When I first began my college search, I sought a small school where learning trumped competition and socioeconomic differences. However, when I discussed the matter with my family and friends everyone said, “If you attend an Ivy, you’re bound to be successful.” At the time, my grades were great, but they hadn’t always been– physics is hard. Therefore, the Ivies I could get into were limited. My admissions counselor said that Penn was probably my only option. So, on an October afternoon in 2013, I applied Early Decision to the University of Pennsylvania.
In hindsight, applying ED was foolish. I didn’t take my financial constraints into consideration, and I didn't do a lot of research on the university. I chose to listen to what other people thought was best for me, despite the fact that I would have to spend four years of my life at this institution. But I wanted to defy the odds and foremost, make my family proud. I grew up in inner city Baltimore, where use of correct English and escaping institutionalization, let alone “getting ahead” is nearly impossible. In addition, my mom is a bipolar heroin addict and my father an alcoholic, so the difficulty of my home life inhibited my performance in school. During my later years, I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to a college preparatory school, but the academic and social transition was hard. At the end of the day, I was still academically inferior and marginalized due to my status as a poor, black, homosexual female. Essentially, nothing about my circumstances set me up to attend such a prestigious university. Applying to Penn was a matter of proving to myself and my peers that I was good enough, in a world where everything about me is considered less than.
Before I received my acceptance email, my mind was racing. I thought, Soon I’ll know whether or not I’ll live in a mansion, drive a luxury car and become a member of the elite, or continue living pay check to pay check, bus pass in hand, hindered by institutionalized racism and sexism. When I got in, I believed my whole life was about to change; I assumed that attending an Ivy would bring instant success. For those of you who subscribe to this belief– it's not true. There are plenty of successful and unsuccessful Penn grads. Life can be difficult for anyone, no matter where they attend school.
My first semester at Penn was rough. I received a concussion, lost relationships, struggled with intellectual inferiority and combatted overt racism and body shaming. Luckily, I had to leave Penn during the spring semester to have surgery. During my leave of absence, I applied to other universities and even accepted an offer. However, when I posted the notorious “__________ University Class of 2018” status, I received so many Facebook messages from people telling me what a horrible decision I was making. They said that I was walking away from a full ride and an Ivy League institution, which would open doors for me down the road. I filled out the forms detailing that I would return to Penn the upcoming fall.
While on academic leave, I took some time to improve my mental health. I thought that maybe there was nothing wrong with Penn, but instead my misery was due to a chemical imbalance. I was soon after diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. They saddled me up with three different types of medication. Three weeks later, I started classes.
Though my feelings were reigned in, I continued to feel inferior at Penn. I was virtually invisible because of the way I presented myself. I chose to go to class in sweatpants, I wore my hair cut short, and I am on the thicker side. One day, I got tired of being ignored, so I decided to conform. Every other week I paid $300 to have a woman sew hot, overpriced hair into my head even though it was an expense I could barely afford. I also began planning my outfits to make sure they were what my wealthy peers considered fashionable, and I never left my home without makeup on. Worst of all, I began attempting to be straight; I thought that subscribing to that sexual orientation would make me more appealing, even though I’d spent years being out and proud. Sure, I began to have more friends at Penn, but it was all a façade.
It was easy to get lost at Penn. Every class I took was huge, compared to my high school courses, and the TAs didn't seem to know the answers to my questions. It was easier for me to just stay at home and read the lectures from my bed rather than attend lecture itself. Moreover, the culture of Penn is way too competitive. Students gobbled academic performance enhancing drugs like it was candy. I, along with most of the student body, seemed to value the A over actually learning the material. This level of competition seeped into almost every aspect of Penn, from OCR to extracurriculars. Though there were several clubs at Penn that were life altering for me, like a pre-law fraternity and Penn Women’s Rugby, many other clubs were more concerned with having elections so that people could put “member of the executive board” on their resume than with endeavoring fulfilling activities or serving as catalysts for change.
I firmly believe that my time at Penn would have been better were I not poor. There are many low income students on campus, and they tend to stick together, but most of my friends stem from higher income brackets than my own. It was horrible when I couldn’t accept my bid into a sorority, which I think would have improved my experience at Penn, because I could not afford it. I felt as if most of the activities that truly brought Penn students together were off limits to me, because I could not afford the dues.
The stress of it all was overwhelming. I began to gain weight and binge drink. I rapidly began a descent into depression. During my entire high school career, I had never skipped a class, but during spring semester, I attended only eight lectures of my Introduction to Psychology class, even though the class was a requirement for my major. I couldn’t be who I had to be to attend Penn.
In the spring, the Penn community experienced a severe loss when a fellow Quaker took her own life, and it was my tipping point. That day I began applying to other universities.
Since announcing that I wanted to transfer, so many people have reached out to me, thanking me for speaking out on the struggle that is attending Penn if you aren’t rich, white or mentally stable. I am so grateful that people feel safe enough to confide in me. At this point, I do not know what university I will be attending in the fall, but I do know that it will not be the University of Pennsylvania. Penn is an amazing school and many people thrive there. I simply was not one of those people. Please believe me when I say that I try to convince myself every day to come back and suffer through, because being a Penn student is a privilege. I urge those of you who still attend Penn to keep working hard and reaching for that which others deem unattainable. However, if Penn and any other institution makes you question your sanity and your self worth, please, choose yourself and leave. This has not been an easy decision and due to it, I have been financially and emotionally cut off from my family members, but as of today, I have officially unenrolled. In this moment I am already beginning to feel something that has been foreign to me for two long years. I believe it’s called happiness.