As a campus tour group made its way down Locust Walk, a concerned parent had a question. She approached the tour guide, who responded to the inquiry by turning to the whole group and saying, “Well, Penn is very diverse.” She proceeded to rattle off statistics about Penn’s minority students.
It’s these kinds of facts and figures that initially draw students — and parents — to Penn, but as many students find out, they’re often times not enough to make them stay.
Jerome Vivino, formerly a member of Penn’s Class of 2013, didn’t know what he was getting into when he entered the Wharton School as a freshman. “I was thinking I wanted to combine business and music,” he said, “but I didn’t know Wharton’s reputation at all.”
He soon learned his dream was “neither realistic nor easy” in Wharton. Vivino stopped attending class. “I had no interest in the present state of cash flow,” he said. “Instead of going to accounting and hating it, I would stay home and write music.”
After his first semester as a sophomore, he transferred from Wharton into the College of Arts and Sciences, hoping to be able to pursue a degree in music. But Penn’s music program “was not what I wanted at all,” he said. Combined with the fact that apart from his fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi, there was nothing about Penn’s social scene to keep him anchored to the school, Vivino decided to start over at Berklee College of Music.
Vivino’s story is not exceptional. According to an April 27, 2010, article in The New York Times, about one in three college students will transfer universities throughout the course of their education. While less than 4 percent of Penn’s student body decides to leave the University for another school, about 200 students each year choose to make their fresh start at Penn.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said the reasons students decide to come to Penn in their sophomore or junior years vary from the Philadelphia community to the University’s academic offerings. However, “students tend to ‘trade up’” when they make the decision to come to Penn, Furda said.
Wharton sophomore Michael Ma would agree. After spending his freshman year at New York University’s Stern School of Business, the “higher caliber” of Wharton, which had inspired his dream of attending the school since he was a child, drove him to make the switch.
After being deferred for freshman admissions and realizing during his first year that “the rigor of NYU was not on par” with that of Penn, he accepted his admission for sophomore year.
Coming from NYU, Ma said, “there’s a certain amount of anxiety” involved in changing schools. “You think, ‘Damn, this is an Ivy League school, the kids here are probably geniuses.’ But as soon as you start integrating, you see that students are students.”
Getting to that point of integration, though, is not always so easy. “I think it’s hard being a transfer,” said College sophomore Carol Weiss, who transferred from Wesleyan University. “You sort of get grouped with being a freshman — yeah, you’re new to Penn, but not to college.”
To combat the feeling of being out of place in a new school, “transfers feel pressure to get involved in things fast,” said College and Engineering junior Kim Gordon, who transferred from Barnard College after her freshman year. “You feel like you don’t get the same grace period” as freshmen do to find your footing at the beginning of your first year in a new place.
While Gordon — who transferred to Penn to pursue a unique degree in Engineering and the College — said her decision to change schools has been “worth it” for her, she felt transfer students could benefit from further programming to help them integrate into Penn.
This year, Gordon, along with another transfer student, has worked to found the Transfer Student Organization, which will host formal and informal events throughout the year to help transfers stay in touch after their version of New Student Orientation ends. TSO, which has recruited an executive board of 10 students, “is going to play a very large role” in helping transfers adjust to Penn, Gordon said.
However, TSO may not be a solution for all students. “I know a lot of transfers tend to be friends with other transfers, but I want to integrate myself into the Penn community,” Weiss said. “I don’t want to rely on that and only be friends with other transfers. I want to be just another Penn student.”
For Weiss, though, the path to becoming just another Penn student is not without complications. While she sought a “fresh start” leaving Wesleyan — “a small liberal arts school where everything was totally on campus” — Penn’s urban campus has made her realize she misses the smaller community of her former school. “I miss recognizing more people around campus at Wesleyan,” she said. “Here, everyone’s class schedules are so different, I feel like I never run into the same people.”
Of the people she does run into, Weiss feels she hasn’t been able to connect with many. “The majority of people I’ve met have this very concrete plan of going into business or med school,” she explained. “It can be overwhelming for someone like me — I’m just exploring and trying to figure out what I’m doing.”
Weiss’ same predicament is what prompted former College Class of 2013 student Tanya Singh to leave Penn at the end of her freshman year. “People were on track and knew what they wanted to do,” she said. Like Weiss, Singh felt a pull to be around people like herself, who were still exploring their options.
At Penn, Singh found a good group of friends and did well in her classes. While the decision to transfer remained in the back of her mind throughout the year, she was still unsure at the end of her freshman year if she would go through with it. However, after taking a leave of absence last year and traveling through Eastern and Central Europe, she realized that transferring to Brown University was “the necessary thing to do.”
Brown, Singh said, “has a pretty sizeable transfer population,” and many students who leave Penn choose to attend the other Ivy League school. “I think kids from Penn still want an academically challenging school,” she said, but Brown doesn’t have the same preprofessional atmosphere that made students like her and Weiss question their place at the University.
Penn is “a great school when you know what you want to do,” Singh said, “but you feel lost if you don’t.”
While “transferring is never easy,” she added, “for most people, it’s worth it.”
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.