I thought there were four seasons, until I came to Penn and learned about the fifth: recruiting season. Dressing up in suits, attending info sessions, and chatting over non-existent coffee is a matter of choice. Neither bad nor good, but a choice. A lot of times people will tell you, “only your junior summer matters.” I couldn't disagree more.
Every summer matters. Summer is this beautiful season where you have a giant void from a lack of school, and you get to choose how you want to spend it. Around late January my freshman year, I started asking myself what I wanted to do this summer. As everyone was on the hunt for a program, and I started to wonder if I should look for one, too. I ran to all the upperclassmen I knew asking them what I needed to do. They would all say, “Just have fun, travel, or take classes.” There was no way I was going to spend my one break from class to take more. Traveling wasn’t a novel idea, but I realized I had never lived alone outside the US. I was born and raised within the same 50 mile radius until I came to college. Still, I wanted to work somewhere “cool.” As an overachiever in high school like every other Penn student, I wanted to work at the best place.
But what happens when there’s no distinct number one? When there’s no wholesale, generic dream internship or summer experience?
I stopped thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in my career. Penn sets you up so well to succeed pre-professionally that I forgot what I did just for fun. I started making a list of what I considered my hobbies, what I have never done before, and trying to find an intersection in between. Ever since middle school, I’ve been baking from scratch anything that could be made by a Betty Crocker mix, but never had formal training. Personally, baking has this beautiful duality to it. Recipes themselves are a science, with a very low margin of error, however, this precision helps us strengthen what we can’t build with a recipe: relationships and community. When I came to college, I came into a giant community where everyone was ready to build relationships. Instead of bonding over food, we bonded over being new. But, the novelty of being new eventually fades (bye NSO friends!), and I was brought back to square one. After a year of immersing myself with a community, I wanted to spend more time developing my hobbies and understanding myself. During my introductory Buddhism course, the professor talked about monastic living and the importance of simplicity. The thought of silence and time to myself in a place where FOMO didn’t exist sounded like paradise.
The search first started for the best pastries school in the world except in the US. I knew I wanted to leave the country. I started searching for places I hadn’t been to and didn’t need a new language for and, like every college American, ended up in London. I reached out to Wharton, and the school's Global Research Internship Program (GRIP) made it more affordable to attend Le Cordon Bleu in London. Two weeks after submitting a pretty straightforward application, I was enrolled in culinary night school. My first day of class was the college equivalent of syllabus day. My only memory of that day was how excited I was to get my own apron, immediately wearing it again at home while making dinner. Goodbye Chef Boyardee. Hello Julia Child.
Culinary school was not what I expected. I thought I would be walking into a relaxed cooking class, but what I ended walking into was a room of older, creative culinary minds who were hoping to understand the basics of French pastry. I remember picking up the idiosyncrasies such as wrapping your towel to stabilize your bowl while mixing. Each step was treated with the highest level of intention and precision, no matter how irrelevant the action seemed. I carried that mentality with me throughout the rest of my time at culinary school, when I was working at LSE, and even when exploring around London. I walked my way through the city, stopping to pay attention to the way I was walking or to take in the view. By the end of my three months in London, I felt ready to conquer the world. I could make 150 palmiers in under 3 hours, codify over 700 different types of cancer, and tell you which of the public hospitals had the best ER (thank you respiratory infection!).
In London, I was constantly exploring, sifting through noise, both on the streets and in my head. I was building a routine, and life started moving faster that it started to feel like Penn again. Even though I didn’t want to leave London yet, I knew I was veering off my summer goal.
One flight and long drive later, I went from chilling in rooftops bars with views of London to climbing up a hill to sit in a classroom overlooking more hills. My three bedroom apartment in the heart of Russell Square was replaced by an avocado grove and a wooden board to set up my tent three hours away from the closest convenience store. However, my two weeks at a monastery were as fruitful as my ten in London. The first couple of days, I cheated. I couldn’t eat only one meal a day when I would work in the garden for three hours. I missed morning meditation because I wasn’t used to waking up before the sun. I cried because I had never felt so removed from the people I love. After rigorous repetition, I meditated at least six hours day, read for four, worked everywhere I was needed, serving the monks and helping the community. Not every day was perfect, but it didn’t need to be. Mistakes became part of the past as quickly as they were made. I lived in the present, and in the present, I had to ask myself, “in this very moment, how am I positively contributing to this community and to my practice?” Through disconnecting from my daily life, I found the discipline I needed to navigate it.
Reflecting back on my original goal, I had challenged myself to learn about academia, science, cooking, the academics of science, and the science of cooking. Somewhere along messing up my galette and perfecting my pâte à choux, I learned the importance of attention to detail and coordination. In order to do 10 different tasks at once, you actually have to do 10 different tasks sequentially just really fast. We can’t “multi-task,” but we can decrease the time it takes for us to switch tasks. Within the Wat Metta Monastery, I internalized that external pressure is fundamentally internal. We allow our thoughts to be consumed by the opinions of others and speculate, for better or worse, rather than try to empty our minds to be present. In searching for help, we cloud our judgment rather than clear our thoughts.
To many, my summer seemed unconventional. To me, it comprised of the ideal experiences for me to develop myself in the multitude of roles I take on, whether it be a daughter, friend, student, or independent individual. Before you hit submit to whatever it may be, ask yourself if you want that title to be a part of your story.