Meet Connor Augustine, our first Ego of the Week from the class of 2018 and co-president of the Transfer Student Organization. Although Connor's only in his third year at Penn, this proud Drexel transfer lost no time getting involved the second he set foot on campus. Now, he spends most of his time helping other students through the tricky transition of transferring to find their place at Penn. Street caught up with Connor on the tail end of NSO to talk why we should love our transfers, education reform, and why he'll never work in a restaurant.
Street: You must have been super busy last week during NSO. What have your NSOs been like since you joined the Transfer Student Organization?
Connor Augustine: It’s kind of a combination between being the overseer of the TSO and dealing with specific incoming transfers. Every year we get about 150 new transfer students entering as sophomores and juniors, and when you come in as a transfer you are immediately welcomed by this amazing infrastructure of support. I didn't realize until after my sophomore NSO that my orientation was completely designed and implemented by other transfer students and people who just really care about helping them integrate. I thought that there were all these adults behind the scenes making everything happen, and that’s certainly true to a certain extent, but it’s actually pretty disconnected from the administration. I honestly love transfer NSO. It’s great every year to meet people who are collectively in love with Penn, but have so many different backgrounds. They’re coming from all walks of life and different universities, and they’ve already had a year or two under their belt, so it’s kind of an amazing rush of fresh air to just hear them speak about why they came to Penn, why they decided to persevere and make it here. It's different than the freshman experience for sure.
The second part of my role is to help out NSO coordinators — basically just driving around in golf carts. Last year I was actually the photographer for NSO, so all week I was running around, mostly just following Amy G.
Street: Do you have a favorite NSO event?
CA: Every year we change the events we have, but just being able to get the transfers collectively together is probably my favorite part of NSO. We had a transfer s’mores event this year on College Green that was pretty great. I was really surprised by how many people turned up at 11 PM for marshmallows and graham cracker— it was pretty amazing. The Institute for Contemporary Art also has a dessert reception for us every year, because one of the directors was a transfer. So they have a DJ for us, and coffee, and ice cream, and we just have a little social for a few hours on the terrace. They did happen to run out of ice cream this year, but now that I think about it, that’s actually kind of a trend at this point.
Street: Besides the work the TSO does, is there anything Penn students should be doing to make transfers feel more comfortable here?
CA: Just give a fuck about transfers, and value them for their external viewpoint. These people aren't freshmen —they have a year of college under their belt. They're coming from universities that are probably doing things a bit differently, if not entirely differently, and that's going to completely change the perspective that they have here. Some people choose to drop the identifier of “transfer” after they’re here for a little bit, and others want to hold onto it and associate with the larger body of transfers, but either way it can really be amazing to hear how people are doing things differently at other universities. I think that across the board at Penn, no matter what club or leadership position you’re in, embracing that viewpoint is so precious. It's refreshing.
Street: You have an especially interesting viewpoint, having transferred from Drexel. Why’d you make the switch?
CA: To be completely honest, I didn't really think about Penn while I was at Drexel. I came here because I was more or less unsatisfied with the breadth of Drexel’s offerings in liberal arts and political science. I was doing some community outreach working within schools there every week, as was mandated by Drexel, and I just kind of started to look towards Penn. I was fascinated by the Netter Center. And then we found out that because my mom is a nurse at HUP, she was contractually eligible to receive a tuition. The second we read that tiny detail in her contract I was like, “To hell with it, I might as well apply.” So I just put my head down and got to grind that entire year, and it paid off.
Street: Care to weigh in on the Penn vs. Drexel tension?
CA: I mean, I think there's some difference between the two schools, but it's honestly kind of arbitrary. Both schools are so insular. I think that people come to University City in general and rely on it to produce all of their cultural engagement, which really limits their views to this little environment. And University City is definitely a booming place now, but I always encourage all of my transfer babies to go past the river! I tell them, "That's your first step to becoming enlightened." And then, once you get past the river, don't settle for Rittenhouse or Spruce Street. Just because you see it all over Instagram doesn't mean it's the only hot spot!
Street: As a Philly native, what are some places in the city you think more people should visit or explore during their time here?
CA: I grew up in Fairmount, so the art museum area is definitely near and dear to my heart. If you walk down Fairmount Avenue you can get all the way from the art museum to the Divine Lorraine Hotel, which is a pretty bustling place now. I used to go exploring in it when it was still dilapidated. The Italian Market is also incredible. And I do hear people talk about going to the Italian Market, but instead of it being the point of a trip downtown people need to start using it just as a jumping off point! That neighborhood is so culturally abundant, filled with so many different subcultures of so many different eastern Asian groups. There are all these little pockets where you can find ridiculously amazing fermented fishes and whatnot. Go and explore.
Street: Tell me about education activism in Philly. How did you first get involved with that?
CA: The story of how I got involved in education goes even further back. I went to Friends Select, a Quaker school in Center City, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The structure of the scholarships there for low-income kids was always kind of weird, and I had a whole cohort of friends that had to leave and go elsewhere mainly because they couldn’t afford it. Some left in 5th grade and some left in 8th grade, so I had these two pockets of friends that I would still hang out with at night and on the weekends in the city. Simultaneously though, one group of my friends was experiencing public education up close and then the other one was my pocket of friends within Friends Select, which is a very privileged private school that had basically everything – small class sizes, plenty of resources - and the tuition was insane. And as we went through high school I slowly started to notice these differences between the quality of education and the way that the school you attend can really affect the way you treat people in general. That planted the seed in my head.
Then when I was 16, 17, I went to Brazil to work with my uncle, who’s a puppeteer in New York. While I was wandering around there I saw this huge education protest in the middle of one of the squares. I was really enthralled by how motivated these young people were, and that they were willing to actually come out onto the streets and verbalize their concerns. I hadn’t seen anything like that in Philly. So when I came back, I found the Philadelphia Student Union, which is a collective of stakeholders in Philly – students, primarily, but also teachers and parents. And their whole purpose is really just to raise awareness and to start a coalition of voices that could eventually leverage their collective power for change. I started documenting them – photographing their protests, their sit-ins, their die-ins. I remained in contact with them when I was at Drexel, and now here at Penn that work takes the shape of the Penn Education Society.
Street: Anything I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about?
CA: I’m a chef! I realized this summer that the city was kind of draining for me having been here my whole life, so I worked as a chef for about two months at a restaurant in South Jersey. It was probably the most dysfunctional work environment ever as far as nonchalant…unsavory people. But I loved it. I was just thriving there, doing my own thing, bonding with my sister. I love to cook - I will cook for literally anyone on campus if they provide some ingredients.
Street: Yum. Can we publicize that?