I’m about to turn twenty-one, and here I am in my parent’s house, just sitting on my bed staring at another Penn pennant that my mom managed to mount on my wall. While I’m away from home, she has a habit of sneaking an assortment of Penn décor onto every facet of my room. Like most of the Penn–themed content in our house, the pennant isn’t even mine. My sister got it during her New Student Orientation at one of those “spirit” events, where Penn tries to compensate for its rising tuition rates by distributing unlimited Penn Engineering bottle openers and Penn Med–themed condoms. I wander over to my sister’s room, where I see her Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) stole and “Class of 2018” graduation photographs. That was the last “normal” class, I guess. She got the undergraduate experience that I should have had, that is, until March 2020 happened.
I’m not returning to Penn campus this semester. Much to my horror, on-campus housing fell through, and I’ve suddenly been transported into a tragic version of “17 Again,” a movie where Zac Efron is quarantined in his bedroom throughout the entire film. It’s no secret that we all feel we’re missing out on the quintessential “undergraduate experience.” To current underclassmen: you might be wondering about what your experience would have looked like had a global pandemic not turned this institution into Khan Academy. And to the upperclassmen: we are all undoubtedly worried about what comes next, how we can truly live the “undergraduate experience” as this stage of our academic careers comes to a close. In response to these questions, I have drawn inspiration from my own experiences and curated the following narrative about what undergraduate life at Penn was like, pre-COVID, and what may lie ahead.
- Send Me the Addy / See and Be Seen: Coming to Penn, everyone sought to reinvent themselves, further their academic pursuits, master their budding talents, and gain independence. Little did we know, by the end of our first term, we would amass an array of far more superior abilities, such as fully constructing our “Penn Faces,” posting Snapchat stories from dimly lit basements, messaging “send me the addy” to all of our recent contacts, and developing strong “see and be seen” game. The latter ability required quite a lot of practice, but, once mastered, “see and be seen” skills made us all look like we were never studying, while we were still managing to study.
- My Old Self: Once we were back home for Winter Break, most of us would fondly reminisce about all the “party friends” we made, only to realize that the New Year’s Eve group FaceTime session was the first lengthy conversation that we all had ever shared with each other. While I was briefly back in my childhood bedroom, I recall incessantly complaining about having to revert back to my “high school” self and dramatically lamenting about how I felt stifled by my parents, my old self, and my “non–adventurous” local friends. By the end of Winter Break, it is quite likely that we resorted to planning several “dates” before the start of the following term, only to fall irreversibly into hookup culture for the remainder of our freshman years.
- Vibes Were Off: Shortly after spring break, most of us realized that we had very large networks of not–so–close friends and began the painstaking process of weeding out the ones that we didn’t vibe with. As someone that enjoys building an aimlessly large network of contacts, I always felt a little uncomfortable about the reverse process of selecting an inner-circle, but a quick glance at my nearly half-thousand new Snapchat “friends” suggested my need to reassess who I really wanted to surround myself with. At least housing selection expedited this whole process, as many of us were forced to choose which of our friends we deemed “roommate status.” By the start of sophomore year, the good news is that most of us all had found reasonably–sized groups of genuine friends. Settling down meant that the adventurous outings with quasi–strangers that defined our freshman year had given way to more intimate kickbacks with a certain reliable group. Of course, we still had our fair share of late–night venue hopping, but, rather than training us to immediately erect our “Penn Faces,” these outings fostered genuine self–presentation and more “real-life” interactions.
- I Want to Work at the Goldman Sachs: Upon realizing that half of us don’t have internships yet, most would have found themselves becoming spontaneously enthused about “networking” and career fairs. Specifically, I found myself uncontrollably mentioning that I was “thinking about going into consulting,” impulsively attending investment banking events with no real interest in finance, and casually strewing out my business card collection on unsoliciting bystanders. Eventually, we all started to wonder where our college strategy went wrong, because other people had somehow managed to party, get A's, and intern at the Goldman Sachs.
- Developing a Personality: A full year of pre–professional frenzy passed, and junior year was on the horizon. Like many others around me, I began rediscovering my old high school hobbies and passions, actually finding people who shared those interests, developing other forms of high–quality leisure time, and reconnecting with my parents. This is a process I like to call “developing a personality.” I vividly recall the shocked reactions from my peers when they discovered that I used to work at my own recording studio, where I produced future bass and trap, edited my own original vocals, and almost released songs, before convincing myself that they “weren’t ready for the public ear yet.” In utter confusion, they asked me why I had spent so little of my free time at Penn pursuing music production, which is when I realized that perhaps I had bought into a stock–photo script of what I thought an undergraduate student should experience.
- A Bright Future: After several months of denial, I finally began to accept that my much–idealized narrative of undergraduate life at Penn would likely never come to fruition, and I would never be able to speak about the typical “undergraduate experience” past the beginning of my junior year. As a result, everything I have engaged with recently has been spurred by a rejuvenated hunger to discard my former expectations and author my own story. During quarantine, I have developed my cocktail mixing skills, returned to producing my own trap beats, picked up DJing, reconnected with old high school friends, and, most importantly, fostered a strong relationship with my family that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. While I remain at home this semester, I am certain that a bright future lies ahead.
I wrote my own Step 6. There is no template for college life at Penn, though I satirize the template–like behavior exhibited by Penn undergraduate students in the narrative above. At the end of the day, it is up to us, now more than ever, to be the authors of our own “undergraduate experience” script.