I fou nd the list scrawled in last summer’s notebook, buried in my desk drawer back home.
“To Do at Penn: Don’t get too stressed about grades. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Do what it takes to be happy.”
I may have failed on the first two counts — but even though I see its flaws, Penn’s made me the happiest I’ve ever been.
Visits home remind us of the people we were before we started college. Over break, I reconvened with my best friend from high school and we took stock of the ways we’d changed. As much as we tried to act like we were back to normal, we couldn’t ignore the obvious: We were different.
I wonder how tangible an impact Penn has left on me. Sure, there’s the spectrum of experiences unique to my time here — BYOs, Owls late nights, weekend waffles at Bridge Cafe and hours pouring over comparative literature in the Law Library — but I’m not sure how I’ve changed as a person. We focus on the difference we can make at Penn, but we don’t consider the difference Penn makes on us.
I applied early decision to Penn, which meant I had an extra four months to imagine it as a utopia. Clearly, that’s not the case. I had heard about Penn’s pre-professionalism, but I didn’t expect it to be as pervasive. Before Penn, I was less worried about jobs. I didn’t have the internal pressure of identifying myself as a Whartonite or non-Whartonite or the hours spent testing out interschool minors on a spreadsheet. I promised myself I wouldn’t stress out about school — a promise that I broke the first week of classes. My best friend and I planned to Skype every week. Now we’re glad if we make it twice a month.
Pre-Penn me didn’t need to take everything to the extremes — register for the hardest classes, have the most fun Saturday night, work out the most, have the funniest Snapchat Story. I didn’t compare myself to everyone around me.
But in spite of the competitive urges I’d rather not have, Penn pushes me to become a better version of myself. I’m more outgoing than I was in high school and my compulsively updated Penn planner keeps me more organized than I’ve ever been. I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything, but what I do accomplish — whether it’s finishing an essay or performing Blogilates in my friend’s dorm — gives me a rush of confidence.
In the past few months, I’ve gotten lots of comments about “the freshman high.” For the first weeks, I looked at everything at Penn with a rosy gaze. Friends would say, “Come on, what’s it really like?” and I couldn’t name any flaws. I mass-texted my “group” from high school that Penn exceeded my expectations. Dining hall food was better than I anticipated. People were friendly and just plain nice. The more my pre-frosh image of Penn crumbled, the happier I was that it did.
I was crushed this summer when I didn’t get into the Quad. Now I’ve found more of a close-knit community than I’d hoped for in English House. I assumed I’d have more self-control in the dining hall. Then my friends and I discovered pumpkin ice cream in Commons and all hope was lost. I thought I’d befriend fellow humanities-lovers, but I have more friends studying business and engineering than English. I never thought that, as of last week, I’d be registered to rush. And I didn’t expect to make a home out of the slightly sketchy-looking DP office.
Even though I’ll groan about Penn’s pressure-cooker environment, I want to hold on to the glassy-eyed naivete for as long as I can. I can note Penn’s flaws without becoming jaded. Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist, but I stand by my claim that applying ED to Penn was the best choice I ever made.
It’s not that I wouldn’t have Penn any other way. But over break, as my best friend got ready to go back to her small liberal arts college in Minnesota, she looked me in the eyes and said, “You look so happy.”
For that, I have to thank the Red and Blue.
Dani Blum is a College freshman from Ridgefield, Conn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Danalyst” appears every Tuesday.
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