“I always joke with my friends that I’m obsessed with New Jersey,” giggles Ashna Yakoob (C’ 23) , seated at a metal table outside Saxbys. “I think it’s the crown jewel of the United States.” She does not appear to be joking. Her hands move expressively—they will continue to do so throughout the conversation.
Perhaps sensing the disbelief, she lists the reasons: good beaches, close to big cities, beautiful small towns. Though she's wearing a purple Phoenix Suns T–shirt—a tribute to her home city—Ashna envisions an alternative high school experience in New Jersey, taking weekend trips to New York. Someday, she may move there to raise a family.
Ashna doesn’t take things—or herself—too seriously. She only applied to Penn because it’s in the same state as Pittsburgh, where she was born. “I was like ‘la, la, la; I love Pennsylvania,’” she laughs, hands waving around. “I did zero research; I didn’t visit; I didn’t even know Wharton was a thing.” But for a moment, she stops laughing, her face turns serious. “Hindsight is 20/20, but if I could give a lesson to my two little sisters it would be to actually research colleges.”
Like many Penn students, Ashna came in pre–med. But she quickly realized this dream was more her parents’ than her own. So she switched to PPE. “It’s what I would call a pivot that wouldn’t send my family into a spiral because there’s econ there,” she explains. But it turned out philosophy was the only "P" she cared for.
It was only after taking David Kazanjian’s Crime and Criminality in Early America on a whim that she found her calling in the English Department. When asked about her favorite book, her hands go to her face in mock overwhelm. After a pause, she names Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, then admits it’s a cop–out, just the last book she’d read. She ticks off several courses that “changed her life” on her fingers—Crime and Criminality, Children’s Lit with Melissa Jensen, and James English’s Literature as a Marketplace, the last of which deals with the economics of the literary world, ironic given her feelings about PPE.
Adding creative writing and digital humanities minors allowed Ashna to fully develop her craft as a writer. “I dabbled as a writer in high school, but I was just too scared,” she says. “I have all of these half finished, half assed lines and little paragraphs because I’d get too embarrassed to finish them.”
At Penn, Ashna has certainly moved past this embarrassment. As Fall Cast Director of Bloomers, she worked to direct a full length sketch comedy show—and brought the show to life. Ashna writes best alongside others, so the collaborative spirit of Bloomers, where writers work together to bounce ideas off each other and script in groups, was an ideal outlet.
But conceptualizing and giving birth to a sold-out show is time consuming: Ashna estimates she was working 30 hours per week the fall semester of her senior year when she was head director. “Sometimes I think back on the last four years and wonder what would have happened if I was an actual student rather than someone working almost a full–time job dedicated to this little group,” she reflects.
There is only so much time in a day, and sometimes school work fell by the wayside. By her senior fall, Screenwriting, the one objective of which is to write a screenplay, was not her top priority. Her concept was a “comedy–horror–thriller,” in which a character becomes obsessive towards another girl and attempts to emulate her. “It wasn’t original; very a la Ingrid Goes West,” she explains.
But Ashna is a self–described perfectionist; she doesn’t stop writing until she feels good about what she has produced. Deadlines passed as she prioritized other classes over completing the screenplay. Eventually, she reached the point where she didn’t turn it in at all.
“At Penn, you’re never just a student. I was doing research, and I was just really burnt out from Bloomers,” she says. "After the show, I was catching my breath and I just kind of never completed the project.” The result was first an incomplete. Then an F.
Ashna shrugs off the grade—the class was just an elective. In fact, it took her until spring break to check her grades and see that the incomplete was changed to an F. “I knew and still know that it’s not a reflection of my academic prowess. I was being a dick about that one assignment but I know I’m an okay writer, a pretty good storyteller. It’s a reflection of who I was at that moment.”
Would she handle it differently now? “If I could go back, I would definitely do it,” she says. “But I would also tell myself that stuff worked out and it really didn’t end up being the end of the world.”
Nonetheless, Ashna is graduating without regrets. “Failure is awesome,” she explains. “You should never let it deter you from doing what you want, even if there’s just an inkling of interest.”
Though her interest in the entertainment industry has not died, Ashna still wants to explore other paths—and build up some life experiences. After graduation, she will return home to Phoenix, taking on a part–time internship with Grandview Productions, an independent film company, and waiting tables.
She hopes to take the time to find her voice as a writer. “Part of why I didn’t finish that screenplay is because I feel like I don’t have anything to say,” she explains. “Realistically, I’ve just gone to college and high school. I want to live my life a little bit more, find my passion for writing and figure out what I have to say.”
And someday, she also hopes to find the perspective needed to finish that screenplay—“It’ll definitely happen when when time is right,” she promises.