Amanpreet Singh (C ’21) can map their Penn experience in sensory details: the polished evergreen of the trolley at the 37th Street transit portal, the gooey decadence of a chocolate and peanut butter Kiwi Yogurt sundae, and the sweetness of the purple morning glories that dot Locust Walk in the spring.
“I love watching for those flowers because they remind me that things grow here, as heinous as Penn can sometimes be,” Amanpreet says, chuckling.
A philosophy, politics, and economics major and a borderline professional activist, Amanpreet is inherently contradictory—not that that’s a bad thing. Acting as the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education’s (SCUE) COVID–19 taskforce chair and the Penn Association for Gender Equity’s (PAGE) political chair, they spend hours each semester in meetings with administrative higher–ups, yet carry a deep disillusionment for change within the system. They’ve chaired Women’s Week and rep their sorority, yet don’t subscribe to the gender binary.
And most strikingly, they’re worried that the impact they’ve left on campus won’t be passed down in any of the oral histories contained among Penn’s activist groups, yet are agnostic about emotional attachments.
“I worry a lot about the connections I’ve made between different groups disappearing once I’m gone because there’s just so much shit Penn students can accomplish when they organize as a collective,” Amanpreet says. “But I’m also the type of person where it’s okay to be doing something temporarily.”
Amanpreet’s activism journey starts like any other that follows the neoliberal–to–leftist pipeline, where kitschy RBG iconography and Legally Blonde adulation are replaced with calls for direct action and realizing RBG actually had a pretty mixed record on racial justice in the first place. “I was very much a white feminist when I came to Penn, which is embarrassing to admit,” they say. “I spent my first year at Penn being really excited—just overwhelmed with joy. I was like, ‘Penn has some issues, but I have trust and faith [that things will improve].’ So I joined student government.”
These issues, Amanpreet has since learned, go deeper than just a poor record on student mental health and stark socioeconomic inequality in admissions. They involve, among other things, complicity in pharmaceutical experiments on a prison population, the mismanagement of remains from the site of the MOVE bombing, a long–standing refusal to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes that could help fund the Philadelphia School District, and laying off Penn Dining Hall workers at the start of the COVID–19 pandemic before denying the remaining staff COVID–19 testing.
SCUE and PAGE are constituent groups, which means the job of executive board members like Amanpreet is to turn student concerns into recommendations Penn administrators can take. In layman’s terms, this means a lot of meetings, and in practice, a lot of bureaucratic backlog.
“A lot of the times, when you go into a meeting, it’s hard because you can tell [admin] is trying to buy time by explaining the problem that you already know because you’re coming to them with it. Sometimes they’ll say platitudes like, ‘I hear you,’ which I think is so infuriating because it feels like they don’t,” Amanpreet explains. “I would leave feeling like nothing changed and nothing had happened. It was just such a draining feeling. And it's so different from when you plan a protest or draft a letter, which would leave me feeling invigorated.”
The starkest example of this? The fight to get the University’s three cultural houses space on Locust Walk instead of basement offices in the bottom of a secondary student union.
While researching the history of the cultural houses, Amanpreet found a 1991 report commissioned by then–University President Sheldon Hackney that advocated for the very same demands. “The current arrangement of the campus, with white male fraternities lining its central artery ... is more appropriate to Penn of the 1950s than to what Penn hopes to be,” the introduction states, quoting yet another report on the topic. “If Locust Walk's significance lay in its reflection of the University as a whole, then the University's commitment to the diversity of its population needed to be matched by … an atmosphere conducive to diversity.”
“I was just like, 'Wow! We've been fighting for nearly 30 years for this one thing, and it just never happened?' At that moment, I was like, ‘Okay, we can’t continue like this because things are never going to change.’ We need to actually disrupt the way this university functions,” they say, voice rising.
So Amanpreet pivoted, turning the organizations they were already leading into places that could build a movement—the same way sit–ins in 1973 catalyzed the creation of The Women’s Center.
“Amanpreet is the political and moral backbone of all the groups I share with them. Their drive to learn and ask questions has forced me to be more honest with myself about my level of political knowledge, the realistic outcomes of being at Penn, and our complicity in the system,” says Claire Medina, the co–chair of Penn Non–Cis, who worked alongside Amanpreet on their proudest achievement yet: the 21–page–long Trans Inclusive Language Guide.
