Change is rarely easy, particularly when that change comes over the course of a few days and upends what it means to be a student. For many students, Penn’s move from in–person classes to online classes has proven challenging.
Penn has a vibrant and diverse student body hailing from different time zones and backgrounds. Because of this, students' situations vary. To give students flexibility in dealing with difficult situations, Penn followed in the footsteps of other institutions by allowing students to take any course pass/fail, while still counting those courses towards graduation requirements. Originally, students were instructed to change their grading type by April 13, and many responded that this deadline was too early.
Then, Penn announced a change in policy: rather than April 13, the administration extended the deadline to the last day of the semester, April 29.
Rising senior Finnegan Biden (C '21) led the push to extend the pass/fail deadline.
“I was talking with a lot of my friends," Biden explained. "They were expressing this sincere anxiety about the pass/fail deadline … being in a different time zone, and not knowing if their families are going to get sick."
Biden wrote a petition using the popular petition website, Change.org. Her petition argued that many students are struggling and aren’t in environments conducive to learning. It continued to describe how the early deadline was harmful to students and pointed out that there were not any foreseeable negative consequences to pushing back the deadline. The petition garnered over 3,500 signatures.
In describing why she chose to petition, she said, “I was thinking of ways to enact change and to talk about it productively [so] the school might respond, and [the petition] seemed like the most productive [way] to show the school that the students really did care about this.”
This wasn’t the first time Biden was involved in school politics. She explained that in high school, she fought a similar battle—one to change her school’s dress code. “I started this campaign where all the girls came into school and surprised the faculty, which they hated, wearing t–shirts saying, ‘I’m not the distraction.’ That was the first time I actually saw sincere impact [from] something I did because we got rid of the dress code and had a forum at our school about it.”
Creating and spreading a petition is no easy task. According to Biden, it took a lot of spreading the word and contacting her friends through GroupMe and other social media. “I think my friends hated me because I sent it in every single group chat that I’ve ever been a part of,” she joked. She also targeted the class GroupMes and got people to post in each of them. Her methods worked, as the petition quickly spread and caught administrative attention.
Biden didn't receive an immediate or grand response to her petition. “I think people were mostly just interested in how the school was reacting to it, and if I had heard anything from the faculty, but I was kind of on the same page as everyone else. I was wondering if the faculty had even seen it.” She admitted that she was still excited about it, along with other people. “Because there’s nothing else going on, so I think that had everyone’s attention.”
To the relief of many students, the petition achieved its goal, as the administration reconsidered its decision and extended the deadline. Still, there’s a lot of discussion about whether the University is doing enough. One of the biggest, most controversial topics that’s still blowing up the Penn Crushes Facebook page and every class GroupMe is whether or not a mandatory pass/fail policy should be implemented. The arguments have only gotten more intense as more colleges have jumped on the universal pass/fail train.
“I think [the University] responded to our worries because the petition was just to extend the pass/fail deadline … [but] I think the student body is a lot more divided on whether or not they want universal pass/fail,” Biden pointed out. “I was really moved by this New York Times article. The moral of the article is: At whose expense are we getting a letter grade for? Because those choosing to go pass/fail are the ones most affected by the virus.”
Biden intentionally did not include mentions of mandatory pass/fail in her petition. “I didn’t make the petition mandatory pass/fail because I talked to maybe 20 people," she says. "They were so divided whether they wanted it to be mandatory or not, and I really wanted this to be a united movement where the students could come together and show their support for one another.”
“I think it’s amazing the way we came together as a student body even in times of so much separation and loneliness for a lot of people, so I hope there’s some comfort in the fact that the faculty heard us and recognized our voices because we really did come together and support one another.”
She wrote the petition because she wanted to make a difference. To Finnegan Biden, enacting change is empowering. “You have to be the change you want to see. Anything as little as just writing a petition. I hope everyone else can realize that it’s not that hard. But you have to do it.”