Last summer was my victory lap. I had my valedictorian stole on my shoulders, my Penn acceptance in hand and a new internship on my LinkedIn. One year later, I am doing the biggest mistake Career Services can tell you: repeating an internship. Sure I have a couple other gigs on my plate, and I probably sound horribly pretentious for complaining about even having an internship, but I am that pre-professional, perfectionist Penn student. You might be one, too. 

In high school, I measured my self worth by GPAs, test scores, awards. This last year– my first year– at Penn, academics still factored in, but the number of clubs I joined, hours I slept and shots I took became more critical to the equation. Now back home for the summer, neither grades nor what I had scrawled in my student planner matter. My calculation has gone completely haywire, and I’m a little lost, stuck between the old and new measures for myself.

I didn’t think spending 12 weeks at home would be this hard. Part arrogance, part ignorance led me to think I’d be treated different (read: better) when I returned. Scrolling through my phone’s camera roll, I see more stupid, beautiful, insane memories packed in the last nine months than what 18 years in a small town brought me. These experiences have made me tougher and wiser, and I hoped how I’ve changed would be obvious to anyone who hasn’t seen me since graduation. 

During my first days back, everyone would ask me about college. After getting past the whole Penn vs. Penn State confusion, I'd try to recall my highlights from the year.  But a lot of what we pride ourselves on at Penn are the half-formed memories we can’t tell our bosses or middle age coworkers about. As I told them the edited versions, I watched half of my semesters disappear. Both I and the listener wondered what exactly I accomplished.

And even what I could describe can’t be done justice with a brief, awkward conversation. You don’t know the pain of writing seminar without taking it or the joy of Wawa without raiding one. And dropping names of the clubs I'm in, the affiliations we take so seriously on campus, does nothing for people who don't even know what Street is (Ed. note: Must be tragic). As I listed the publications I joined, I could see the eyes of my former teacher gloss over and her real questions surface: What happened to your 4.0? Why haven’t you decided on a major yet? Why aren't you interning somewhere better?

I’ve wrestled with that last question since moving out of the Quad. I can rattle off sorority recruitment or midterms, but these are mere excuses to the real reason. I need to make money, and I won’t find it in New York, at least not yet. It’s a conclusion I can live with. But I don’t feel comfortable sharing that, at home or at Penn.

I can’t rely on outside validation this summer. People at home don’t know the context of my Penn successes and failures– and really, I’ve been the only one counting them. I’m so used to measuring achievements, setting goals from numbers and letters. But I need to determine my own self-worth. As we travel across these different worlds, the real and the student, we need to take these various measures with moderation and focus on what remains constant. Our drive. Our backstory. They may not come with a number, and that’s ok.


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