Name: Sam Braffman
Major: Political science with a minor in English
Hometown: New York, N.Y.
Can you tell us a little more about your involvement in PennQuest?
When I was choosing schools, I looked at if they had hiking pre–orientation programs because I knew that that was the type of community that I would want to be in, if they had a program like that. I find that people who value being outdoors tend to be people that I really enjoy spending time with, so I found out that they had it and applied. I got in and did it my first year, and it was incredible. I mean, anybody who has done it could tell you how impactful it is to go into Penn with a close group of [first–year] friends, as well as upperclassmen who are really influential and can guide you when it comes to your own Penn career going forward. I became incredibly close to my sophomore and senior leaders, and they were really amazing, helping me in so many ways outside of PennQuest.
During sophomore year, I became a leader and began to lead that fall. It's definitely been my favorite thing I've done at Penn—the atmosphere is so unusual and so unlike anything else here. There's no semblance of preprofessionalism, or anything outside of we love being with each other, we love being outdoors, and we really enjoy helping first years acclimate to Penn. You create these incredible relationships with people from every single grade, so I loved having that my first year, and every year I’ve just kind of built upon that. Now I lead the program and I’m just so grateful for it. It has taught me so much, being in charge of so many people and so many organizational aspects.
Generally, it’s the people that make it worth it. Of the people who did PennQuest my first year, I met so many people who were outside of my group, and I live with two of them now. They ended up being on my floor my first year, we all became PennQuest leaders, and I still live with them to this day. It’s been such an impactful community in so many different ways, but the people who are the senior leaders are all so close still and hang out all the time. It’s a really great thing that we have here.
How has your experience with PennQuest been different as a leader versus now being on the more organizational side of it?
I’m still a leader, as well as coordinating the program with our faculty member Laurie McCall, who is amazing. The coordination side of it is a lot of planning, checking equipment, and alumni fundraising. Actually, that’s one big thing. PennQuest is just an amazing community, but the sad part of it is that we don’t have enough funds to accept everyone who applies, so 300 to 400 people apply for only 130 spots. It’s just a devastating thing to have to reject students and have their first experience at Penn be being rejected from something. No one should have to go through that, because we would love to take everyone.
We’ve advocated to expand it in years past, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere, so I would love to see more emphasis on these pre–orientation programs going forward because they are so impactful. Anyone who has done any of the pre–orientation programs enjoys them so much, and they’re so meaningful, so putting a greater emphasis on that would be amazing. I know a lot of other Ivy League schools have them required for their entire student body, which could be so beneficial.
Pivoting over to The Walk, how has that been a part of your Penn experience?
I joined my first–year spring. I didn’t join many clubs my first–year fall, as I just wanted to get my footing and not rush into everything, which allowed me to figure out which ones I wanted to join and what best fit my personality. I’ve always really really liked fashion and have been interested in doing that as an extracurricular to have a creative release, because so much of my work is very academically oriented. Political science and English are a lot of writing, so getting a chance to do something that’s more creative is something that really excites me. I joined as a fashion stylist, but now as a director we come up with the theme of the magazine each semester, photo shoot ideas, and then the fashion stylists implement those. Everyone brings together a bunch of different clothing. We use our own clothes, source clothes from other people, and try to find as many people who have great style and are willing to help out as we can.
It’s so much fun—so much more work as a creative director than I expected it to be. I do it with my friend Ania Swider, and it’s a lot more logistical than I had anticipated, but I like that a lot, so it’s been a really fun aspect because there’s so much coordination between all the stylists, models, and everyone to figure out things like location. It’s really fun—there’s a lot of storytelling to it that you wouldn’t expect from these photos otherwise, but it’s a whole creative process and has been a great way to meet other people and engage in that more creative side.
Almost all the shoots have been on campus, but sometimes we’ll go outside and explore Philly. We’ve done shoots by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the skateparks. We just did one in my room, actually, which was so much fun for me because I got to make up my room in a way that matched the shoot’s maximalist theme. We live in this great old house, built in the 1870s, which is architecturally very different and gave me a great opportunity to decorate with many thrifted and secondhand pieces, making it really my own. We felt like it would be a great space to shoot, which was such a fun thing to memorialize my college room through this photoshoot in my last semester.
What else do you love to do within Penn?
I love to paint. My roommate Lua is an amazing painter, and she definitely inspired me to paint more. I took a printmaking class at Penn and it was probably my favorite class that I’ve taken. In terms of school, I love the English department at Penn. I feel like it’s looked over because we have so many amazing STEM–focused departments, but it’s an incredible department, and I’ve had so many amazing professors. I love to read, and I love analyzing literature, and because the minor is six classes, almost all of my semesters at Penn I’ve been able to take an English class, which has been such a perfect balance. It’s never too overwhelming, but I always get to do something I really enjoy every semester. I’ve also been able to take a lot of film classes through my English minor, which I really love. The Cinema Studies department is amazing.
What made you decide to study political science?
Political science is really just the perfect major for me in that it’s really flexible. I feel like I have a lot of interests, and the way that they run the program makes it so that you can take a ton of different classes, even in other departments, and they’ll count for the major. I’ve taken urban studies and economics classes that have counted toward the major, and now in my final semester, I’m writing a thesis. It feels like all of those interests through the political science classes I’ve taken are really now coming together.
During my first semester at Penn, I took an international relations class that was so difficult, but I really liked the material. It felt kind of like a testament to the fact that I really enjoyed it, even though it was very hard for me. It got a lot easier from there, but all of the IR classes I took really piqued my interest. I’m [concentrating in] IR, and I was very fascinated with both American and international politics, which my thesis now combines.
How were you able to stay connected to the Penn community during the COVID–19 pandemic?
I actually stayed on campus from March to June of 2020 doing my classes here. I'm from New York City, and living in a small apartment would have been really difficult for me and my family to all be working from home. It was really interesting [to be] on campus at a time when there was really no one here. I was here with my roommate, and I'm glad I stayed. Last year, I got to live in this big historic house with eight of my best friends. It's this really amazing house called Green Monster, and it's been passed down through generations of PennQuest. I love learning about the history of places I've lived, so that's been such a fun thing to hear and learn about. Being in that house is incredible because we have eight people living together, so we were really able to be there for each other during a very difficult year. We had our own subset of a social system, which is something that I'm glad I was able to do with my friends in that house.
What’s next for you after Penn?
I kind of feel like Penn puts far too much emphasis on knowing what you're going to do post–grad as early as possible. I really just wanted to enjoy my senior year and get the most out of it, and I'm really glad I did that. The people that know what they're going to do, it's such a small subsection of careers. So many fields don't even start recruiting until now. I feel like the majority of students probably don't even know what they're doing, but I have a lot of different career interests that I'd be really happy to go into. Maybe something that engages my creative side; I really love film, among a lot of things. I could also see myself going to grad school, or something like that. I love school and obviously am sad to leave, so I'd definitely consider that.
Last song you listened to? “Bloom” by The Paper Kites.
No–skip album? This Is Remi Wolf on Spotify.
What would you do in a free hour for yourself? Clean my room.
And you are? Definitely Magic Carpet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Ania Swider's name. The piece has since been updated with the correct spelling. Street regrets this error.