By the time she became a senior, Lee Schwartz (C ‘23) had never spent a full school year on Penn’s campus.
Part of that can be chalked up to bad timing. Hers is the generation that was sent packing in the middle of their first year, not to return until the following spring. While many of Lee’s peers stuck around, trying to squeeze out every remaining drop of the college experience, she jetset across the Atlantic to study abroad in Barcelona instead.
That’s just how Lee rolls—untethered from the internship grind and cumbersome social obligations, she can go with the flow and achieve pretty much anything she sets her mind to. For our interview, we opt for one of the tables outside Saxby’s on 40th and Locust, a place to see and be seen. And seen we are, by at least two friends and an ex–boyfriend to boot.
Yet throughout the whole conversation, Lee is totally at peace. She is wise. She doesn’t bullshit. Her skin is glowing. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to ask “What’s your secret?”
Lee Schwartz came to Penn from a “gigantic public school” in a suburb outside of D.C., where each grade was about 600 people. She was the four–year editor of her school paper, and applied to college as an English major, a path she hasn’t strayed from since, aside from throwing in a second degree in Hispanic Studies along the way.
“I never deviated from what I thought I would do,” Lee says. “I knew I loved to read and I loved to write, and if you could get a degree in that, why would you not?”
As with every undergrad hero’s journey, there were stumbling blocks along the way. One was the realization that “I don’t need to do everything I did in high school in some capacity at college.” Lee had a vision of herself that originally involved both the DP and Street, but came to terms with the fact that her needs had changed, and so had she.
Since then, she’s found fulfillment in other places, including the Kelly Writer’s House, which she adores for being “a specific place for people who love to write.” Lee has yet to miss one of their monthly speakeasies. She’s also a member of the OAX sorority and two senior societies—Kinoki and Mortar Board.
One other obstacle that stood in the way of a first–year Lee: the dreaded Math 103 (now technically Math 1300), Introduction to Calculus. At Penn, “the majority of the entering freshman class has never gotten a B in their life,” she says. “They’re used to being the valedictorian and being the gifted kid.”
Lee didn’t get an A in Math 104, nor did she get a B. She almost failed the class entirely, if not for a last–ditch plea to her professor that got her grade bumped up by half a point to a 69.5, which rounds up to a C–.
“I remember how that tore me apart, because I’d never gotten a B, much less a failing grade,” she recalls. Lee could’ve withdrawn, but she chose not to back down. She’d worked hard to pass—attended tutoring every night, did all the work, went to all the classes. “It fucked my GPA for the rest of college, it totally ruined my grades,” but Lee goes on to say, “So what?”
Nearly failing Calculus became a way more important learning experience than any lecture on Taylor series or differential equations. We’re taught that it’s okay not to succeed so long as you try your best, but “people say it’s okay and they don’t really mean it.” Lee, though, had no choice to believe it, and now she genuinely does.
“What they call the ‘burnt out gifted kid’—that’s okay, that can happen,” she says, “and maybe that happened to me, and it doesn’t have to be a negative thing.”
“Fucked GPA” or not, Lee’s years since her brush with failure have been pretty flush with success. When we speak, she’s just completed her Creative Writing honors thesis, entitled “Teenagehood: A Conversation Between Selves,” which had me as soon as the words “very Virgin Suicides” left her mouth.
In technical terms, that translates to a cross–genre, memoir–cum–life writing exercise that drew on Lee’s meticulously kept diary entries (she’s been journaling since she was 11) from the ages of 13 to 20 for a study of teenage girlhood. “I spent so long fearing becoming an adult—turning 20 and leaving teenagehood—that when it happened it happened so quickly and so painlessly,” she says.
Working with her advisor Anthony DeCurtis, Lee embarked on a sort of personal inventory of her teen self, eventually arriving at a place of real personal growth. She realized that “comfort and peace and happiness was there if I chose it, and I don’t think I was choosing it for those seven years.” Needless to say, Lee’s therapist applauded her for that one.
Oh, and did I mention that Lee was accepted to Cambridge University's creative writing masters program? Once her visas are in order, she hopes to continue the work she started with her thesis into a larger dissertation while burnishing her screenwriting skills.
In the meantime, Lee has made an effort to put herself out there, going to every senior week event (“It’s my last chance to be seen!”) and allowing herself to do embarrassing things. After all, “why wouldn’t I walk of shame back from a frat house as a second semester senior? That’s the last time I’ll be able to do it, so I might as well do it.”
She’s also been spending a lot of time with her OAX lin. The off–campus society—Lee calls it Greek life for people who never wanted to do Greek life—was a built–in network of friends during the pandemic, and later became an on–campus support system. Now her little and grandlittle keep her “tied to different ages and spaces at Penn.”
Graduation season is always bittersweet. Amid the young adults splayed on blankets and gathered around spikeball nets on college green, the springtime weather can cast feelings of ennui into sharp relief. It feels like everyone’s in the home stretch, cruising into their corporate jobs with cushy salaries.
“I’m coming from the polar opposite of Penn, which is very not professionalist,” Lee ruminates. “I’ve never had an internship in my life; I’ve never had a corporate job in my life. Only camp counselor, barista–type shit.”
She’s scared she might not be cut out for the corporate world, that Penn has probably conditioned her to think that, but now Lee knows that’s not the only option. “Post–college life doesn’t need to be corporate; it can be whatever you want it to be.”
So yeah, “it’s gotten kind of emotional at the end,” but also “boo–fucking–hoo.” Happiness, security, confidence—none of those are guaranteed in college, same as they’re not guaranteed anywhere else.
And that’s Lee’s secret, the source of her wisdom: “I don’t think any state of existence is going to be easy, but allowing yourself to be comfortable in it helps.”