

As a Black woman and a member of the first-generation, low-income (FGLI) community, I view Penn in a unique light. Throughout my four years at Penn, I have worked on various initiatives that center FGLI and minority student voices in conversations around the development of various university programming and initiatives. As UA President, I have made an incredible effort to elevate the student perspective and expand upon the concept of feasibility in the minds of the administration, particularly in relation to the allocation of resources and implementation of policies. 

In general, I try to center my own values of equity and inclusion into the advocacy that I do. I believe that everyone deserves to have an equal opportunity to succeed despite their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or gender expression/identity. Additionally, I deeply value honesty and transparency, and these are core values that I consistently demand from our administrative partners. In order for the UA to serve the student body effectively, we must know the background and feasibility constraints surrounding any initiatives and/or solutions that we propose. I want to ensure that Penn is doing everything in its power to provide its students with the support, resources, and policies necessary to be successful.”

Can you tell us a little bit about your current goals? Big or small!

“In relation to the UA, my current personal goals are twofold: the first is to finalize the logistics for a pilot program of a grocery delivery service intended to help combat food insecurity on Penn’s campus. I began investigating food insecurity on Penn’s campus my sophomore year, and I felt that this was an issue that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Last semester, I wrote a proposal for this program, and in collaboration with PSG Steering, Penn First Plus, and Student Registration and Financial Services, we are in the final stages of implementing a month-long pilot program this semester. 

The second goal is to see the successful implementation of a mandatory education on anti-racism, indigenous visibility, and other biases (including SES, gender identity, etc.) for the 2021-2022 academic year. I believe that every student on Penn’s campus should be educated on the array of cultures and identities that exist on our campus and within the West Philadelphia community. This project is in collaboration with NSOAI, College Housing, the Provost’s Office, and I am joined in my advocacy by UA First Year Alex Eapen.

In relation to life more generally, my goals are to graduate, find a nice apartment in Philly, and establish a healthier work-life balance which I was never fully able to gain at Penn.”

How do you keep those around you, and yourself, motivated despite conflicts and obstacles?

“Over the course of the pandemic, there have been many reasons for us to mentally travel to a dark place. I think the most motivational thing is knowing that you are not alone in your internal struggles. The way I keep myself and those I love motivated is by sharing my personal conflicts and exchanging ideas and knowledge about remedies we may use. It has also been really important to remind myself and others to be kinder to ourselves as we simultaneously endure immense loss and traumatic historical events. 

Additionally, my friends and I have had discussions about how we defined productivity and accomplishment. By shifting away from equating productivity to the amount of academic or extracurricular work we complete in a day, we have begun thinking about indulging in self-care, having relaxing discussions, going outside, and engaging in physical tasks like walks and yoga as productive activities for mental and emotional wellness. The past year has presented us with a lot of obstacles, but I have found that savoring the small bits of joy is essential to protecting my happiness.”

In your opinion, what are the most important attributes of successful leaders today? How do you continue to grow and develop yourself during times of uncertainty and/or injustice?

“In my opinion, some of the most important attributes of today’s successful leaders are flexibility, humility, empathy, an understanding of one’s own implicit biases, and cultural competency/awareness. The world is constantly evolving, and with that evolution comes new ways of thinking that require open-mindedness and adaptability. It is also important for leaders to prioritize self-accountability when learning and implementing these new ways of thinking.

The way I continue to grow is by asking questions and, when receiving a response, truly listening with the intent to learn, research, and implement. I never assume that I am an expert in anything, and as a result, I am able to be welcoming to new knowledge and flexible within my own thought processes.”

What does Black History Month mean to you, and how can we help our student community celebrate Black excellence not only this month, but also the other months of the year?

“To me, Black History Month is the celebration of Black culture and excellence, which includes our resilience, beauty, and wisdom. In order for the Penn community to genuinely celebrate Black people, both during Black History Month and beyond, they must first recognize that each Black experience is unique and valid. They must take time to evaluate their explicit and implicit biases toward the Black community and how they perceive Black accomplishment. 

These reflections must extend beyond that of just Penn students to the Black members of the West Philadelphia Community. These reflections must also include the treatment of Penn’s Black staff and faculty. In essence, in order to be an ally to the Black community, one must include the entire Black community, regardless of factors like socioeconomic status, access to resources, employment status, and/or level of education. Allyship is more than just an Instagram post. It is a behavioral change that challenges the disparities that exist on a systemic level which are often the factors that lead to discrimination against Black lives.”

Fun, rapid-fire, get-to-know-Mercedes questions :)

  • Favorite place on campus: The Quadrangle! I love it especially on sunny fall days when the leaves are just beginning to change and everyone is seemingly taking a break to simply enjoy the day. It’s rare on Penn’s campus! 
  • Any shows you’re binging: I just binged Fleabag on Prime and am currently binging an anime called Jujutsu Kaisen! 10/10
  • Apple Music or Spotify: Spotify! I love being shamed by my peers for listening to over 100k minutes of music and 65k minutes of podcasts in a year :D
  • Corner piece or center piece of a cake: Center!
  • What’s on your bucket list: Live in Cape Town, SA or Sydney, AUS for 2-3 years!
  • A lesson you’ve learned in college: Be calm because, somehow, everything will work out in the end.
  • Most memorable experience at Penn: Learning from the conversations I have been able to have with younger students in my current position! As much as I love being a source of knowledge, I love learning from others so much more.
  • Best self-care tip: Buy yourself a small gift each month if you’re able to! Something small and inexpensive like a face mask or a coffee. Just reward your mind, body, and soul for physically and mentally carrying you through life!

Thank you, Mercedes, for sharing your story with us!

Mary is a junior majoring in Science, Technology & Society with a minor in Consumer Psychology. She is on the Penn Women's Golf Team and is passionate about storytelling and health & wellness. Her favorite writers include Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Malcolm Gladwell. When she isn't studying or golfing, Mary enjoys listening to music + podcasts, watching TV with her family & friends, and practicing yoga.
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