As the Class of 2020 begins to settle into their new lives at Penn, if its members are anything like me, I’m sure that they’re feeling a complex mix of emotions at entering the first step into adulthood. However, I can also definitely tell you above this complicated state of mind is a loud, shrill voice shouting “FREEDOM!” repeatedly while turning the music all the way up.
This, of course, is for good reason. An American college campus is probably the freest setting in the world — Penn even more so than its peers considering its urban setting. So, freshmen: I understand where you are right now. Go forth and reinvent yourselves. Make decisions that you know you’ll regret. Take that shot you know is a mistake. Shout the praises of your perfect lives.
For our generation, freedom is the name of the game. As globalization and rapid advances in technology occur, we have more and more options in nearly every aspect of our lives. Institutions such as religion and government that formerly held great power and control over individuals are becoming less and less relevant. Increasingly, social barriers are challenged and broken down. Intellectually, students are encouraged to consider and debate matters that would be unacceptable in many other environments. This, combined with our “YOLO” mindset, means that universities truly are the beacons of liberty of society. Ours is a generation that seemingly values choice above all else.
It seems to me that this trend is generally thought of as progress. The thinking goes that the more choices we have, the more control we have over our lives. Yet, this simply isn’t true in many cases. Even in much more important, lasting matters such as careers or relationships, I wouldn’t say we’re better off with this dizzying range of choices. Do we at this point in our lives truly know what we want? What we need? The difference between the two?
Obviously, the follies of youth are not new phenomena. Adolescence is, and always has been, about making mistakes and learning from them. However, I would say we live in a fairly unique age in which we are pulled in every possible direction, by every potential course of way. The result is that oftentimes we are paralyzed, unable to proceed in any single path. We are capable of thinking in a way that makes every choice seem legitimate and appealing.
A side effect of the relatively recent trend of weakening social norms is that fewer people are comfortable claiming that something is right, while other things are wrong. Everything has become relative — to each his own, live and let live. That’s all fine, but when it comes time for us to make decisions, not having this foundation can be damaging.
Consider that graduates of Penn and other elite institutions will often decide between going into investment banking and Teach for America. These are two completely different fields with different lifestyles and values. Yet, for us Generation Z members, each way can seem equally appealing, each in its own way suitably prestigious for our Instagram photos, our Tinder profiles.
I’m not trying to make this personal, but my experiences made me think about the nature of freedom. For the past two years, I took time off from Penn to fulfill my mandatory military requirement as a Korean citizen. I served as an English translator at the Korean Ministry of National Defense — so it was hardly action movie material.
The main point of difference, unsurprisingly, was in the level of discipline and the focus on uniformity. I didn’t get to choose what I ate, when I woke up or what I wore. I interacted with the same people every day and stuck to a tightly scheduled routine. Before I began my service, I considered this a kind of death, especially as someone who had always been taught to express my personal opinion and thoughts. It was basically the antithesis to the American college experience.
At Penn, we are taught to think in terms of the person we could be, but this often leaves us feeling more lost and directionless than before, since we can envision ourselves in almost any situation. When every day was an echo of the day before, I found that I no longer had that luxury. I won’t say that this life was better than the one that many freshmen will come to live in the coming months, but I will say that I had more opportunities to figure out what kind of a person I was. So, to freshmen: Enjoy, but know that sometimes less can be more. You don’t have to be everything to everyone. You only need to be something true to yourself.
James Lee is a College junior from Seoul, South Korea studying English and PPE. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.
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