Guest column by Jonelle Lesniak | Why I can’t leave Penn saying that I loved it

· April 28, 2014, 6:43 pm   ·  Updated April 28, 2014, 9:10 pm

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A s a senior, I’ve been asked by the administration to take multiple surveys about my Penn experience. The surveys ask seniors to rate the curriculum, faculty, community and how well Penn has fostered awareness of the world, among other things. I’ve found all of these more than satisfactory. But still, something has been amiss in my college experience that keeps me from being completely satisfied.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about a question in the senior survey asking what we would say to a future Penn student about the Penn experience. Both of us confessed to giving less than positive responses. I’ve long wondered what it is about Penn that prevents me from wholly loving it, and now I am finding I am not the only one asking that question.

Many months of contemplation have led to one conclusion: The prevailing mentality of competitiveness among students really puts me off. In Wharton, this is drilled into us on day one of Management 100 and usually sticks from then on. I remember our first day of class when the TA explained to my classmates and I that we would be graded against our peers; we would not graded on how well we performed, but on how well we performed compared to everyone else. Penn students are pitted against each other academically from the beginning.

Throughout my four years at Penn, I’ve observed how the competitive attitude has affected student life at Penn. Interactions between students are too often approached with a “what can I get out of this” attitude. It isn’t explicitly stated by anyone that that’s how things work around here, but students tacitly assent to it over time.

The competitive environment leads students to make collections of networks to exploit their performance in situations from group projects to jobs opportunities. To some extent that’s smart, and college is a great place to build networks. But relating to peers as consumers can change students from team players to shirkers with self-promoting attitudes, interested in only their benefits in order to stay at the top.

By the time OCR comes around, competitiveness reaches its height and students become frenzied, with piles of them vying for limited offers. I spoke with many peers that admitted that they didn’t want to be doing OCR but were doing it because they felt like they had to in order to keep up with everyone else. I was one of them.

We are conforming to competitive norms that we don’t necessarily like, but we do so just to keep pace with everyone else, instead of pursuing our own unique paths. Students funnel themselves toward a hamster wheel, many times when most of them would admit that they’d rather not.

Healthy competition can foster achievement and create motivation to excel. But if we’re not careful, a competitive mentality will affect our entire lives. This attitude doesn’t stay limited to the classroom. It seeps into our every day attitudes toward others. It affects the way we treat the people around us. Do we have team members or stepping stools? It also affects our work ethic. Do we perform our best or do we do just enough to beat the next best person?

After four years of being in this atmosphere, we enter the workforce, higher academia or some other type of occupation. I wonder how the everyone-for-himself training ground affects the industries that many students pursue after Penn, including popular financial and consulting careers, to name a few.

If we carry a competitive, self-seeking and elitist mentality with us into society, we will find it affecting our relationships with colleagues, friends and all sorts of others.

We cannot let an attitude of competitiveness stifle meaningful working relationships, and we must do what we can to prevent it from affecting our social lives. We must encourage one another to break molds and do what we want to do rather than worry about keeping up with everyone else. The attitude on campus won’t change unless we change it. And hopefully all of us will love college a little bit more.

Jonelle Lesniak is a Wharton senior from Wausaukee, Wisc. Her email address is jlesniak@wharton.upenn.edu.

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