Penn, as the pre-professional university par excellence, is a magnet for the stereotypical Eastern Asian: an arguably cutthroat academia, a vocationally inclined education and a decent engineering school. Having grown up in Hong Kong, I am no stranger to the radical pre-professionalism displayed at Penn. More than half of my friends back home are on inexorable courses to become lawyers, doctors and businessmen, and my resolve in pursuing an English major has since been swayed. I have lost count of the times my friends back home looked at me as if I have a third nipple on my face after I informed them of my prospective major.
A friend once told me that Penn is not where dreams go to die, but where dreams become lucrative — aspiring authors become copywriters and painters become graphic designers because they learn of more financially sound ways to apply their skills. Interestingly, our vocationally obsessed Quakers seem to form a unique stratum among Generation Y — the millennial generation, a generation supposedly characterized by wild ambitions, an inflated sense of self-worth and contempt for banality. My generation’s tendency to have quixotic aspirations seems to be contradicted by Penn students’ eagerness to dive head first into the work force and sit behind a desk. As a self-proclaimed millennial who would probably study what he likes instead of what is deemed “useful,” I find my incompatibility with Penn’s overarching culture a bit frightening.
Penn’s pre-professionalism and its emphasis on vocational practicality seem to go against the very zeitgeist of our generation, let alone the interests of our contemporaries. During an entrepreneurial boot camp in New York, I had the pleasure of meeting with students from Fordham University and managed to talk to them amid the roars of beer-pongers during a house party. While the budding entrepreneurs from Fordham talked to me about how their ideas were going to change the internet-using world, my friends from Penn discussed how Facebook could acquire their company for millions.
Perhaps that is why I was shocked when my former bandmate decided to major in music even though he has no plans of pursuing music as a career. Perhaps that is why I was confused whe n a Saudi Arabian friend told me he was willing to skip school for one semester to go on a biking trip around the world. Perhaps that is why I was impressed when a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian dropped out of the prestigious M&T program to read literature and philosophy because the latter two “resonated with [his] soul.”
As of now, I hav e yet to decide on a millennial dream to pursue. The dream might be ambitious, it might be big — whatever it might be, however, I have a feeling it will at least be lucrative. — JASON CHOI
I n founding the University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin wished to instill his education philosophy of a “pragmatic unity of theory and practice.” It comes as no surprise, then, that for an East-Coast, Ivy League institution, Penn is an anomaly due to its departure from traditional liberal arts and focus on pragmatism and pre-professionalism.
Having grown up in the cosmopolis of Hong Kong, I suppose that it is only natural for me to value an education that is pragmatic and has a clear application within society. Yet I have foregone the more traditional route of studying at home or in the United Kingdom in favor of a Penn education because I find their higher education systems to be too pre-professional and focused in comparison.
One of the overarching adjectives I would use to describe Penn is “diverse,” and I think the diversity that exists within our curriculum is sometimes lost to us. We are provided the opportunity to find a balance and pursue our best fit, where a humanities buff can pursue anthropology or the classics, while a student with concrete dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer or hedge fund manager can focus on making them a reality.
Furthermore, driving the concerns and criticisms of this pre-professional culture is a common misconception that pre-professionalism connotes the pursuit of achieving financial success. There is no doubt that disciplines with more immediate real-world impact are generally valued more by our laissez-faire driven society; yet this is far from the point or purpose of a practical education.
Instead, we should recognize that Franklin aimed for Penn students to have the mentality and skill set to make realistic societal contributions.
While there’s often stigma attached to OCR and the mass migration of Wharton students toward the financial industry, I doubt many would criticize the fact that Penn is home to the East Coast’s biggest Hackathon “PennApps” and possesses a rich culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that has given rise to the likes of Venmo and Warby Parker. Many of these criticisms do not fundamentally concern pre-professionalism itself but instead stem from our bias against particular professions (like banking).
There is no doubt that a culture of pre-professionalism exists at Penn, but despite the misconceptions, there is nothing wrong with pursuing an education focused on practicality. And if that’s not the flavor for you, Penn holds an abundance of opportunities for those pursuing the liberal arts.
Ultimately, Penn is about pursuing your own dreams, whether they are of educational enrichment, vocational preparation or yes, even of lucrativeness. — WILLIAM ZHANG
William Zhang and Jason Choi are a Wharton freshman and a College freshman, respectively, from Hong Kong. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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