If you saw me walking down Locust today, you’d probably see me as a short, quiet, baby–faced, curly–haired, racially ambiguous woman with muscular legs and tattoos. But to the few people here on campus that know me beyond that, I’m also a first–generation, low–income, city kid from Chicago with social anxiety.
My little sister and I grew up living in a different aunt's or grandma’s home every week until I was eight. During that time, we also babysat the six younger cousins who lived with us. Sometimes, we would have sleepovers in the hospital break room where my mom worked overnights and go to play trial versions of video games the next morning at a Circuit City where my dad worked.
In high school, I was one of the first girls to become a Junior Varsity wrestler on an all–boys team but got a lot of shit from my “teammates” daily for it. Throughout my junior year, I saved up my $10 worth of lunch money every week to pay for dance lessons, which later enabled me to compete three times in the International Salsa Congress.
I didn’t realize that more than one college existed until my junior year of high school, because all my dad talked about was me going to a state school, one he wanted but was never able to attend. I think I was only the fourth person ever from my public high school to go to Penn, but I was hardly excited when I first received my acceptance, because my parents wanted me to take the full–ride engineering scholarship from my state school instead.
Maybe they were right. Since being at Penn, I’ve always felt like an average, maybe even below average, student. But I get that “average” depends on the way we define success for ourselves. I am the Penn student who is absolutely afraid of each semester before it begins. I am the one who often has to catch up to even be on par with my classmates, the one who always tries to do the best that I can, even though it doesn’t always pay off. It’s for these reasons that I don’t necessarily consider myself to be an “academically smart” student.
My freshman year at Penn was far from easy. My childhood home foreclosed and my parents divorced in a matter of months. I used my refund from financial aid to help my dad pay his rent while he searched for a new job. Although my high school teachers praised my writing skills, my professors at college would sometimes refuse to grade my assignments at first, telling me I was writing them incorrectly without really helping me figure out how to fix them. Along with adopting new and challenging material, it felt like I had to learn how to read, write, speak, and study all over again. Soon, my GPA tanked, and I considered transferring.
Like a lot of my first–generation and/or low–income friends at Penn, and my urban public high school friends who decided to attend a selective university, I questioned whether or not I deserved to be here. Maybe I had been too idealistic. Maybe I should’ve listened to those who told me I wouldn’t fit in at an Ivy League institution. Maybe it really wasn’t a place meant for people like me.
Still, I decided to give it one more semester. Despite the darkness of those first few months, I found a shining light in my college advisor. Like many Penn students, I came in thinking I knew what major I wanted to pursue and was adamant about pursuing it, even if my grades started to suggest I shouldn’t. When I told my advisor about the career paths I saw myself following in the future, she suggested I consider switching to something completely different—Urban Studies.
I was reluctant, because I assumed it was one of those majors that wouldn’t land me a stable, well–paying job. Nonetheless, I took a few urban studies classes, and to my surprise, I fell in love. My grades were terrible, and classes I thought I would love, like "Intro to Ethics" and microeconomics, had an unhealthily competitive and unsupportive environment. But the encouraging, student–centered environment and passionate professors of the urban studies courses I began to take were invaluable, so I immediately declared my urban studies major at the end of my freshman year.
I never really did learn how to navigate the Penn classroom, and I still get intimidated by students who seem to know so much more and speak more eloquently than me. But I’m happy to know that somehow I was able to keep up, even if I usually found myself around the average in the end. I didn’t make a huge impact on campus, and I don’t think I’ll be remembered as superior or exceptional by any of my professors or peers. But I am thankful to have found my own kind of success at Penn: finishing my four years with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in majors I’m passionate about, getting an A on my senior thesis, forming a two–page–long resume, and—most importantly—having a better understanding of who I want to be in the world beyond college.
Everyone thinks a Penn student is always this perfect kid with good grades who volunteers weekly, runs multiple clubs, launches start–ups, talks a lot in class, and speaks multiple languages. But we forget that even though we were all accepted into Penn, we don’t all stand on the same playing field when we enter. Some of us came from more humble beginnings, and when we first walk down Locust, each of us comes bearing weighty achievements and even weightier baggage.
Evidently, there are students at Penn who know exactly how to thrive in the Ivy League environment, but there are also a lot of us who have to make sense of it on our own. The hyper–competitive Penn culture can make us feel that we need to be the best at everything and that we're always running out of time to figure out our lives. However, we have the power to choose to define ourselves and our achievements under our own standards, especially when they don’t match up with those of the “typical” Penn student.