A comprehensive resource that nudges the Penn community towards wholehearted trans inclusion, the guide tackles practical knowledge, like how to advertise club events, and more thorny issues, like identifying transphobic slurs.
“There are so many different trans experiences, and we even mention in the guide that there’s no way to capture everything,” Amanpreet says. “Yet, people have been like, 'It's kind of long. How do you shorten it?' The problem is we want to give that richness and fullness because trans people can't be summed up in three bullets.”
The process of editing the guide—and “theorizing [themselves] constantly”—hit close to home. After learning about gender abolition through PAGE, Amanpreet realized they are nonbinary, and began publicly going by they/them pronouns in December 2020.
“For me, the goal is that there shouldn't be a construction of gender where we’re all forced to occupy certain politicized spaces and roles. Part of that for me was, 'Okay, if I am for gender abolition, like why am I invested in womanhood? Why do I need that?’" they say. "The answer is I don’t.”
Amanpreet says working on the guide was validating. It helped them fight off the imposter syndrome that comes with shedding the identity society has cast on you since birth. “I had gone through a period where I was like, 'Am I actually trans? Or am I just saying this and co–opting this?' But then I was reading the guide and I was like, ‘This resonated so strongly with me that there’s no way I could ever be anything else,' so it reassured me."
While Amanpreet acknowledges that Zoom university has made it easier for people to pick up on pronouns and use trans–inclusive language in the classroom, they hope the guide is just a stepping stone for bigger conversations—namely, how campus spaces reinforce the gender binary. After they graduate, Amanpreet wants to see Penn commit to gender–neutral bathrooms and support efforts to place free period products throughout campus, an initiative they saw through while on PAGE board.
Still, despite constantly confronting the underbelly of Penn’s incremental approach to progress, Amanpreet’s eyes sparkle when talking about the surprises campus has brought them. They like how collegiate everything looks in the fall, when the leaves on Locust Walk turn a crisp burnt orange and everyone isn’t too stressed to stop for small talk. They like how the baristas at Williams Cafe memorized their order—a mocha latte with 2% milk and whip—and would blanch with concern if one morning, they wanted something a little more bitter.
But mostly, Amanpreet finds comfort in, how under all that picturesque college brochure bullshit, it’s easy to connect with the parts of your personality that were carefully hidden in high school.
After stumbling through a semester of introductory–level French and four semesters of half–learned Spanish, Amanpreet decided to try their hand at Punjabi, a language they grew up hearing but refused to speak.
Amanpreet’s pathology is clear to anyone who grew up ethnic in an affluent and majority–white suburb. There’s an acute shame to wearing your brownness loudly, especially in a town like Pelham, N.Y., where Amanpreet grew up.
“I grew up somewhat ashamed to be Indian. My grandfather was Sikh, so he wore a turban, and I was always very embarrassed by that marker of religion and my family’s differences. Whenever I heard Punjabi at home, I wouldn’t speak it because I felt awkward,” Amanpreet says, noting that their grandfather passed during their first year of college. “But I took Punjabi for myself at Penn. I know some words, and now, I think it would've been nice to have a conversation with him.”
After graduation, Amanpreet is off to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where they’ll pursue a Master’s in comparative literature, focusing on the works of diasporic South Asian writers. Beyond that, it’s back to community organizing, only this time with a law degree. “I want to be the sort of lawyer that bails people out of jail,” they say, before wondering aloud if that aspiration is “too carceral.”
Ultimately, Amanpreet’s advice for students midway through their own neolib–to–leftist transition—where you're unsure how to create your own impact—is to not do it on your own.
In every mention of the work they’ve done on campus—from the language guide to pressuring the University to retain contract dining hall workers throughout the pandemic—Amanpreet credits a team: Claire; Sam Pancoe, the chair of PAGE; the bootstrappers of Student Labor Action Project; their sorority siblings who are amending chapter bylaws to be less gendered.
“I think some of Penn's greatest moments have come when the student body itself comes together. We have 10,000 students—think about the sheer ability we have to actually change Penn's mind,” they say. “We’re only here for four years. I think Penn banks on that in terms of student organizing. They're like, 'Oh, Amanpreet is graduating. They finally got to campus. They figured out that Penn sucked. Now they're leaving.’ That’s tough to overcome, but very necessary to.”