Illustration by Amy Chen
I was prepared for a culture shock when I first came to Penn. I was warned the East Coast would be different than my Bay Area hometown: The weather would suck. The people wouldn’t be friendly. Everyone would be wearing salmon–colored shorts. I’d be turned off by the students from “old money” families with elite, institutionalist heritage coursing through their veins. I knew Penn would be a different culture. I didn’t realize it would be a bubble.
Upon my arrival two years ago, I was shocked by the blatant, nonchalant displays of wealth. During move–in day, I watched a kid struggle to carry his flat screen TV. He then introduced me to the woman he’d hired to clean his room. I figured this was an isolated incident. Obviously, wealthy, entitled kids had to be freshmen somewhere. I just didn’t realize that somewhere meant Penn and the ostentatious display of excess was not isolated at all.
At so few other places would it be normal to walk down the street and see hordes of Moncler coats or to attend a school churning out Wall Street wannabes. From my friends who name–drop celebrity neighbors, to the girl who told me her de–stressing habit is getting weekly massages downtown, to people discussing how Rumor is too ratchet to be worth an Uber ride, displays of wealth and the associated privilege seem to be all around us.
But the obvious wealth of some doesn’t mean the rest of us are guilt–free by comparison. Look around any classroom, coffee shop or library; all you’ll see are MacBooks and iPhones. We love Restaurant Week, which really isn’t a deal when you factor in tax, tip and taxi rides. We complain about Huntsman shutting down its escalators at 11 p.m. We lament the stress of OCR, forgetting that most other college students go to the recruiters and not the other way around.
I’m no exception. I complain about first world problems just as often as anyone else-- don’t ask me how I feel about searching for an outlet in Hubbub. I’m just as guilty of ignoring my own privilege as anybody else. I justify going to the second BYO in a weekend because I don’t spend enough time with friends. I GrubHub to Huntsman because I "can’t waste study time." But I fear I could easily turn into the kind of person I can’t stand: out-of-touch, oblivious, and naive.
Because I’m part of the bubble, it bothers me when, as a community, we ignore its existence. It’s crazy that the vast majority of my friends didn’t factor in finances when applying to study abroad or consider the costs of joining a sorority before rush. Or, perhaps, they did, and decided to keep their financial situation to themselves. There’s a part of Penn that revolves around “keeping up with the Joneses,” either through your spring break plans, summer internship, social scene or Greek affiliation. Yet we forget to talk about the important stuff, that disparities exist and the playing ground is uneven.
We obviously have privilege, whether that’s through attending an elite institution or through whatever perks our individual backgrounds may give us. And for the most part, we recognize it. But I don’t think we’re aware of its impact as much we should be.
Some students might actually live “the lifestyle of the rich and famous.” But most don’t, and it’s hard to remember that when it seems all we talk about are PV vs. Cancun and the line at Sweetgreen. It’s easy to get swept up in someone else’s bubble wrap or your own, but we owe ourselves some self–awareness, which is less protective, but better, than the bubble itself.