As high school graduation approached, College sophomore Shelby Barlow was one of the few students in her small Mississippi town preparing to leave the state for college.
Many of her high school classmates from Long Beach, Miss. had recently enlisted in the military. Others were heading off to the local community college.
Barlow, who grew up in Long Beach, described it as “a small town where Southern hospitality is still alive and families stay for generations.” As the only student from her high school to attend Penn in her memory, Barlow was excited to step out of the confines of her small hometown.
Her transition did not come without obstacles. “A lot of people don’t know anything about Mississippi, or they have a really disparaging view,” Barlow said.
Students like Barlow from underrepresented geographical areas say that the transition to Penn can be initially jarring, both socially and academically. And unlike many of their peers, they usually enter college without knowing anyone.
Increased recruiting efforts in recent years have created a diverse undergraduate population at Penn. But the student body’s geographic distribution is still far from representative of the United States population. According to the Admissions Office’s profile for the Class of 2019, only 10.8 percent of students are from the Southeast, while 44.4 percent hail from the Northeast.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said that Penn has no set standards for geographic diversity that it has to meet, but that “the University touches every state during college recruitment.”
Despite Penn’s efforts, however, undergraduates from highly underrepresented areas face social and academic challenges — ones that many of their peers never experience — when they arrive to Philadelphia.
Penn’s Geographic Profile
Only in the last few decades has Penn become a truly national institution. Originally, it was a local college for young men in the surrounding Philadelphia area.
While diversity at Penn today has progressed far past its founding days, the geographic distribution of the undergraduate population is still imbalanced.
College Factual ranks Penn as the 35th most geographically diverse school in the country, with all the other Ivy League schools except Cornell ranked above it.
According to the profile for the Class of 2019, 53.2 percent of non-international students at Penn come from just four states: Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California. However, these states only make up 25.2 percent of the population of the U.S., according to 2014 population projections based on the 2010 U.S. Census.
While 371 students hail from Pennsylvania in the Class of 2019 — 17.4 percent of the class — only two are from Mississippi. Barlow is the only person from her state in the Class of 2018.
Admissions office data also notes that students who attend boarding school in the Northeast are still counted as residents of their home state. Disparities between geographic regions, therefore, might be even greater than the data suggests.
A College Prep Culture
The day Penn early decision results came out, Wharton sophomore Eddie Zilberbrand, who is from Brooklyn, N.Y., waited at Shake Shack after classes ended. Right before 5 p.m., Zilberbrand swiped back into Stuyvesant High School to open his decision with all his friends.
“You could hear screams in the hall and people were even crying with their friends,” Zilberbrand said with a chuckle. At the elite Manhattan public high school, which Zilberbrand and others call “Stuy,” the tradition of opening college decisions at school contributes to a pervasive precollege culture.
“It was unimaginable that someone wouldn’t go straight to college after high school,” he said. “For a lot of people, Cornell was almost like a ‘safety’ — 50 or 60 people get in every year [from Stuyvesant].”
New York, Zilberbrand’s home state, is the second most represented state in Penn’s undergraduate population. According to data from the Admissions Office, 314 undergraduates, or 14.7 percent of non-international students, hail from New York in the Class of 2019.
Zilberbrand said that geographic location plays a large role in creating this culture.
“Stuy is really close to so many of the Ivies, so there is a greater awareness about college,” he said, adding that his school’s college open house was ten floors and filled with representatives from all over the world.
At Stuyvesant, every homeroom has its own guidance counselor, and there are also three separate college counselors. “They really take care of their students,” Zilberbrand said.
Barlow, a graduate of her town’s public school, recounts a starkly different experience of applying to college. Only about a third of her graduating class went to a four-year college. Barlow said that in her town, enlisting in the military was probably more common than heading off to school.
She also remembers that her high school never made an effort to see that students go out of state for college. All of the information and scholarships she could find were confined to Mississippi.
“There was no Ivy culture — there wasn’t really even a college culture at my school,” Barlow said.
Barlow’s journey to Penn reflects the difficulties that the University faces when recruiting students from underrepresented areas.
“A lot of students do have fairly tight circumferences about where they are going to college,” Furda said. He added that Penn uses a variety of recruitment methods, such as collecting names from standardized testing services.
Through standardized tests like the PSAT, Penn can use the data they receive from College Board to mail and email prospective students. However, even this outreach method has its limitations in attracting students from remote geographic locations.
Barlow said that she was one of the few students in her high school to enroll in a college outside of her home state.
“There is a kind of stigma about leaving Mississippi,” Barlow said. “My friend’s parents refused to let her go to art school in New York because they thought she was abandoning her hometown.”
Barlow had to take her own initiative to apply to schools outside of Mississippi. She looked into different scholarships and used the QuestBridge program to connect her with elite institutions outside of Mississippi. However, she said that her road to Penn was not neatly paved.
“I had to seek out teachers to talk to and college information,” Barlow said. “You really had to take an initiative to go out of state.”
A Social Safety Net
When Barlow arrived at Penn as a freshman, she did not know anyone on campus.
Although this didn’t bother her, she recalls feeling socially isolated initially because most people could not relate to her experiences.
“I met this freshman girl from Mississippi, and talking to her about our home state is incredible,” Barlow said. “So many other people get to experience this, but it’s not like that for me.”
Barlow has adjusted well to social life at Penn. But after growing up in a small town where she knew everyone since childhood, Barlow still remembers the novelty of having to form a new friend group.
In Long Beach, people are familiar with each other’s backgrounds, Barlow said, but at Penn, most students do not know anything about her home state.
She recalls one instance in her linguistics class. While the instructor played recordings of different accents, a barely understandable Southern accent arose as an example.
“Someone blurted, ‘I think that person is from Mississippi’,” Barlow said. “It’s like Mississippi and parts of the South are a different world for people here.”
Barlow’s experience is starkly different from her peers from well-represented areas.
Wharton sophomore Derek Hsue, a New Jersey resident and graduate of the Pingry School, said that he came into Penn knowing at least ten students. In just his graduating class, six people enrolled at Penn.
“Coming from the Northeast to a similar environment like Penn is an advantage because a lot of students have prior connections that help them get set up,” Hsue said.
Barlow also remembered the moment when she realized that most of her peers had friends at other elite schools.
“People would reference their friends at other Ivies like Harvard or Cornell, and I realized that the only person I know is my ex-boyfriend’s older brother who got into Harvard a few years ago,” she said.
Hsue, in contrast, said that he has at least one good friend in almost every single Ivy League school.
After the Transition Period
Barlow and Hsue both agreed that after the first few months at Penn, geographic association became less important.
“In some sense, people almost forgot my geographic region,” Barlow said. “Some of my friends were surprised I like country music — but it’s like, I’m from the South.”
Zilberbrand and Hsue said that their friend groups are relatively diverse and they are close with people outside of the Northeast.
“I still get to be the city-snob when I go to New York with my friends, but it’s not my defining characteristic,” Zilberbrand said.
Barlow said that although her Southern origins have affected many of her experiences at Penn, it is not her defining characteristic.
“It might have been a little bit difficult at first, but I think it’s not just my background that affects how prepared I am for Penn,” she said. “There’s also my work ethic and personality.”
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