Melanie Lei | Not all who wander are lost


Farewell Column | But if you are, don't stress out too much about it


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Melanie Lei

Photo by Justin Cohen


I’ve never been good at directions.

I’m graduating in two weeks, but still have to think twice about whether turning right or left on a numbered street in Philadelphia will take me north or south. I still haven’t figured out what the fastest route to Fisher-Bennett Hall is, despite walking the same path for the last three years.

My BlackBerry without a data plan, which takes after its owner, has faked being smart for the last four years. I still have to Google Map my way to anything that isn’t on a number and tree street intersection before leaving the house. My best friends at home will tell you to put me in the backseat during a road trip because my navigation skills will inevitably lead us to Atlantis.

This isn’t a new trend by any means. In September 2008, the second week of my freshman year, I couldn’t even find the Daily Pennsylvanian office. I walked the four blocks from King’s Court/English House to 40th and Walnut streets for the first time and spent a good 20 minutes wandering in front of Fresh Grocer and McDonald’s. When I finally made it up the stairs to the Pink Palace, I was overwhelmed by the info session, which consisted of a flurry of sign-up sheets and herds of over-enthusiastic freshmen ready to fling themselves headfirst into over commitment. I think I put my name down for every department.

Little did I know I would be there to stay — for a while. Three months later, I was walking that same path every Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. I turned 18 sitting at the photo editor desk, and ended up staying for the next two years. This may or may not have been because it took me that long to figure out how to actually leave the office (there are deceptive exit signs everywhere, I swear).

Four years later, I’m not a journalist anymore and don’t plan to be (but hey, anything can happen). But I don’t regret wandering into the DP office for a single moment. In fact, I wish I had wandered even more.

Where has wandering gotten me? An off-hand remark to a friend landed me in Singapore last summer working for an amazing social enterprise with a Ted Fellow. I had my most fulfilling on-campus job experience at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy. I joined the Penn Band for a semester because I couldn’t turn down the cheeky grin of one future drum major. While seniors warned me about the perils of wandering past 40th, I headed west to 60th and Walnut streets every week to work at LIFT, an office that combats local poverty. I decided to take one creative writing class for fun and ended up with an English major. (It happens to the best of us).

Freshman year, I thought I was pre-med (didn’t we all?). And sure, if I had stuck to the plan, I may have been stressing over med schools right now and contemplating how to pay for another eight-plus years of school. I could have planned my classes better instead of taking four classes that fulfilled the quantitative analysis requirement (I wish I was kidding).

I recently had the privilege of wandering into a preceptorial with Wharton professor Adam Grant, who has devoted his life to studying what makes work meaningful. Last year, he delivered the Wharton graduation speech and told the audience, “It’s not about making the right decision. It’s about making the decision right.” That is, what matters isn’t what you choose, but how you get there and what you choose to make out of it.

I have finally come to terms with often being lost. If I had lived my life constantly thinking about how to achieve a set of experiences that would make sense on my resume, I would have never discovered what I was truly passionate about.

I also would have never played a bass drum on Franklin Field, photographed Wing Bowl, waded through the monsoon in Bangladesh, read Lord of the Rings for an actual class or learned that it’s ten times more effective to donate cash instead of cans to food drives.

Most importantly, I would have never met the handful of truly amazing and inspirational people I’ve had the opportunity to meet at Penn that helped me to eventually find my way.

We all hate hearing the nasally GPS say “Recalculating … make a U-Turn in 0.2 miles.” But I think we put too much stock in getting from NSO to graduation along the route we first planned. No matter how much you map out your life, it’s never going to be exactly as you expect — and realizing that has made it much easier for me to recover from the bumps in the road.

There’s nothing wrong with wandering a little, or even a lot. After all, unlike me, you probably have a smartphone. You can always Google your way back on route.

Melanie Lei is a former Daily Pennsylvanian news and sports photo editor, photo manager, and senior staff writer. She is a 2012 College graduate from the Bay Area, Calif., and double majored in health and societies and English. After graduation, she will be working at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting firm, in Washington, D.C., where she will probably spend a few more years getting lost. Her email address is melanie.lei@gmail.com.

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