Guest Column by Sarah Shihadah | Seeing both sides of senior societies
October 3, 2013, 5:50 pm · Updated October 3, 2013, 10:51 pm·
Toward the end of my junior spring, I was approached by a senior whom I admire deeply, and who slipped me a creamy, wax-sealed envelope. Inside was a note informing me I’d officially been “tapped” for a senior society, along with an invitation to attend a “smoker” event to meet the current members and my fellow taps.
I’ll admit, at the time my knowledge of senior societies was limited to a few ambiguous chalk drawings I remembered seeing on Locust Walk. However, I was intrigued. I did a little research on the society, got excited, then nervous, and then I cleared my schedule for Thursday night.
I arrived at the event along with over 100 of my peers and spent several enjoyable hours mingling with the dynamic group. Warmed by an evening of enriching company, I decided to apply for membership, casting my name into a large and hyper-qualified pool. Two nights later, just as I was winding down with a re-run of “New Girl,” my doorbell rang.
Several hours later, I found myself plunging into one of the most meaningful experiences of my senior year: I was initiated alongside 22 others as a member of Sphinx Senior Society. My first few months as a “Sphinge” have brought new depth and richness to my time at Penn. Far from superficial, my interactions and friendships with members of my class have been a constant source of both inspiration and growth — my fellow Sphinges, so full of passion and commitment, constantly challenge me to rise to higher levels of engagement and thought.
I’m humbled and grateful for the fun and enlightenment their company has brought into my life. However, as the recent rounds of senior society activity have reminded many of us, there is also a troubling side to any attempt to create such self-selecting, exclusive groups.
Having just finished the prolonged and emotionally fraught process of deliberating over dozens of brilliant applicants, with the nearly impossible object of choosing only seven for the final additions to the 2014 class, I have been forced to think more deeply about the potentials and limitations of such groups. In theory, I’m told, senior societies seek to identify and distinguish individuals who have made outstanding contributions on campus, and I believe these groups excel at doing just that. The troubling thing, of course, is not who is “in” but who is not.
Although there is something to be said for honoring certain students for their contributions to Penn, the limitations of such a process — and the inevitable exclusion of so many deserving individuals — is an unfortunate and perhaps detrimental consequence. We all know that membership in such groups is not a validation of personal, academic or organizational worth, but the truth is we’ve all experienced exclusion and the disappointment that inevitably accompanies it.
As I contemplate my experiences thus far at Penn, I am struck by the true brilliance of my impactful peers, who strive daily in all corners and spheres to make the world and themselves better. We are artists, activists, entrepreneurs, givers, creators, fighters, writers, visionaries, laborers, leaders. We learn, we teach, we show, we reach.
If senior societies — if honors, awards and accolades — serve to foster collaboration and community, then I believe they serve their purpose and their campus well. But to the extent that these foster competition, elitism or negativity, I believe we violate the very real but delicate potential to assist one another in the creation of our own best selves.
It is likely that the impulse to delineate differences and to trace circles around groups and causes will remain. But it is essential that we bear in mind that there will always be beautiful, deserving people on both sides of our chalk lines. I hope we all feel the freedom and desire to step outside these lines often and see how much more sidewalk there is to dance on.
Sarah Shihadah is a College senior, co-president of Penn for Palestine and a member of Sphinx Senior Society. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.