Vivian Dai (C ’19) is the kind of person who would order dessert at the bar. She sits with her legs crossed, hands moving frantically, telling a story about the time her Urban Studies professor invited his class out for drinks. Instead of alcohol, which she claims causes her to flush and a litany of blotches, she opted for a large piece of layer cake.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” she jokes, her eyes darting to the side as a friend comes into the peripheral. We’re sitting outside Commons, and nearly every passerby stops to greet Vivian. She coats the morning in laughter and hyperbole. Everything is “the best,” or “super chill,” or “really good”—even the things she wants you to quit.
“Advice I give to everyone: Quit everything as soon as possible. After you get to a certain point, quit everything,” she confides. I was confused. At the time, this advice felt counterintuitive, like Superman revealing to you that saving the world is pointless.
Vivian does it all. She’s a cognitive science major with a computer science minor who spends her free moments tucked in the corner of the Starbucks in the Penn Bookstore, staring at lines of code on a laptop screen. She’s a member of Alpha Phi Omega, Penn’s service fraternity, and spends her weekends volunteering at farms or farmers markets. She runs half–marathons and tutors high schoolers and spends entirely too much time on obscure corners of YouTube. Mostly, however, she spends her time searching for the serenity that imbued her childhood in upstate New York.
Hailing from Schenectady, Vivian misses suburbia, even if she realizes it’s taboo to say.
“It was a nice childhood,” she admits, “I like the quietness. I like driving.” It all sounds so simple, so quaint in the fullest sense of the word. But underneath the facade of suburban peace lay the kind of memories that cling on for lifetimes, like the ones of her eighth grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Kavanaugh. As Vivian looks toward an immediate future as a Teach For America fellow with a high school chemistry classroom to manage, she hopes to emulate him.
“He talked to us as equals,” Vivian says, speaking of a six–year book club she, Kavanaugh, and her middle school best friends created, where they would chat every couple of months. His approach gifted Vivian with a teaching philosophy.
“I really think that with teaching, half of it—well most of it, I would argue—is methodology. So if I teach in a good way, it would be just as important as knowing the content,” she says. I can’t help but feel she applies this same approach to every facet of her life.
Vivian lives with a method, assuredness dripping from every movement. She walks the stretch of blocks between Commons and Clark Park, the site of the farmer’s market, with her head high and straight, never stopping to dawdle or doubt if we’re crossing at the right intersection. Even her browsing has a quiet confidence as she beelines to the free samples at the farmers market. It’s a mixture of sauteed root vegetables, and she sneaks a photo of the recipe before beginning her volunteer shift with The Food Trust at checkout. Somewhere along the way, we share a blueberry brioche Danish that she quietly splits into three perfectly even pieces. Vivian paces life with a deliberate ease, her days dallying by despite a jam–packed schedule.
On Mondays, she rises early to go to her work–study as an algebra and chemistry tutor at Benjamin Franklin High School in Spring Garden, which she later discloses is ranked as one of the worst schools in the district. With a low rating and looming controversy over a merger with a Philadelphia magnet school nearby, Vivian maintains an optimistic mindset, even if “high schoolers can be really fucking mean to each other and to you.”
Her favorite student is ShayKayla, who is one of the few to address Vivian by her first name. She has a brazen maturity and sense of place and privilege, rendering all their conversations thought–provoking and educational, even if they’re only about Spotify playlists.
“The other students tend not to remember my name or they’re just like, ‘Miss,’—she just calls me Vivian,” Vivian says, “And she’s very aware. We had this conversation about the Philly school district the other day. We also had a conversation about like music that she listens to and she’s like, ‘You’re really not with the times,’ and I’m like, ‘Tell me more! Give me your Spotify playlist. Educate me. I want to be young!’”
Vivian’s silent strength is due, in part, to a regimented love of running. What began on the beaten paths of high school cross country trails has spawned two half–marathons and a deep love for Schuylkill River Trail. She runs it routinely, but never with music, and likes to use the time to silence her brain.
“I try to think about life when I’m running if I’m really trying to distract myself, but that’s not the thing to think about because it’s gonna make me, like, more tired. So I just actually try to empty my mind, I guess,” she says, a small chuckle punctuating the sentence, “I used to do this more often but I like to meditate and practice not thinking about anything and I do it under that second bridge [on the Schuylkill]. I like to sit there and dangle my legs over the river … and breathe.”
With a mindset open to that kind of emptiness that spurs growth, it’s no wonder Vivian wants you to quit. But to her, it appears that quitting doesn’t mean a full stop—it means a breath. To Vivian, life moves gradually, especially at Penn. According to her, there was no pivotal moment where she felt like she could claim the campus as hers. That ownership came in dashes and sprints.
“It happened incrementally because there’s never that one turning point where you’re like, ‘Whew! This feels like home now. Everything is great,’“ Vivian said, nodding. She talks with her whole body, head moving to emphasize the quirk of a story or voice inflecting to signal internal dialogue. That said, Vivian cites Alpha Phi Omega as essential to her life on campus and the driving force behind her time at Penn. It’s where she met her best friend and her boyfriend, gaining a sense of community, however elusive that sometimes feels.
“Freshman year, I was really trying to find my people, like that one friend group where you have one group chat and hang with those ten people. In high school I was really lucky to have that. It was like 8 girls and we just like didn’t care about anyone or anything. So, I really was looking for that, and over the years I honestly kept looking. But, I realized that in college that’s kind of not the natural state,” she reflected. “But APO has become my family.”
The close–knit group touches every one of Vivian's favorite Penn memories, like when she skipped her sophomore fling to choreograph a senior send–off dance in the Harnwell dance studio or when she played wholesome broomball at the Penn Ice Rink. They were even present as she neared the end of her second half–marathon, greeting her at mile 10 with a bottle of water and a smile.
Ultimately, Vivian leaves Penn with the uncertainty of every college graduate—the notion that careers are as transient as the clubs and majors we cycle through. But, she also exits with the knowledge that a good life isn’t always a busy or crowded one. It’s one that is quiet, with happiness coming in cups of tea, slices of cheesecake, lopsided smiles, and long runs down the river.