Can Opener: The University of Pennsylvania

This is a screenshot of a post from Penn's Instagram from April 15, 2015. I had been accepted but had yet to commit. 

This is a screenshot of a post from Penn's Instagram from April 15, 2015. I had been accepted but had yet to commit. 

It started with a random email to the President of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Amy Gutmann.

“Hi Dr. Gutmann,” I wrote. “My name is JJ Vulopas, and I am a sophomore...”

I told her about my children’s book and about my idea to help young people learn vital leadership skills. I told her about my life-threatening food allergy and about my desire to use my voice to help others.

It was probably the type of email that every ambitious, naive, “I’m-gonna-change-the-world” college student sends to a college president.

But Dr. Gutmann treated that email with the same care and excitement with which I wrote it.

Her response arrived the next morning. She personally congratulated me for my initiative. She validated my cause. She told me who at Penn might be a good fit. She told me that she and her office would be there as a resource, if needed.

Following her suggestion, I reached out to Professor Anne Greenhalgh of the McNulty Leadership Program. She met with me in person and helped me to further formulate my ideas.

She said she would be there to help (and she has!). Then she suggested others in the Penn community who might be able to assist.

More validation. More guidance.

Within days, I had sent out a number of emails. One was to Dr. Adam Grant, the same Dr. Grant whose book Originals inspired me to write my own book. He immediately responded. He told me he, too, would be there, if needed. And he reached out to others on my behalf — both at Penn and beyond.

Within a week I was meeting with Reb Rebele and Grace Cormier, experts in applied positive psych. They met with me. Not once. But several times over the summer, working with me at various coffee shops in Philly and helping me to turn my vague idea into something of substance. They helped me to create a Land of Can.

They weren’t the only ones associated with the Penn community who gave me their time and wisdom and support. From psychiatry professor Dr. Wade Berrettini to CHOP’s Dr. Jonathan Spergel to author Dr. Cassandra Frangos (who was one of my first Twitter followers!), to Tracy Ziolek of the Penn Institutional Review Board to Erica Montemayor of Wharton Leadership Ventures, mentors from various sectors offered their expertise and guidance and support to help amplify my voice. 

When I was narrowing my college choices, I wanted to choose a school that would provide me with the academic rigor to grow, but also a school that would mold my skills and my passions. A school that would value me and help me to develop a voice that would make authentic change.

Before I actually committed to Penn, I met the Dean of Admissions Eric Furda during an event for prospective students.  He wouldn't have known me from the next nameless high school senior, but I told him I wanted to choose a university that would know me… a university that, in addition to providing me with a solid education, would reward and encourage initiative. He asked my name and assured me I wouldn’t just be a number.

Was that a line every dean of admissions throws out? Was that a sales pitch to get me to say yes?

I told him if I chose Penn I would put his words to the test.

He smiled and said, “Welcome to Penn, JJ. You won’t be disappointed.”

I didn’t know it then, but that wasn’t a line. It was the truth.

It’s easy to open a Can for someone when you're hungry. Who wouldn't open a Can when you might directly benefit from what’s inside? But far far fewer adults will take the time to be Can Openers when it's beyond their job descriptions, or when they don’t see immediate or personal benefit.

It’s still uncertain where the Land of Can blog will go. A few years down the line, I don't know if I'll have helped a hundred followers or a million. But as I sit here today — as an ambitious, naive "I'm-gonna-change-the-world" college student — none of that really matters. I do know that some of the brightest and most accomplished professionals in the world are rooting for me, giving me the wisdom and the guidance and the confidence to use my mind, my heart and my voice so that I can speak with conviction to make real, authentic change.

That’s the definition of a Can Opener. That’s Penn.


JJ Vulopas is a junior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An advocate for young people, JJ has lived with food allergies his entire life. He is the author of the children's book, Land of Not. You can read his daily blog at Follow him on Instagram and on Twitter @thelandofcan.