“I feel like I did everything kind of wrong and ended up in the right place,” says Kayli Mann, summing up her college experience. From making the move out of her rural town to Philadelphia to her involvement in Penn’s musical theater scene to transferring out of Wharton, Kayli has pivoted several times since the pandemic.

Kayli didn’t think she would ever leave rural West Virginia. No one from her school had been accepted to an Ivy League school in the past ten to 20 years. However, after she received exceptional ACT scores, she realized that she had a chance. Having application fee vouchers, Kayli sent out applications anywhere to see what would stick. Kayli ended up getting into 15 out of the 16 schools she applied to, including six Ivies.

“There was no precedent for me to understand what was going on. I had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go,” she recalled. To make a confusing time worse, then the COVID–19 pandemic hit. Kayli was unable to visit any of the schools she was accepted to. It was only the fact that Kayli was accepted to Wharton and the Joseph Wharton Scholars program, coupled with Penn only being a “nine hour drive instead of a 16 hour drive” from home, that made her commit to Penn.

However, a virtual first semester did have benefits. “Thank God PennArts was virtual,” Kayli said. Had PennArts not been virtual, Kayli would not have been able to afford the extra tuition cost to pay for the Penn Players pre–orientation program.

Talking to upperclassmen during Zoom lunches, she was encouraged to try out musical theater. She played Winnie Foster in the Penn Players’ virtual rendition of Tuck Everlasting. She went on to produce the Penn Players' musical the next fall and became chair of Penn Players, making some of her best friends and creating a valuable support system for her move to campus.

Kayli’s first time at Penn, like most of the graduating senior class, came at the start of her first spring semester. “It was funky because I committed to this school and [I didn’t] even know where the dining hall [was],” she says.

Philadelphia was a big shift from her rural West Virginia lifestyle. At home, the nearest store being a 40–minute car ride away. Geographically, Kayli wasn’t used to walking places. Culturally, people were more liberal at Penn than back home. People were also a lot more wealthy at Penn.

Kayli quickly realized that Wharton was not the place for her. Since she didn’t have reliable WiFi at home, Kayli recalls traveling to a not–so–nearby Starbucks or fruitlessly trying to connect to her data hotspot to get her classes done. In part because the hoops she had to jump through to attend her classes, she failed economics her first semester. She also hated most of her other Wharton classes.

What sealed the deal for her was watching the movie Arbitrage in one of her Wharton classes. In the film, Richard Gere plays a hedge fund manager who has an affair with the young owner of an art gallery. Gere’s character kills her while driving her home intoxicated. Gere’s character spends the rest of the movie using his money to cover up the murder. He’s also been embezzling money.

When Kayli’s class discussed the movie after watching it, she said, “This is kind of a sham movie because he has no redeeming qualities besides the fact that he's Richard Gere.” Expecting everyone else in the class to agree with her, Kayli was caught off guard when one of the first years in her class chimed into the discussion saying that he related to the “moral struggles” Richard Gere’s character was going through. “I was like, ‘I cannot do this. Moral struggles, what more struggles? He killed a person. Also, you’re like 18, hopefully you’ve never been there,’” Kayli recalled.

After Penn turned a blind eye to her 2.97 GPA (technically she needed a 3.0 GPA to transfer but they let her do it, since no one ever transfers out of Wharton), she transferred into the College to study anthropology. “I would rather have four years of being happy than, like, four years of misery and like an extra bit [on my resume] that no one's gonna look at,” said Kayli. And ever since she watched Castle and Bones as a child, she had known she wanted to study anthropology. 

Kayli found much more intellectual satisfaction with her anthropology classes. She feels like they “[activated] her brain and [challenged] her beliefs a lot.” She described growing up in a “conservative Protestant white environment,” and never really feeling like she belonged, but also not knowing anything else. Her anthropology classes introduced her to new concepts, vocabulary, and ways of thinking about the world that resonated with her.

“A lot of us grew up not being able to express those [our beliefs] and then [we] get to a place where [we] can and everyone thinks that the place that we are in now where we feel safe enough to say those things is what taught us [our beliefs], even if it's been in us all along,” Kayli reflects.

“There’s no other place like [college]. We all come from different places and ways of thinking and have so much to learn from each other. It’s likely that the places we go after college will not be nearly as diverse in terms of backgrounds and thinking as it is at college," Kayli says. To make the most of it, Kayli’s tried to meet as many people as she can.

Even though Kayli’s college experience was anything but linear, she’s learned a lot about herself and what she doesn’t like along the way. “A big theme throughout college was ‘Alright, we're gonna get rid of these what ifs?’” These experiences have given her confidence in her decisions, esepcially during her biggest one. Kayli Mann knows from experience that what’s on the Huntsman side of the compass isn’t for her.