Classmates mourn Penn student killed by SEPTA train

Friends and loved ones of 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Ao “Olivia” Kong, grieved on Tuesday after authorities confirmed her death on the tracks of a SEPTA subway train on the Market-Frankford line during Monday’s morning rush hour.

Authorities say the incident is being investigated as a suicide. Investigators confirm that Kong wasn’t pushed onto the tracks, and that it doesn’t appear any foul play was involved. 

Kong, a Philadelphia native, was studying finance in the Wharton School and completed a number of finance internships. She’d also done a host of volunteer work.

Calvin Nguyen, a senior at Penn, met Kong two years ago at the student federal credit union as part of a class. Her sharp sense of humor, he said, immediately stood out.

“She was as honest and genuine about her personality as anyone could be,” Nguyen said. “She’d always joke a lot and always just poke a little fun at all of our misgivings.”

The two had breakfast over the weekend, and Nguyen remembers Kong saying that she was coping with many challenges that mostly arose from her studies. 

“She told me it was mostly because of the stress of the school. It was mostly school,” Nguyen said. “Something happened, and she fell behind. On top of six classes. And there were all these pressures,” he said.

In a statement, Penn president Amy Gutmann described Kong as a “bright, well-liked and successful member of our junior class.”

Gutmann and provost Vincent Price encouraged students dealing with mental anguish to take advantage of the free mental health services the university provides, including Penn’s help line — 215-898-HELP — and counseling and psychological services available on campus. At night and on weekends, counselors are on call at 215-349-5490.

Kong’s death is the 11th student suicide at Penn in the past three years.

For years, parents of students and others concerned about the problem of student suicides have called on Penn to step up its mental health services and outreach efforts. Some students refer to the way that stress and unhappiness appear as “Penn Face.”

A description of a student-led campus event called “Deconstructed the Penn Face” noted that “many a time, individuals at Penn feel that those around them seem to be leading a life close to perfect. We live under the illusion that others, mainly upperclassmen, are on top of it all, causing us to feel overwhelmed.”

Nguyen, meanwhile, said he wishes the university had done more to identify Kong’s mental struggles earlier on.

A university spokesman would not comment beyond the prepared statement.

Taking long walks along the Schuylkill River with Kong, Nguyen said, is often when they’d most connect, experiences that he said he’ll never let go.

“That’s when she’d cheer us up with her incredible humor and quick sass,” he said. “And that’s something that will never be taken away from me.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.