Dean* did the frat house thing all night with his entire hall, squeezing in between sweaty freshmen in order to get a precious red Solo cup filled with Natty Lite. Hailing from the West Coast, he was pretty pleased with the women at Penn, who seemed to look better and better as he got more beers under his belt. It was only midway through NSO, but he already had to sit through enough boring lectures and awkward socials to last a lifetime. It was his personal philosophy that it's always easier to meet people when you're a little wasted, and he was taking that mantra to heart tonight. As he stumbled from house to house with his hallmates, the fact that he just met them a couple days ago didn't seem like that big of a deal.
* * *
By the end of the night, the hall decided to go back and make sure that a trashed Dean was going to go with them. Approaching the Quadrangle gates, Dean managed to focus his eyes long enough to punch in those last four digits of his Social Security number. Following this minor miracle, Dean's hallmate, Anna*, made sure to throw his arm over her shoulders and they started the long trek back to the hall. Dean laid on Anna and Felicity's floor for a bit, mulling over the fact that he was plastered on somebody's dorm floor all the way in Pennsylvania. Finally, Anna and Felicity* helped him to bed the best they could.
But several hours later, Dean felt the call of nature and needed to find a urinal with all deliberate speed. Feeling around in the semi-darkness and briefly contemplating the sink, he groped for the door handle and walked into the blazing fluorescent light of the hallway. Clad only in his underwear, he finally made it to the bathroom, only to find it locked, and his key in his locked room behind him.
When he awoke, his head throbbing and eyes attempting to acclimate to more fluorescent lights, he realized immediately that he was horizontal, and his back was shockingly cold. He saw people perched above him with concerned faces, asking him what his name was and where he lived. Looking around, he realized that he was on another floor in the Quad close to his, but he had no idea how he got there. Trying to fight back the raging headache, Dean hoisted himself up and staggered back to his hall. At this point, Dean realized that it was going to be a long NSO. But at least he didn't have to pee anymore.
* * *
As the "uncomfortable middle sister of the Ivy League," Penn tries to ensure that its freshmen are appropriately welcomed to the Ivy League institution. Events such as a lavish evening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art try to awe its freshmen with Penn's prestige. Proseminars on topics such as "The Universality of Human Rights" showcase the school's commitment to education.
However, Penn's campus size and very active Greek life has earned the school a reputation as the party Ivy. When the sun sets, freshmen pour into the houses west of 40th to indulge in free alcohol and beirut on sticky frat house floors.
Caught in the middle is the Class of 2010, with 2,500 undergrads who don't know anyone on campus or anything about Penn outside of the admissions tour. Despite drunken revelry and smiling faces, NSO can be a bewildering and strangely isolating experience underneath the surface. What follows is a (somewhat) sober look into the lives of five freshmen from one hall in the Quad to see what life is like during one of Penn's largest parties: NSO.
* * *
For Anna, walking onto the manicured lawns of Locust Walk was a world away from her private school out West. Back home, Anna was the crŠme de la crŠme in her class of 80 kids, one of the self-described sporty, popular girls who sat proudly atop her social sphere. With the looks of a Queen Bee and the brains behind it, Anna arrived on campus ready to make friends and party hard during orientation.
In a certain way, she had already known what to expect from the school's partying ways and cheerful dismissal of the geeky Ivy League image. Having stayed at a frat during Spring Fling as a high school junior, Anna knew that getting alcohol at Penn was more a matter of knowing the right people than being of legal age. "It ultimately came down to either Georgetown or Penn, and Penn had the academics," said Anna. "Besides, Georgetown only has a bar scene - at Penn, I could pretty much party wherever I wanted without being carded." Of all of her hallmates, Anna clearly knew the most about her future school and the coming whirlwind of lectures, socials and drunken revelry.
But despite her knowledge of the lay of the land, there were some unknown aspects of Penn life that left her nervous. At home, she'd always been surrounded by a core group of girls for support and counsel. Still, with an easygoing demeanor and a radiant smile, making friends with guys in the wee hours of the night wouldn't be a problem for her.
The real problem would be trying to ignore "Penn Fame," those snotty girls and Jewish American Princesses that seemed to be bred to attend Penn. Replicating that core group of friends, especially 3,000 miles away from home, probably wouldn't happen in the five days of NSO.
Until Anna actually feels in place with her group of friends, she'll keep her expectations low and won't assume that she'll meet anybody worth talking to during these first few days. Besides, as long as there's jungle juice on Beige Block tonight, why worry about making a new best friend?
* * *
Matt* woke up tired as hell on the third day of NSO, forgetting for a second that he's not in the international all-boys prep school of his high school years. Rather, Matt blearily opened his eyes to the very co-ed world of the Quad. American women his own age were everywhere: walking around in bathrobes, mixing it up at library socials, and dressing up to go out on the town, or at least west of 40th. As he slowly booted up his PC and saw that Felicity was online, he marveled at the idea that he was already so close with people he hadn't known four days prior.
Back home, kids just didn't open up that much, so his own reserved nature was pretty much par for the course. Now, in a completely different environment, he'd have to go that extra mile to make sure to leave a good impression on anybody new that he met. So far, though, the kids living around him seem like kind and interesting people that he could really get used to.
Perhaps this was due to Matt's charm and touch of an accent, which automatically made Matt the token international student among the kids he met. He had mixed feelings about this - with his hallmates, it was fine, since they all knew him as a genuinely good friend and confidant, but to everybody else during NSO, who are hell-bent on meeting as many people as possible without actually caring who they met, he was just "that international kid" from a country that everybody loved. As he shuttled back and forth between events like the Diversity Info Session and the Library Social, Matt wondered whether these people, who liked him so much initially, would bother knowing him three months later. In a way, Matt felt like an outsider looking into this world that wasn't his, and wondered how he would fit in, if at all.
