The first few weeks of September signify many beginnings on Penn’s campus — new leaves turning, new academic schedules, new students walking down Locust Walk. However, they also represent something else — the beginning of rejection. 

Club recruitment starts as soon as we hit campus, and stretches on for weeks afterward. Auditions for performing arts groups, rush for professional fraternities, written applications for everything from consulting groups to tutoring initiatives. As the weeks go on, we are oddly silent about the inevitable, countless rejections that result from Penn’s aggressive club culture.

Recently, I attended an introductory panel about various consulting groups on campus. As I sat through each representative of the group listing off unique, cool-sounding facts about their club experiences, I couldn’t help but think about the incredibly low acceptance rate for each of the organizations. Finally, one girl at the very end said something I had never heard before in a panel like this — she stressed that it was okay if applicants did not get in, and that it was not the end of the world.

A breath of relief almost escaped out of me, and the freshmen around me dropped their shoulders — I realized these are the kind of words we need to say more. We need less sugarcoating and more honesty from organizations that require multiple rounds of applications and interviews. We need less "brochure talk" and more honest discussion.

We don’t find rejection exclusively in clubs. It’s everywhere — from not being able to find a social niche on campus to struggling in the bottom quarter of a class. College life — and real life — is inherently filled with failure, and by trying to hide this reality, we allow many students to suffer silently. 

Freshmen often come in as successful, high-achieving kids who have rarely experienced rejection. The transition from high school to Penn’s competitive nature is a shock to many, and we need to do more to ease that transition and open up the conversation about it.

Countless rallying cries have been made about Penn’s toxic club culture, and I agree with these statements. However, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the inherent competitiveness will go away anytime soon — clubs have limitations on the students they can take for a variety of reasons, and it is inevitable that not everyone can receive acceptances. That is why we must directly deal with rejection itself and not shy away from the topic.

Strides have already been made. The Wall of Rejection is an incredible student-led initiative in Houston Hall where people can tack on Post-It notes of things they’ve been rejected from, whether those are clubs or jobs or everything in between. Words of encouragement also cover the wall. Multiple columns have been written about club culture — about empathizing with freshmen.

However, we must go further in ensuring students, especially freshmen, that rejection is inherent in everyday life, and is a natural component of success. Oftentimes, the best comfort in the face of a string of rejections — something we’ve all experienced, especially as Penn students — is to know we’re not alone.

Clubs must be more transparent from the very beginning about the likelihood of acceptance; this would allow students to be more realistic in the application process. From a student’s standpoint, we must try to cultivate an overall culture of openness by talking more about rejection and removing the stigma that comes with it. 

I still remember my own personal struggles adjusting to Penn. I was a freshman who was eager to try new things and branch out. I applied to a variety of different organizations, but was shocked at the lack of acceptance and inclusivity on campus as a whole, as many of my friends felt too. Back then, and even now, I wish there had been more discussion and transparency on the inevitability of this happening, as I was often in the dark about what was going on behind clubs.

It’s difficult to change an often-stagnant environment. Penn’s competitive club culture is not going away, and rejection itself is not going away, either. The least we can do is give students the resources and the honesty to combat the negative feelings that come with rejection — and let them know that it’s okay to fail.

JESSICA LI is a College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is jesli@sas.upenn.edu. "Road Jess Travelled" usually appears every other Monday. 

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