Just a few months ago, the announcements of newly minted Wharton internal transfers, coordinated and uncoordinated dual-degree students of every school at Penn flooded my Facebook News Feed. To all my peers who have successfully switched into the programs that they wanted, I applaud them and admire them. There’s excitement and anticipation behind their cheers, for sure, but also — and this might just be me — an underlying exhaustion.
Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with transferring or adding degrees if the value of doing so is clear. There’s nothing better than people following their passions or pursuing the perfect education to achieve their dreams. However, I sometimes wonder about people who do this not because they want to, but because they feel they have to — whether it’s to frantically gain a competitive edge, or because they feel pressured by Penn’s culture as a whole.
A friend of mine once noted that everyone at Penn is a “maximizer.” From fighting to take as many classes as possible in one semester to fighting for extracurricular leadership roles to fighting for prestigious jobs, everyone here is aiming to do the most, academically, socially, and professionally. But at what cost, I wonder? At the cost of our mental and physical health?
It’s clear that this maximizing culture is toxic and unhealthy in many ways. For the sake of our sanity, we must realize that it’s not necessary to overexert ourselves for resume-building activities we don’t actually care that much about.
In many ways, it’s a battlefield out there. My mother told me the other day to start compiling a list of places I wanted to intern next summer. My friend wondered if he should’ve tried transferring to Wharton, someone not even remotely interested in business. As a sophomore, I’ve truly been affected by the pressure to start “excelling” or setting myself apart in every aspect of my life.
Through my own personal experiences at Penn, I realized that Wharton yields a powerful influence in creating a culture in which students feel like they must constantly be doing something to advance their careers. Because of this, many students feel that Wharton is the end-goal, giving them a “necessary” competitive edge even if their passions or missions do not align with this pre-professional business education.
Sometimes, it feels like it’s not enough to just be a kid in the College trying to take classes I’m interested in — that’s where the need to maximize and overexert kicks in. During the first week of school, I sat in on four more classes than I was registered for, fearing that I would be missing out on the value of other classes (academic FOMO?). When we’re surrounded by a collective culture that somehow seems to say we’re not doing enough, we feel like we aren’t, even if we’re pushing ourselves to the limit already.
At the end of last semester, during the class selection period, I felt myself feeling more overwhelmed than usual. Over and over again, I went through the classes I wanted to take in my head and on paper, wondering if they were good enough. Would they satisfy the requirements I would need to graduate with two majors? Did they have high enough ratings on Penn Course Review? Would this class mean something to me in the long-run?
As the end of freshman year drew to a close, I felt like a period of my life somehow ended — a period in which I could say, “I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and that’s okay.” I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like this, but I wanted to remind myself — and others — that we still do have the power to be confused, to be unsure and to take a breath every once in awhile.
Our maximizing culture may tell us that we can’t ever take a break, that we must keep going even if we’re unsure of where we’re going. We may feel like the road to exhaustive degrees, prestigious internships and an outstanding resume is the only way to achieve our dreams, but it’s not as straightforward as this. There are breaks in the road, detours to be taken, space to be filled with things that matter much, much more.
There are many paths to success. There are many ways to go on a road that includes a fulfilling education (even without the maximization), a fulfilling career and a fulfilling life that allows plenty of breathing room.
JESSICA LI is a College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. "Road Jess Travelled" usually appears every other Monday.
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