Rebecca Hennessy (C ‘23) begins every day the same way: with tea. Her mother was a religious tea drinker, and ever since middle school she’s made it a habit to start her mornings the same way. Breakfast is crucial too, a rarity among college students. “I like to pick up every morning with breakfast. I can't really get through a day without it,” she says.

It makes sense that Rebecca would know how important it is to go into the day with a well–nourished mind. She’s a cognitive science major with a concentration in neuroscience and a minor in psychology. Per Rebecca, it’s a bunch of fancy jargon for the study of human brains, “but not at a chemical level,” she clarifies. “I like to study human behavior and cognition, essentially.”

Before coming to Penn, Rebecca went to a public high school in New Jersey, a state that’s embroiled in a constant identity crisis and merits subdivisions because of it. One’s first instinct might default to New York–New Jersey, or South Jersey, or the Jersey Shore. Rebecca is quick to shoot those down.

“I’m from the Pine Barrens, like I live in the woods,” she says. “They closed down my hometown post office, [and] there was no gas station. There’s just one bus stop where everyone gets on for the whole town.”

Coming from the middle of nowhere to an Ivy League university in a major city was a total culture shock, one that didn’t present a lot of easy niches to fill. Eventually, she found one in Penn’s prolific community of singing ensembles.

Rebecca’s college musical career wasn’t linear in the slightest. First, she joined The Penn Sirens, but after its numbers dropped and COVID–19 hit, Sirens and Glee Club decided to combine. The merger process was by no means simple, but after recognizing the similarities between the counterparts, it felt only natural that they should join forces. And join they did. 

Now, Rebecca is the club’s president—its third female president in history—only three years after the club decided to start accepting women. “It’s a full–time job outside of classes, because I perform, but I’m also the president,” she says. 

With 40 to 45 singers, a ten–person tech staff, and a ten–person band, Rebecca has her hands full. On top of their annual gala and two yearly mainstage shows, the Glee Club embarks on a ten–day international tour. This year’s venue? Chile and Panama—to celebrate their 160th anniversary. After all, Penn is home to one of the oldest Glee Clubs in the country, which has been around since 1862. 

That storied history works wonders. “We have over one thousand living alumni … so our shows have over one hundred people on stage [when they come back],” she says. For Rebecca, singing is everything.

Beyond Glee Club’s new philosophy, Rebecca was drawn in by their brotherhood and tradition. “It’s a really tight social network. They’re my social group and the reason I don’t have free time to socialize with other people,” she says. From partaking in their Big–Little mentorship system to attending seemingly nonstop social events, there are always ways for club members to connect. 

The traditions, though, are Rebecca’s favorite part. “There are a lot of cool customary things that obviously haven’t been around for 160 years, but we have nicknames that date back to the ‘80s and a lineage spreadsheet that tracks pretty far back,” she says. And every spring show boasts a big tap finale with the same exact choreography from the year prior. Of course, each group carries a unique range of talents, but staying in line with what makes the Glee Club Glee Club is what keeps Rebecca going. 

Rebecca applied to Penn as a pre–med cognitive science major, because—like many of us—she “took AP Psychology in high school and thought brains were cool.” But college turned out to be a culture shock. After failing Introduction to Brain and Behavior, a notoriously difficult fall class, she entered crisis mode. “I came home and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I just failed a class, my life is over.’ I had a 2.5 GPA my freshman fall, and I was so worried because all I had known was that I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. The question on her mind became “How am I ever gonna have a career in this?’” 

Thankfully, Rebecca bounced back. She utilized the Weingarten Center and the advice of upperclassmen, and she decided to retake the class in the spring with a better professor. But succeeding and failing at Penn is a scale, not a binary, with plenty of room in between the two extremes.  

“There’s a struggle bus but it's a double–decker struggle bus. People on top of the struggle bus, your rent is paid, you know exactly what classes to take, [and] you're gonna get your degree.” Rebecca says. “And then there's the bottom tier of the bus where it's like, ‘I don't know what college is like,’ but no one has been able to tell you what it's like, and you’re drowning. You’re ashamed of yourself. That's the tier of the bus that I was on.”

The decision to retake the class was hard, but Rebecca “just needed to really prove myself: that you are cut out for this, [and] you are just as capable as the other people here.” Still, she admits to being embarrassed at the prospect of retaking the class, refusing to share her schedule with her friends who innocently asked her what courses she was taking. By February she was completely miserable. “I dropped out of chemistry. I was still not doing hot in [Introduction to Brain and Behavior]. I wasn’t failing but I was still not having a great time,” she says.

And then COVID–19 hit. Things were rough, and she describes sitting at home in her childhood bedroom trying to figure out what to do with her whole life. She enjoyed learning about the brain through her psychology classes, but decided she “hated chemicals” too much to take neuroscience and chemistry courses. 

Rebecca managed to get through the semester, and even ended up passing Introduction to Brain and Behavior, which was “phenomenal news.” She switched her major to cognitive science, which she preferred due to its “interdisciplinary nature.” She even got through computer science, which was a major accomplishment. 

Over her years at Penn, Rebecca has found her groove integrating her long–term passions with her academic interests. She’s always loved working with kids, explaining how she ran a babysitting business in high school with around 50 families on rotation. “I think kids are really cool, and they’re underrated,” she says. 

When she came back to campus her junior year, Rebecca started doing research with The Changing Brain Lab, studying how children’s brains grow and develop. “Neuroplasticity is the fancy term for it,” she says. She especially likes getting to work with people, and it's easy to tell she really is great with kids: She explains everything calmly and clearly, but the excitement in her voice draws me in. 

At one point during her junior year, Rebecca was working in three labs at once, and that summer she was accepted into the MindCORE Summer Fellowship Program. In just ten weeks, Rebecca completed an independent study from scratch. “It was pretty crazy,” she says. “I never thought I'd be able to do that, so I felt really proud of myself, even though I didn't find anything specific. It's okay, because I still had the process in my favor.”

Her thesis is in The Changing Brain Lab—where she’s been the longest—looking at how children’s motivation influences their learning. “Now I have two independent research projects under my belt, which is cool,” she says nonchalantly.

Over the years, Rebecca’s attitude towards failure has changed. “I was very disappointed in myself. I was like, 'People can't know that this happened to me,'” she says. “But now, I'm very open about it … It's just part of something that happened.” Talking to underclassmen, Rebecca takes the time to admit that Penn can be hard. “People do not fess up to those kinds of things” she says. 

In an environment that focuses on success, Rebecca has a counterpoint: “I think being more prone to failure is helpful.” In fact, she’s grateful that she faced failure early on in college and discovered her likes and dislikes. It’s an experience she believes has prepared her for her eventual goal of graduate school, where she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. In the meantime, she’s taking time to work before pursuing further education, tackling a full–time research position at Northeastern University. 

“I don't know what [the future is] gonna look like quite yet, but I think if Penn has told me anything, it's like you can't plan ahead,” Rebecca says, thinking back on the biggest lesson of her four years. “You gotta take things day by day.”