My experiences at Penn so far have been overwhelming. My idea of time has changed; it turned into little blocks, each with an allotted productive function, with a few stolen gaps to watch BoJack Horseman. The blank wall above my desk turned into a system of aggressive yellow Post–its detailing my to–do list, which ranged from attending resume workshops to buying razors.
I've since turned to computer stickies so my friends will stop accusing me of being a tech–allergic granny. And so that I can gaze at my wall without fear.
As an exchange student from Mumbai who studies at Ashoka University, these were probably symptoms of my desire to get as much out of a new place as I could. But I also wondered to what extent my environment was generating feelings of hyper–productiveness. Turns out students at the university have a name for this: Penn Face.
You’ve probably heard the term Penn Face before. It’s the name given to Penn’s culture of perfection, which pressures students to constantly "do more" with their time and appear put together academically and socially while hiding their insecurities.
But how do exchange students experience this phenomenon?
Marta Kozlowska (C '20), an exchange student from Poland, says that the culture at Penn turns being busy into an unnecessary competition. She believes that “nothing is supposed to be a competition in life … people take a lot of time and focus away from themselves and away from how they can improve just by thinking that they need to be better than somebody else.” She adds that she’s noticed people boasting about how they’re taking seven credits every semester. Many exchange students she knew who came here only for a semester got extremely burned out at the end of their experience.
“I know people who switched majors last semester because they were so stressed and couldn’t cope with the workload … the more you stay here, the more you develop it,” Yana Milcheva (C '20), an exchange student from Bulgaria, adds.
She attributes some of this stress to Penn students’ general learning style. “I think that students [at Penn] are more inclined to be competitive rather than collaborative. They would prefer to work on their own and get a better grade, rather than just helping each other out,” Yana says. She’s not sure what causes this behavior, saying that it could be an attitude the university endorses, or the pressure of having so many distinguished alumni.
According to Gabriel Cazaubieilh, a third–year masters student from France, this attitude may also be promoted by the pressures students feel to find top–tier jobs. “In France, it’s not about the grades when you hire someone. McKinsey in Paris, for example, won’t look at your grades… they do tests, case studies, etc.” Even so, Gabriel feels that he faced much more pressure back home.
Yana, on the other hand, thinks that back home she faced much less stress. “People don’t really care that much about grades and about assessments … it’s more about being social and learning how to communicate.”
Marta says that stress levels at Penn may have something to do with the year–round grading versus the final–only system at her home university, even though she thinks this environment may be urging her to learn a lot more. Gabriel also said that he appreciates the discussion–led rather than lecture–based style of classes at Penn.
At the same time, he’s noticed the culture of perfection at Penn. “I’ve never had someone [at Penn] say like, ‘what a shitty day’ or ‘oh man, I have so much work,’ like they don’t really complain very much. But I think it’s more widespread in the US, than just Penn.”
Marta also concedes that she thinks Penn Face isn’t strictly a Penn phenomenon. “I think it would be more prevalent here, but in Edinburgh it was exactly the same, but just in a different context, where people would go out more—like on a Monday or Wednesday—and make this appear to be completely fine, whereas they’re failing their degree or something.”
But they think Penn Face may have some upsides. “I do appreciate how academically oriented the university is … it’s going to improve my skills in the future,” Yana says. At the same time, though, she doesn’t think "your mental health and your social connections are worth sacrificing in order to have, like a three points higher score than the other person.”
Marta agrees. “For some people, it works, sure, but it gets you into this weird cycle of like, I’m not a person on my own, I’m at the will of whatever anybody else is doing.” Her advice? "Take care of yourself, because you get pulled into this whirlwind."
As for me, I can’t deny that I love it here at Penn. There’s something exhilarating about the vortex of activities that sucks you in, and constantly wondering whether it’s going to chew me up and spit me out. I’m hanging on from one amazing, overwhelming experience to the next, trying to make the most of my remaining three months as a student at an Ivy League school in the United States.