Serena Bian (C’ 18) was a sophomore when she first read the letters. She was sitting in a coffee shop and found herself sobbing in front of strangers. She’d found the Dear Penn Freshmen website, where upperclassmen upload heartfelt reflections and words of wisdom on their times at Penn.
Now, as upperclassmen herself, Serena and a team of five others have restarted Dear Penn Freshmen. They’re gathering new letters to update the website with current students’ narratives. The initiative began when Lauren McCann (W’ 16), a student in Adam Grant’s “Organizational Behavior” class in 2015, founded Dear Penn Freshmen as an antidote to Penn’s competitive culture.
In 2015, seventy letters were uploaded onto the website. Since then, there have been over 27,000 unique hits on the site. One of those readers was Matt Mizbani (W’ 19). “My own freshman year was rough in a lot of ways,” Matt said.
He distinctly remembers reading Dear Penn Freshmen because of its impact on him at the time. “Seeing so much commonality in the experiences at Penn gave me a lot of hope,” he said.
Over the years, Matt forgot about Dear Penn Freshmen, but he was reminded of the project when he worked with a mutual friend of the founder last summer. “When I got back to campus, I got really interested in rebooting the initiative,” Matt said.
The goal of the project, according to Serena, is “to have these letters be points of access into upperclassmen’s brains.” The project humanizes upperclassmen, showing that everyone has struggled at Penn—even the people we admire most.
And for seniors, writing letters can be a way of leaving their legacy at Penn. “Upperclassmen take time to sit back and reflect on what the crap has happened these past four years,” Serena said. “And then they can reflect on how they want to live the last couple of weeks at school.”
To Matt, the goal of the project is to increase belonging. “It’s the feeling that you’re surrounded by people who accept you for who you are and who support you,” he said. “Making sure that freshmen know that people have been where they are now and that those people have gone on to live very fruitful lives at Penn. It’s empowering them to seize their own future.”
The letters vary in topic, style, and length. Some are anonymous, whereas some people add their full name and email at the bottom, providing an opportunity for dialogue between reader and writer.
Some underclassmen reach out to the seniors seeking mentorship, or friendship, or just reaching out in appreciation. Dear Penn Freshmen is “a platform for continuing the conversation,” Serena said.
Savi Joshi (W’ 19), another member of the Dear Penn Freshmen Team, reached out to some of the letter–writers when she was a freshman. She does that a lot, sending an email of thanks or admiration to writers whose pieces have impacted her.
“Reading the letter of someone who I have always put on a pedestal, seeing the things that they went through, it had a big impact on me,” Savi said. Seniors replied to her emails, and since then, Savi has developed close relationships with those people she reached out to years ago.
Savi mentioned the group’s focus on the longevity of the project. They want to make sure it continues to help future freshmen, and even pre-freshmen. Matt and Savi are both juniors, and they plan to continue Dear Penn Freshmen next year.
They have goals for the future. “What we’re hoping to do is offer [Dear Penn Freshmen] during NSO,” Serena said. “As an incoming freshman, you don’t really have those relationships to have those discussions, so this is away to get that perspective.”
There’s also an issue of getting the word out. The Dear Penn Freshmen team plans to distribute physical copies of the letters to freshmen this week, inviting them to visit the website, which relaunches this Wednesday, on Valentine’s Day.
The project could also be developed for other contexts—schools, workplaces, communities of all types. “It’s not that much effort—it’s uploading letters onto the website,” Serena said. “It’s the power of language and stories, which I feel like has the potential to not just be a Penn thing.”
The Dear Penn Freshmen team, which also includes seniors Lisa Yang, Maddie Gelfand, and Krish Mehta, is hosting an open mic at United by Blue this Thursday at 7 P.M. Seniors will read their letters aloud, reigniting the conversation. As trite as it sounds, the group is spreading a message of love—love for community, for self, and for others.