Despite being exhausted, Matt slowly lowered himself out of bed and quietly made his way to Felicity's room. He wondered if his neighbors Nick* or Shawn* were awake, and quietly knocked on their door to see if there was any sign of life in the guys' room. Around him, Matt heard the faint sound of feet going up and down hallways, one or two showers running, and the murmured laughter of a group of people one floor up. For being more than 100 years old, the polished wooden floors and signs outside the door made the building feel more like a home than a dormitory.
Before he reached Felicity's door, Matt decided to go to the nearest lounge to see what the rest of his class was doing outside. As he peered over the windowsill into the Quad, Matt caught a glimpse of freshmen with cheerful faces, perhaps too cheerful given the hour. Although there's little chance he could have summoned up the energy to be so unabashedly chipper before his shower, Matt sympathized with his peers. This sort of energy and vibrancy is what he was missing back home, across the sea. These Americans were all about enthusiasm, whether it was enthusiasm for their studies, their interests or for simply getting to know other people. This sort of vibrancy is lacking overseas, and Matt was glad to be in the thick of it now. He turned back and headed to Felicity and Anna's room, ready to start the day.
* * *
It's 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the third day of NSO, and Shawn already wished that the Engineering School's events were over. Earlier that day, he sat in his department advising meetings, while Engineering administrators and professors ran down the overwhelming list of requirements for the school. It's bad enough that incoming freshmen, fresh out of high school, usually pick their major before they even start a day of class. Now, these representatives from the university are scaring kids shitless about how daunting the next four years of their lives will be. Almost like a low grumble, Shawn could hear the groaning and complaining of his Engineering peers, while others looked incredulously at their course schedule for later in the year. "I could tolerate a lot of the other stuff during NSO, and some of the events were actually good," said Shawn. "But these academic sessions, everybody seemed to look on the whole experience as frightening and pretty negative."
Now, two hours later, Shawn still tried to make small talk while trudging through the Engineering School's grounds, which only span a two square block area. With his indie-chic glasses and love for alt-rock, Shawn didn't match the figure of the stereotypical "Penngineer." As he shuttled back and forth between the Towne Buildings, slowly flipping through the thick packet of SEAS information provided to him, he wondered how an engineer like himself could ever flourish in the frat-dominated culture of the party Ivy. Everything between him and other Penn students had been sufficiently awkward and hard to adjust to, especially given the high pressure situation of the frats. "It's really hit or miss with the frats," said Shawn. "Even when I'm in a frat house, I try to avoid the crazy parts, find a couch, and chill." Interacting with frat boys and drinking warm, cheap beer doesn't exactly match up with Shawn's expectation of the social scene here at Penn. Attendance at an all-boys Catholic school in high school didn't help with the sexualized power politics of frats, where upperclassmen guys are always on the lookout for prospective hook-ups with hapless incoming freshmen girls. Rather, Shawn had imagined the freedom that he could have never gotten in high school: starting a band, becoming an activist in political clubs and generally living the indie rock high life. "I like the co-ed environment a lot more, but I'm not the most social person out there," said Shawn. "I'm not going to walk up to a girl like I've seen a lot of guys do here."
Shawn meandered through the labyrinth of hallways in the Engineering Building, wondering whether it would ever be possible to find his way on his own. With a couple days left, he wondered what else the School of Engineering and Applied Science could possibly throw at him.
* * *
Felicity sat in the rain, shivering, looking at the sea of umbrellas in front of College Hall. To all sides of her sat the Class of 2010, similarly hunched over in rain jackets, while Ben Franklin loomed above them in the dying light. As the sun lowered and the rain kept falling, Felicity saw large spotlights bathe the columns above the podium in red and blue light. Her neighbors next to her grumbled about the miserable conditions, and to a certain degree, Felicity was also disappointed that the weather during Convocation was so dismal. Nevertheless, hearing President Gutmann deliver her speech and hearing the subdued murmur from the rest of her class made the rain all the more bearable.
"It's sort of ironic, you know, but I actually enjoyed what Convocation stood for," said Felicity. "That moment was the beginning, and that just makes me excited for the future." At one point in the dreary evening, The Inspiration strode on-stage and sang its rendition of 'Can't Hurry Love' to a crowd of drenched underclassmen. Maybe because she'd listened to the song a lot during the summer, or maybe because she was just so ready to welcome Penn into her life, the song and the performance struck a chord with Felicity. "I think it was a sign that I'm going to have a great four years," she said. "You can't hurry being comfortable or settling in, because sometimes, you just have to go with the flow."
* * *
After Gutmann was ushered away from the throng of freshmen and the Glee Club triumphantly sang "The Red and the Blue," a sense of relief seemed to wash over the crowd. Awaiting Felicity, Matt, and the rest of their hall was a spread of desserts along Wynn Commons.
On the whole, Felicity was glad that NSO was officially over and the structure of classes would begin. "I feel like I'm going to look at NSO and not think of it as part of my college experience," said Felicity. "College is about making real friends, and if that's the case, NSO isn't what college is really about."
While weaving in and out of tables and looking for desserts to eat, Anna knew deep down that what she saw at NSO couldn't have been the entire Penn experience. "You really can't get down if you don't have fun," said Anna. "Once you realize that everybody feels the same way, you realize that it has to get better"