Erin O’Malley (C '21) has four pieces of advice for incoming students.
The first: “Your major doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, so you should do something that you really enjoy.” A double major in comparative literature and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, Erin says this is especially true for the humanities. But it’s still a good piece of advice for students interested in STEM, too. (“I can’t relate, but somebody has to build bridges in our society,” they say.)
As a poet, Erin reserves the second pointer for writers: “You should read a lot,” they say, “and when you’re reading, you should write down all the lines or sentences that you like and keep them in a little book.” Erin likes to leaf through theirs when they’re bored in class, so they still look like they’re being studious.
And, with their third piece of advice, Erin is perfectly happy to radicalize an entire class of Penn students: “Capitalism is really toxic.” They laugh a little as they say this, but they’re dead serious. Structures like capitalism and gender “have tangible impacts on our lives”—and it’s important to understand how Penn as an institution perpetuates them, too.
During their three years at Penn, Erin has had a lot of practice questioning and pushing back against systems of power. Whether it’s been through their research, poetry, or activism for the Asian American Studies (ASAM) Program at Penn, Erin has advocated for queer and Asian American identity, unity, and belonging in all of their work.
It was actually ASAM that first drew Erin to Penn. They transferred here their sophomore year in order to find a strong sense of Asian American community, something that wasn’t present at their first college, the University of Rochester.
“As someone who’s not very culturally Asian because I’m adopted, I just didn’t really see an entryway into finding community with other Asian American students,” Erin says. “In part through my participation in the ASAM community and in the ASAM UAB [Undergraduate Advisory Board] specifically, I was able to find that.”
From the very beginning, Erin understood that ASAM was in need of “continuous student support." They applied to transfer the same year that former ASAM Director Grace Kao left Penn due in part to the University’s lack of support for the program. Since coming to Penn, they’ve dived into the work as both an ASAM minor and the co–chair of the ASAM UAB.
Most recently, Erin, their co–chair Claire Nguyen (C '22), and the students and alumni of ASAM spearheaded the fight to retain professor David Eng, who announced his potential departure in March, and called on the University to provide more resources to the historically understaffed program. The students’ collective efforts have led to success: On March 30, the School of Arts and Sciences announced that it would recruit and hire multiple new faculty members for the program.
However, Erin stresses that this achievement has come at a great cost to the students involved—including themselves. Like many students, Erin has struggled with burnout throughout their time at Penn, but they emphasize that the burden of balancing school and other passions weighs even more heavily upon students of color. As Erin has grappled with a virtual school year and completing two undergraduate theses—both of which deal intimately with themes of Asian American identity—the added pressure of advocating for ASAM, all while news of anti–Asian hate crimes has consumed social media, has been draining.
“It became really difficult to work on my theses while I was also doing all of this other work [with ASAM]. Because of that, I had to decide what I wanted to spend my time doing, and I ended up most of the time making the choice of putting time into organizing for Asian American Studies,” they say. “That’s a choice that I made, but I think it’s really frustrating that it came down to that, and that it comes down to that for other students who have to decide whether they should organize for things that are really important—oftentimes necessary for their own education—versus being able to actually do their schoolwork.”
Coming to terms with the dark side of productivity culture—and its capitalist roots—has been vital for Erin as they’ve navigated a challenging senior year. “Not to be a Marxist bro, but one of the biggest things that has shifted my thoughts on burnout has been educating myself on the toxicity of capitalism,” they say. “I used to feel very guilty for feeling tired or for just wanting to rest.”
What’s helped: redefining work beyond classes and the job search. Instead of feeling like they’re being unproductive while relaxing, Erin thinks of themselves as doing a different kind of work: “the work of maintaining a friendship or the work of enjoying my life, which is also a valid form of work.” Being 'successful' isn’t just about doing things that pad up a resume; it’s also about putting effort into building successful relationships.
One space at Penn where they've built strong friendships is the Excelano Project, a spoken word poetry collective that doubles as being “the hottest group of people on campus,” says Erin, the organization’s president. Although members are brought together by poetry, it's the shared sense of intimacy and vulnerability—cultivated by hundreds of hours spent together and countless orders of Bonchon—that sets Excelano apart.
“They’re just my family on campus,” Erin says. “I think there are even fewer spaces on campus for specifically queer writers of color, and I couldn’t have imagined coming into the Excelano Project that writing with a group of people in which I felt understood would be so transformative for my writing … That vulnerability really allows for us to write and really feel like we’re writing together and towards something.”
They say that their own poetry—which focuses on Asian American community, pop culture, and queer identity—has become more “urgent and immediate” after joining Excelano. They’ve also made more of an effort to write “joyous poems,” both in order to bring happiness into their own life and instill happiness in their audience. One poem they’re particularly proud of is “ODE TO MOSHING AT BIKINI KILL'S FIRST SHOW IN 20 YEARS,” a piece they wrote for Excelano and published in fourteen poems.
“In it, I’m imagining myself moshing at the Bikini Kill reunion concert, and it’s sort of thinking about what it’s like to be doing that as a trans person,” Erin says. The poem also explores how their relationship with their mother is mediated through their clashing opinions on '90s riot grrrl music. Although it confronts somber topics, the poem generates an aura of rebellious energy through images of a crowd thrashing and screaming in the mosh pit—and those images feel defiantly freeing.
“It’s really difficult for me to write joyous poems, even though I do feel a lot of joy. And I think that [poem is] one where I am able to share joy, but also show that it’s these other moments, these other peaks and valleys, that allow for that joy.”
As Erin has planned for their future after graduation, it’s been vital for them to remember to prioritize their own joy—especially in the face of others’ expectations. Starting in the fall, they will pursue a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and poetry at Arizona State University, a decision that involved a lot of deliberation. Although Erin had many reasons to pick Arizona State—among them the chance to work with faculty of color they’ve admired and to be surrounded by a community of other trans and POC students—they felt pressured to conform to ideas around prestige, career viability, and grad school programs.
“I think it can be really difficult to make a choice that doesn’t make sense to other people,” they say. “That was a really big deal for me to choose myself over what others might think of me.”
For Erin, this mindset has produced two theses, a cluster hire for ASAM, a badass poem about moshing, countless memories with the Excelano Project, and a promising future getting a stipend to write “silly little poems.”
And thus we arrive at Erin's last piece of advice for incoming students: Choose yourself and what matters to you.