I remember my first semester vividly. Like most freshmen, I wanted to get involved on campus, and campus was happy to oblige. I was greeted by a barrage of posters and sign-up sheets competing to woo me for my email address. Two weeks into school, and listserv welcome emails were blowing up my laptop faster than I could read them.
As these words go to press, the newest arrivals on our campus are scurrying about shaking hands, making small talk and looking for a social circle to nestle into for the next three and a half years.
And I’m not talking just about Greek life (though one in four of us takes that road). Performing arts groups are holding auditions, and political clubs are organizing GBMs in hopes up rallying up-and-coming Frank Underwoods to their causes. Even the Philomathean Society is hosting “solistimums” to kick off its prestigious and selective application process.
Social organization has existed for as long as humanity itself — it’s a staple of our history as a species. By coming together, we pool our collective efforts to meet life’s challenges, be it hunting wild boar or tackling problem sets. All too often, however, we’re torn between the collective and the individual, trying to balance the communal instinct with the self.
We’re social animals at the social Ivy. But this place is a whirlpool of clubs, dues and flyers on the Walk, and it’s easy to get sucked in. So how do you balance your various interests without sacrificing your identity?
It’s a classic Penn syndrome: you join too many groups and end up overextending yourself. Before you know it, you’re scrambling to juggle your various commitments, and your existence has been reduced to a series of groups and deadlines. A moment eventually comes when you ask yourself, “What am I doing this for? A couple of board positions?”
Group affiliation is addictive, but letting it consume your life can be dangerous. No matter how you approach your extracurricular activities, it’s important to hang on to your individuality. Let the groups you’re in engage you without defining you. Make sure not to surrender your priorities or values.
Yes, you looked good to the University because you were involved and an active participant in your community. But Penn chose you, not for the groups themselves, but hopefully for the person who helped make those groups what they are.
Some of the most epic legends of history involve those who were unafraid of standing out. Ben Franklin ran away from home to start a new life in Philadelphia, refusing the path laid out for him by his family. Napoleon actively rejected conventional rules of strategy, and until he invaded Russia, he was arguably the most successful commander in military history.
The moral of the story, of course, is never to invade Russia. At least not as a freshman.
Innovation may often come from working with others, but strong groups are, at their core, collections of strong people. In order to pool collective efforts, everyone must have something unique to bring to the table. Being in the world requires being yourself.
It’s not just about keeping afloat. College is, above all else, a time of growth and self-discovery. Beyond grades, parties and everything in between, the most valuable thing we walk away with is a sense that we have somehow grown — that somewhere along the last four years, something has awoken inside us, and that we’ve found a voice within ourselves we didn’t know we possessed. From learning to live away from home to landing our first jobs, we slowly come to terms with our own independence.
We forget how insistently institutional this campus is, and after enough semesters, it can be easy to succumb to conformity. But your uniqueness as an individual is worth preserving, and nobody else will do it for you. Like any muscle that needs to be flexed regularly, it’s use it or lose it.
So heed the words of Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Jonathan Iwry is a College senior from Bethesda, Md., studying philosophy. His last name is pronounced “eev-ree.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.