It's been a weird first year.
While the pandemic shook up the college experience across the board, the Class of 2025 has had an introduction to Penn like no other. As the first class to have experienced half of high school during a pandemic, Penn’s first years packed their bags and moved to University City with disparate feelings, experiences, and expectations.
For better or for worse, our most recent memories of high school lay the groundwork for who we are upon our arrival at Penn. Some current first years associate high school with a grueling avalanche of Zoom classes, late–night Netflix sprees, and an overwhelming sense of FOMO for time lost to a global pandemic. Others who were luckier can turn to memories of bustling proms, graduation, and a general sense of normalcy.
High school is known to be an irreplaceable period in one’s life, coupled with humiliating ninth–grade quirks, life–long friendships, and the quintessential high school sweetheart (who we all admittedly still stalk on social media). But in the shadowy context of a global pandemic, attending an in–person school environment can feel like re–entering a memory that has long grown distant and faded.
Upon arriving at Penn, first years throughout campus shared one universal sentiment: a desire for normalcy. “Going to parties is normal in college...I feel like my college experience is pretty normal, other than only seeing people’s eyes and the bridge of their nose,” says Ajay Kilambi (E '25). Ajay attended a STEM–focused boarding school in Oklahoma, and spent the second half of his senior year fully in–person.
Despite having been unable to tour campus, Ajay describes how he felt emotionally prepared to attend Penn, “[High school] was a school like any other school…I know a lot of students came in not having gone to in-person school for a while, but I had been doing that, so there was no difference to me.” Like many other students who attended private school, Ajay had the emotional immersion of an in–person semester towards the end of his senior year.
Penn's socioeconomic, racial, and geographic diversity is especially reflected in the way the Class of 2025 experienced the pandemic. The reopening of in–person high schools across the world was very much a product of wealth, race, and region.
Private schools were much more likely to reopen in a hybrid of fully in–person model, since private schools generally have more funding, larger campuses, and a smaller student body. Meanwhile, public schools were more likely to go online due to less funding, smaller buildings, and a larger student body.
The pandemic also exacerbated existing racial inequalities within the public high school system. Virtual school was especially prevalent for students of color—75 percent of Black parents and 68 percent of Hispanic parents said their child was learning fully online, compared to 48 percent of white parents. Well–funded public high schools in predominantly high–income, majority–white neighborhoods were also more likely to reopen fully or hybrid.
Sharon Zhou's (W '25) experience was far different from Ajay's.
“I was scared that I was underprepared to come into Penn because it’s very rigorous and being online for the whole year I felt like I learned nothing….the first time I had been with my grade since March  was graduation,” says Sharon. As a Pennsylvania resident living an hour and a half away from Philly, Sharon opted for a fully–online senior year. Naturally, transitioning from an insular, home–based learning environment to the independence and adventure of college felt intimidating.
Sharon describes how her participation in Penn’s Pre-Freshman Program—a four–week academic program held before New Student Orientation to help certain underrepresented student groups make the transition to Penn—helped ease her anxiety about returning to campus. “Over the summer I was in PFP, which really helped me transition," Sharon says. "I met my friend group from PFP. I feel like I would have a hard time making friends without it.” Now, Sharon feels comfortable and satisfied within her friend group and her broader social life at Penn—a confidence which encourages her to want to reach out to more people next semester.
Most freshmen, however, simply entered NSO under–equipped with amenities needed for their dorm, a bucketload of Instagram–based friends, and a poignant sense of hope.
“I didn’t tour because of COVID, I had no memory of coming to campus…I absolutely would have wanted to visit. I was very nervous coming in initially because I hadn’t even been in Philadelphia before, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” says Caia Gelli (E '25), who grew up suburban Maryland.
Like Sharon and many other students, Caia had a fully online senior year. “I was definitely extremely nervous about going back to in–person school because I just wasn’t sure how to manage it anymore, especially in a higher–stakes environment like Penn,” Caia says.
Caia accurately acknowledges the pitfalls of distanced learning. According to a report released by Horace Mann, more than 97% of educators reported seeing some learning loss in their students over online school, and 57% estimated their students are behind by more than three months in their social–emotional progress. Other reports found that online learning caused significant setbacks in achievement, which has long–term implications for student earnings and health.
Caia describes how the initial transition was also nerve–wracking from a social perspective. “It was a little weird in the beginning meeting people and not knowing what they looked like…I’m already doing a lot more than in high school. I’m just grateful to be in–person here.” Caia shares the same mindset as Sharon: in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, simply enjoying an in–person college experience is a blessing in itself.
Of course, the pandemic is far from over. Variants like the Delta and Omicron are a continued source of anxiety, and mask restrictions and social distancing guidelines continue to ricochet across the globe. Family Weekend 2021 was virtual, and Penn students remain tethered to mask–wearing and COVID–testing policies.
At the end of the day, however, there seems to be some hope for the Class of 2025. Penn students will soon have the option to receive a booster vaccine on campus. Many are eagerly awaiting a mostly normal winter vacation. The world is slowly returning to normalcy, with restaurants, movie theaters, and all other recreational areas reopening. As we move forward from a year and a half in which time suddenly stopped—there may yet be a world of normalcy to come for Penn's newest Quakers.