Name: Lizzie Youshaei
Hometown: Highland Park, Illinois
Major: Marketing, Management
Activities: Class Board 2021, Penn Shabbatones, professor Adam Grant’s Impact Lab, Power of Penn, Pennacle, Authors at Wharton, Sigma Delta Tau (SDT), and four senior societies: Osiris, Shamash, Friars, and Gryphon
34th Street Magazine: During your first year at Penn, you ate lunch with someone new every day. How did that happen, and why was it important to you?
Lizzie Youshaei: So I ran for president my first semester at Penn, and the first time I ran, I actually lost by 15 votes. Although it was really embarrassing at the time, I realized that a real benefit of running was that there were other people who also ran and lost, and we could commiserate over that together. That year, there were 14 other people who ran for class president. I was so down in the dumps about everything that happened, so I started texting them randomly. We had never met. We were just competitors for this position that we had all just lost. But I just wanted someone who could hear me out on how difficult losing was. And so I got lunch with all of them, and I realized everyone at Penn has such a fascinating story. Everyone is here now but came from such different backgrounds and has such different experiences. One of the students I met was a former Broadway star. And someone else I met was an international student from Ghana who was able to come to the United States on a lottery. [I met] people who are working three jobs to support their families while they're here as a student at Penn.
I think with each lunch I had, I was motivated to continue meeting more people because I couldn't believe that I was lucky enough to go to school with such amazing and inspiring people. I told myself, “I only have four years on this campus, so I want to get to know as many people in my class as possible.” And that's what drove that. I would go up to people randomly in class, at parties, and just Facebook message and say, “Hey, we're both [first–years]. Let's get a meal together.” And it went from there.
Street: During your first year, you also joined Penn Shabbatones, an a capella group, even though you never performed before college. What inspired you to go for it?
LY: I always loved the performing arts. I was always the person singing in the shower in Hill College House. I was always a shower singer but too shy to ever do something with that passion.
Before coming to Penn, I took a gap year. I was teaching English in Indonesia, and my students loved American pop singers. Any American teacher who came in who was a guy, they were like, “It's Justin Bieber! It’s Charlie Puth!” I'm a first–generation American, and my mom always talks about how a big way she learned English was through song. In her English classes, when she first came to the United States, they would often do fill–in–the–blank activities for English pop songs. And when I was writing the curriculum for my classes in Indonesia, I thought that that could be a really, really interesting way to approach learning in the classroom. So we would do fill–in–the–blank activities with Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth songs. “One Call Away” was their favorite song. And one day, I told my students that I loved singing, but this is probably it. Once I get back to the United States, that'll be it for me. As I was leaving, they told me, “Lizzie, you have to try out for six singing groups, and if nobody takes you, then never sing again.” And so I did that. I auditioned for seven a capella groups and ultimately joined the Shabbatones. I literally cried after my first audition because I thought I sounded so bad. I didn't know what I had gotten myself into. But I told myself, “Nobody knows me at Penn. Going into these audition rooms, I have nothing to lose.” And [Shabbatones] has really become one of my greatest communities on this campus.
Street: You mentioned that you’re a first generation American. How has your identity impacted your experience at Penn?
LY: So my parents are both from Iran. They came to the United States in '79 at the start of the Iranian Revolution, and they came here because they were seeking religious freedom. At that time, Jewish people were being persecuted a lot for their religious beliefs. My parents escaped, and my mom actually escaped via donkey. She was literally smuggled out through the border. It’s a really interesting story that I'm always inspired by and always love to tell. I think so much of her courage is something I really hope to embody in myself.
[Before Penn], I remember when [my sister applied to college, she] said to my parents, “It's time to take the ACT.” My parents didn't even know what the ACT was. And so experiences like that, when I was in high school—I wasn't so proud of my heritage. But coming to Penn was so special because I think differences are really, really celebrated here. And granted, that might just be my personal perspective and experience, but Penn was finally the place where I felt like being different was interesting and cool. People wanted to learn about the different languages I speak and the different foods I eat at home. When I was a kid, I would force my mom to pack me perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch or to only speak English to me around friends. I would rarely have friends over because I was so embarrassed and shy of showing that culture. So for me, coming to Penn has finally allowed me to own and embrace my full identity, which was something I really couldn't do before.
Street: You might have lost your first election, but now you’re the 2021 Class Board president. What has it been like trying to lead an entire class through their final year remotely?
LY: It has been the biggest challenge. I stepped into this role because I wanted to give students, the Class of 2021, the best four years possible, and I think the culmination of college comes down to your second semester junior year and your senior year. Those happen to be our remote semesters. Being in leadership during those times and trying to figure out how to make the most of this situation—how to recreate traditions like Hey Day, Feb Club, Senior Week, Final Toast, all of these staples in someone's junior year and senior year experience—trying to figure out how to create them in a way that feels somewhat normal has been really difficult, especially given the fact that students aren't even in the same time zone. Everyone has Zoom fatigue, so we don't even want to do Zoom events anymore because that excitement from students just isn't there.
But I think our board has finally started to hit a stride. There are ways to engage the seniors, even if it's not in person. Last semester, we did a grab–and–go with Magic Carpet. Seniors had subsidized meals from Magic Carpet two days before Thanksgiving break. And we thought that was an awesome way to get students out of their houses, get seniors to see each other in a socially distant and safe way, and also help a local business. The Class Board is constantly thinking of ways to make this senior year as meaningful as possible for students while also supporting the local Philadelphia community. And I think from a leadership perspective, that’s been a really enriching and exciting challenge to have.
Street: What’s next for you?
LY: I have a few things in the mix. I might be going abroad next year to teach again. It's something I really have missed since my gap year. I also might be an associate product manager at a company called Book of the Month. It's a really awesome startup based out of New York. It has about 50 employees, and it's a subscription book service. Based on your interest, you get a different book every month that's nonfiction and written by an emerging author. [Book of the Month is] working to support authors from minority backgrounds and backgrounds that are traditionally not represented in the literature space. So I'm currently deciding on that. We'll see what's next for me.
Last song you listened to?
“Golden” by Harry Styles.
Favorite song to sing?
“Santeria” by Sublime.
What's something people wouldn't guess about you?
I’m obsessed with scrapbooking. I’m literally a grandma at heart.
If you were a building on campus, what would you be and why?
Is it cliché to say College Hall because of the history? I'm obsessed with it. But maybe Houston Hall for the poke bowls. I'm a huge fan of Bento.
Who do you look up to?
Sheryl Sandberg is a huge inspiration for me. I love badass women in power.
If we weren't in a pandemic right now and you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’ve always wanted to go to Iran because I’ve never been able to visit, and I’ve always wanted to see where my parents grew up.
There are two types of people at Penn…
Those who admit Hillel is the best dining hall and those who don’t.
And you are?
The one who thinks that Hillel is by far the best dining hall on campus.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lizzie spoke with her parents about the ACT, when it was in fact her sister. Street regrets this error.