Jane Lozada Foster doesn’t want to burn any bridges. She emphasizes this as we finish our conversation, which is chock full of the kindest and most generous evaluations of the times that Penn failed her or that she failed at Penn. When Jane’s roommates found out that Street wanted to profile stories of failure and successes this year, they both told her she was the ideal candidate. Most Penn students would be horrified to hear that their social circle sees failure as characteristic to them, but Jane just laughs when she tells this story. “I have failed a lot,” she says. “It doesn’t impact how I see myself.”
Jane was born in Puerto Rico, and when she was 16, she and her family moved to the suburbs outside of Orlando, Florida. Her high school was majority white, and there were very few resources allocated to her. “I struggled with homelessness for most of high school,” Jane says, “and I had to venture through that wilderness myself. There were no mentors for me. There was nobody to show me what to do.” Then she laughs. “I guess I’m a typical FGLI.”
But Jane is no typical Penn student; she is brutally, refreshingly honest about the tolls of higher education and the grueling work it takes to be here. After attending community college in Florida, she transferred to Penn at the start of her junior year; in her own words: “Burning myself out in high school and burning myself out in community college, I arrived at Penn as a husk.” Still, Jane had high hopes.
She hoped to study education, but when that wasn’t an option, entered Penn with history as her major. That worked—for a minute. Despite estimates telling her that 14 of her community college credits would be accepted at Penn, only six made the final cut. This was, in a word, devastating. She found out halfway through her first year at Penn, which not only tanked her mental health, but also upended her education plans. Not only would history be an incredibly difficult major to finish, but her dreams of graduating on time were nearly impossible.
“I felt in some ways that the people who I had to rely on, like my advisor, weren’t much help to me," Jane says. "I wouldn’t say anybody had given up on me, but it wasn’t what I needed at the time.”
She switched to urban studies instead, where the smaller, intimate classes and professors with more availability for students helped improve her relationships with faculty. She also began to enjoy her classes more—all developments that she stresses would've been impossible without having failed first.
When we bring up failure, Jane is more than ready to dive in. “I’ve had an incomplete in every semester I've had at Penn,” she says frankly. “Some got completed and some never did. My first semester I had a 'W' and an incomplete, but it was a mistake to take five classes in my first semester at Penn, coming from community college.”
Five classes is a lot even for the student with no other commitments, and that wasn’t Jane. “I’ve always had to work. I’ve always had a job. My family did not have any money to send me to school.” Beyond work commitments, health problems flared up again during that first semester that added to her bills and buried her in stress. “It was a constant hamster wheel,” Jane says, with just a little grimness. “I have a few medical issues, and even Penn student insurance has copays. To get an $800 bill … it burdened me. I was terrified of being sick.” Jane also struggled with undiagnosed mental health problems, and laughs about how she had never seen a therapist until Penn.
Jane is also incredibly active in plenty of clubs and extracurriculars across campus, including Spec-Trum, La Casa Latina, the Silverman Fellows, and the Christian Association. To offset her interest in educational work, she pent countless hours in different Netter Center programs, and taking all the ABCS classes she could. Without the Netter Center, Jane would never have begun exploring West Philadelphia.
She connected deeply with communities in West Philly, telling Street, “I didn’t have any mentors when I was in high school—it’s important to me that kids get that person who teaches them to navigate the system. I have more in common with kids in West Philly than I did with anybody back home."
Jane’s second semester was an improvement, which she attributes to generous professors, but the pandemic wiped everything away. She was a residential advisor in Rodin, trying to keep health and work and school balanced, the pandemic overwhelmed every aspect of daily life. She failed three out of the five classes she was taking, and decided to take academic leave from Penn for the next year.
“It compromised my graduation plan again, so it wasn’t an easy decision,” Jane muses. She split her time between Florida and Philly, and kept working in the West Philadelphia community. But the pandemic completely forced Jane to re–evaluate what failure and success meant to her, and what they meant at Penn.
“I had the whole grand scheme of going to Penn, and starting my master's there, and it all really collapsed under the weight of the pandemic. I wanted to work with Teach For America, and I wanted to graduate but I was increasingly uncertain.” Then, during her time away, Jane’s grandfather died. A teacher himself, he had been a guiding star for her, and his passing reaffirmed her dreams.
“I want to live his legacy,” she says. “It was important to me to say: 'I have an end goal. It is to teach. To teach, I must graduate. I have to keep pushing forward, even when everything is falling apart I have to wake up the next day and try again. I have to try my best.'” Jane recommitted to Teach For America, and asked them if they had any posts open in West Philly.
Returning to Penn brought her new victories and a new sense of purpose. She changed advisors, and her new one helped her fix an incomplete. She and her advisor worked on a weekly agenda to hold her accountable for schoolwork, and she began communicating more with her professors. Where she had kept her problems to herself during the pandemic, Jane began to ask for help. “I learned to say, 'Hey, I promise I’m not ignoring you and your class!'” It all paid off. Last spring, she failed none of her classes.
Several times, Jane asks if she’s rambling, but she isn’t—everything she says adds something. She lists off classes she’s failed; a cinema course that she just “wasn’t the right fit for,” and a grad student course on education that was too much for an undergraduate workload. She glows when she talks about her students in West Philly, many of whom she is still in contact with, and the professors who helped her make it through Penn.
“I really want to thank Kaitlin Irvine, who was my advisor in the College, and Elaine Simon, who was my advisor in the Urban Studies department.” These are the people who showed up and showed out for Jane, to whom she’s forever grateful. But Jane is quick to emphasize that she holds no grudges against the professors or the former advisor who couldn't be that for her. “[Kaitlin and Elaine] put in the extra time for me. But I can’t hold everyone to the standards of working outside of their job.”
Still, Jane has met her own standards. Upon graduating, she’ll teach in West Philadelphia with Teach For America. She’ll stay in Philly with two of her best friends, relationships that were crucial to her successes. “Success really is in the community you make,” she muses. You could probably find her walking along the Delaware River, or at her favorite part of Spruce Street Harbor Park.
Jane also has some thoughts for Penn first years and incoming students: Namely, ask for help when you need it. “If the system is not serving you, ask for help. It is so much better to change than to be stuck in a miserable loop. There are so many things that could’ve gone differently if I’d just asked for help sooner.”
She thinks for a moment. “Nobody gets an award for putting on Penn Face everyday,” she declares, which is perhaps the biggest blow to Penn Face I’ve heard in a long time. Jane Lozada Foster means it when she tells me, “Nobody gets an award for pretending to be okay.”