Last week, Street told the story of a student transferring from Penn to a different school. This week, we hear from a student transferring to our campus, ready to wear the Red and Blue for the first time. This is her story.
Last year, around the time I had decided to transfer colleges, I came across an article about a Penn student titled “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection” , and after reading it, I was sure I didn’t stand a chance of getting into Penn. The students mentioned in the article were track champions, figure-skating competitors and scientific geniuses– and even they felt academically inferior to their peers. What's more, they found the atmosphere at Penn to be competitive, stressful and depressing. I didn't think I could wear the Red and Blue.
I applied to transfer to Penn anyway and eventually was accepted. About a week after receiving my admissions email, I was pretty much committed to Penn. The next step was to become aware of its reputation. Penn has been criticized for students’ poor mental health, the widespread use of Adderall on campus, the level of economic privilege among the student population and hook-up culture. Penn has a reputation of fostering a soul-crushing, high-pressure, deeply competitive pre-professional environment. It's also supposedly one of the nation's top party schools. I was anxious about both the cutthroat competition and the intense drinking culture. Both seemed to oppose each other. And neither was something I wanted to deal with in college.
I felt the same way about Cornell, which I applied to twice, first in high school and later for a transfer. In high school, I was shocked to hear that people thought of Cornell as a party school. I had always heard about how competitive it was, how classes were graded on the curve, how it was supposedly the easiest Ivy to get into but the hardest to stay in and that Cornell was notorious for student suicides. Penn and Cornell are completely different universities – but they ended up with similar reputations. Cornell’s competitive reputation deterred me the first time around, while I didn’t buy into the idea that it was a party school (however, its location discouraged me the most).
I’ve learned from my first two years of college that reputations aren’t always entirely indicative of reality. Reputation was part of what led me to apply for a transfer. I had chosen to go to my previous school, Bryn Mawr College, because of other people’s impressions and opinions of the school– which ended up not resembling my experience at all. Friends, family members and teachers had all told me similar things about Bryn Mawr, about how challenging, rigorous and intellectual it was and how welcoming, friendly and accepting the community was. And what I got from their comments and from talking to alumni was what made me want to go there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the academic, supportive environment that I was hoping to find. I had friends in college who had completely different experiences, who felt pushed, stimulated and nurtured by the environment, but my experience was not as positive. I found the courses weren’t as challenging or as engaging as I hoped; I found the student community to be less academically-oriented than I expected, and less supportive, diverse, inclusive and accepting than I wanted. Although I know others who felt the same way about Bryn Mawr, I was in the minority.
I knew that 90 percent of a college population can have one experience, but that doesn’t matter if you’re part of the 10 percent that goes through something completely different. Every opinion matters, and ultimately, the most important experience is your own. People tried to dissuade me from applying for a transfer, citing rankings, graduate school acceptances, how respected my old school was, how everyone thought of it as a good school. None of that matters if I'm not getting the education and experience I want and need. It didn’t matter to me whether it was a “good” school, it mattered that it wasn’t a good fit.
Someone once told me that all schools are party schools. And it seems to me that a lot of schools are stressful. From reading that New York Times article, although it focused on a Penn student, I took it more to describe what teenagers and college students all over the country are experiencing – how the education system itself is deeply flawed and psychologically taxing, and how depression is an epidemic, especially among adolescents.
The one aspect of Penn’s reputation that got to me was the fact that I hadn’t heard much about the English department. I had heard about Penn’s great business and science programs, but it seemed to me that Penn wasn’t known for its humanities and social sciences, which is what I’m studying. Also, Penn’s pre-professional reputation also made me feel that those areas would not be as strongly emphasized. However, looking at articles online, I noticed that Penn had a highly-ranked English department– one aspect most popular conceptions of Penn neglected to include (USA Today said Penn was the second-best school for English majors and College Factual places Penn’s English major at #1). That claim is just as valid as any other of Penn's rankings– and we buy into those stereotypes more than we realize.
I know that reputations can be based on the majority or the minority. That rankings are flawed. That institutions change over time. That experiences vary. So, when transferring, I focused on the concretes. I wanted a bigger school, I wanted to go to college in a city. I wanted more classes, departments, and more students. And that’s what Penn is going to give me, party school, pre-professional school, competitive campus, bad mental health or not. And already my understanding of Penn’s reputation has shifted and altered drastically – it changed the moment I received my acceptance letter. My impression of Penn has bounced all over the place, from that school I didn’t even know was an Ivy League, to a good school, to a top school, to a competitive school, to a party school, to a school that houses one of the best English departments in the country, to my school.
I don’t really know what to expect from Penn. It might be a good fit, it might be a bad one. I won’t really know until I get there, but I prefer to find out for myself.