Last week my friend asked me, "What would high school Shelli think about where you are right now?"
I don't really know what high school Shelli wanted to get out of Penn. I expected a world-class, Ivy League education, and I got it — but I didn't expect to learn valuable lessons through booking Perelman Quad rooms or resolving When2Meet scheduling conflicts. I wanted to go to college in a new, exciting city — but I didn't think I'd fall in love with Philadelphia in a way that has nothing to do with Penn. Every time I run down the Schuylkill River, dance at the Barbary or glance up at the skyline, I realize that no city will have quite the same pull on my heart.
I did think I'd figure out who I am, and I'm not any closer to that now that my time at Penn is up. Einstein was right: The more I've learned, the more I've realized how much I don't know.
College is a four-year-long identity crisis. From the moment I settled into my box-sized room and filled a shopping bag with Activities Fair flyers, I was obsessed with finding my "Penn identity."
This was a long, difficult process, fraught with unexpected detours and romanticized notions of student government, Greek life and every other activity featured in Penn brochures. I ended up joining Penn for Youth Debate, a volunteer organization, and The Daily Pennsylvanian, two communities where I found great friends and rewarding experiences — from helping my students become amazing debaters to writing articles I was proud of and getting a crash course in investigative journalism. Many BYOs and late-night deadlines later, I know the time I spent in these groups was more than worthwhile.
But, in classic Penn fashion, I wasn't only worried about finding my campus niche — I also needed to find a label to slap on my future ambitions. Would I go to law school, like I'd always planned? It all seemed very clear — until my creative writing classes convinced me to become a journalist, while my international relations classes made me yearn for the glamorous life of a diplomat. After a semester in Prague, I even toyed with the idea of becoming a travel-blogging nomad. Now, I'm about to begin a job that doesn't fall under any of these categories and trying to remember that what I do over the next two years doesn't automatically decide what I do with the next 10, 20 or 50. I've learned at Penn that determining your "endgame" is a futile endeavor. The frustration of figuring it out is what makes college such a beautiful time of self-discovery — and it doesn't go away until you let it. And you don't have to figure everything out right away. Or ever.
Because a job's just a job, the same way that a GBM in Huntsman F90 at 8 p.m. is just a slot on your Google Calendar. There's so much other space in your life to be filled with other things.
If you're fortunate enough to still have time left at Penn, fill it with things you've never done before, things that aren't necessarily "productive" or moving you towards achieving a goal. Rent a bicycle from PennCycle and bike through Fairmount Park to Manayunk. Go on Alternative Spring Break to a part of America you've never seen. Study abroad — in the spring, if you have to, even if people think you're lame for missing Fling — because it's worth it in ways you can't imagine.
But also spend time with your friends and professors, because most of them are brilliant people who will push you to become a better, smarter, kinder person. Take advantage of office hours and speaker events and the fact that your friends live a 30-second walk away.
Find your place in the sprawling Penn ecosystem, but don't be constrained by it. Your major, social circle and extracurricular involvements only define you as much as you let them. Be open to change.
And if you stand upon the precipice of graduation without an answer to the question of who you are and what you're all about, know that you're not alone. We'll be looking for it all our lives, so let's do it together.
Shelli Gimelstein is a College senior and a former writer for the DP. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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