Change is the only constant. We hear this often in today’s world and understand it on some level, but rarely do we consider the saying in the context of our personal selves. While we know that we change, such transformation generally occurs too gradually for us to get a sense of it while it’s happening. But as I near the end of my Penn education, I can’t help but begin to reflect on my time here and the effects it has had on me as a person and as a student.
Over the summer, I had to decide whether to keep writing this column or not. Despite having great belief in the value of self-expression, there was a part of me that thought that the pursuit wasn’t worth it anymore. As a student not interested in professionally pursuing journalism or writing, it was hard to justify the time and effort spent on something that wouldn’t directly help my future in a tangible way.
How things change! This from me, someone who had such passion for writing that he (secretly) enjoyed writing even his college application essays. Yet, it wasn’t the first time that I felt that I had deviated from the bright-eyed person who actually did all the readings, if only for his English classes.
To my fellow seniors: Are you the same person that you were when you entered Penn? Before all the good and the bad, before all the spilled drinks, hungover Saturday mornings and all-nighters? I suspect that for most, four years here is long enough to make a defining impact on who we are.
In some ways, that’s the point of the college experience. We’re meant to expand our academic and social horizons, and come out at the end better than before. More experience and knowledge makes us “grow," to use a term of choice at universities. Many students also enter hoping to remake themselves into someone different.
However, in my experience, this change is better characterized as a shift rather than accumulation. We experience a change in our priorities and goals as a result of the new things we know and feel. Rather than pushing us further in the direction of our original intent, Penn’s gyre sucks us in and spits us out, all the parts intact but organized in an inherently different way. We come out more hardened and defined, our lives more prose than poetry. We assimilate rather than integrate.
What to make of this? Life itself is a series of compromises and shifts, after all, and our time in college is a reflection of our life as a whole. So there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about the fact that we come out differently. There’s a reason why we can make fun of ourselves and each other for “selling out” without taking it too seriously.
However, I do think it’s worth thinking about all the things that we lose in this process. We become more like each other — go to any information session in the coming weeks and be enthralled by the hundreds of students with the same Penn padfolio — but that means that we becomes less like ourselves. The thought is an obvious one, but it still feels just a bit sad. It’s worthwhile then to consider which parts of ourselves that we consider indispensable — our individual values, passions and beliefs.
Of course, the danger in this line of thinking is that we lose our openness to new ideas and experiences that may prove invaluable in our lives. Being too certain of who we are is a form of narcissism, and believing that irreconcilable differences exist between us and the world causes problems of its own. But in my experience, that’s less of an issue for our generation than the opposite.
To all who are treading on this collective journey with me — and especially those who are just starting off in the cramped rooms of the Quad — give Penn your heart and mind over the next years, but keep a sense of the person you have been, the things that have given you meaning and pleasure, the things that have kept you warm on chilly winter nights.
We are defined by what we refuse to give up, and while at times the effort required to protect them may seem to go unnoticed and unappreciated, remember that these are the stars that have given us guidance on the darkest of nights, when no light from the closest land can reach us.
JAMES LEE is a College senior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.
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