Take a stroll — or a brisk walk, if you’re late to class — along Locust Walk, and you’ll probably be bombarded by flyers promoting a bevy of events. Some of them will catch your eye. Maybe it’s because you’ll get free food or the people promoting the cause were especially compelling. Other events will just flit in and out of your consciousness. You’ll be busy that night, you tell yourself. Or you just don’t care. Either way, do you really feel that bad that you just walked past that eager college student who handed you a flyer? I doubt it.

Just two weeks ago, the Class Board, Undergraduate Assembly, and Penn Wellness organized a week where Penn students would perform “random acts of kindness” towards one another. To spearhead the movement, they put glass jars in various locations around campus with suggestions about ways to be kinder to one another. The intention was to promote positivity around campus.

The act of dedicating a single week to underscore the importance of being kind to one another seems counterintuitive. Shouldn’t being nice to one another come naturally to us? I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen after the week was over. Would the people temporarily influenced by this rash of selflessness continue to err on the side of generosity? Or would they simply forget about that week?

What does it really mean to be a kind college student? Our values are essentially flipped on their heads from the moment we get here. We become busier as we take challenging courses, join clubs and teams, and work. We begin to define our own paths. Sometimes, it means forgoing time with friends or family. At other times, it just means ensuring that you are not overextending yourself by going to every event that someone asks you to go to, and that’s OK.

Before I started college, I had more time, plain and simple. I often feel bad that I don’t go to every single event that I hear about, especially the philanthropic ones. When one of my friends asks if we can get together to study, and I simply don’t have time to, I feel remorseful. The problem is that I just don’t have the time to do absolutely everything. I feel that the hustle and bustle of college life has made me less kind.

Let’s not forget to mention the air of competitiveness that permeates Penn. Penn is an inherently competitive place full of unique students. Our talents and strengths got us in, and now we live, work, and play together. Sometimes we collaborate, but at other times we see each other as competition. We become wary of the people in our classes, worried that the one person on the other side of the room may ruin the curve for everybody else. Sometimes, we can’t deal with not being special anymore. That’s why we become, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, less kind. 

We think about ourselves before others. I know that there are hundreds of other students here just like me who want the same job opportunities as I do. We greedily hope that we can shine in the spotlight as much as we did in high school and be that much more special than our peers. Our desire to be the best comes at the price of being kind.

But maybe we need to redefine what it means to be kind as college students. This new version of kindness accounts for our hectic lifestyles. We shouldn’t regret taking time for ourselves, rather than being constantly present in the lives of those who want and need us there. Forgoing plans with friends, no matter how much we care about them, so that we can study for a midterm should be acceptable, because we can expect this to happen to any one of us. 

So how do we deal with these feelings of selfishness? Knowing that other people feel the same way helps. The fact that we had to be reminded to be kind highlights the lack of selflessness that would otherwise come about so naturally. Saying “no” to going to a social gathering when I know I have a lot of work has only started to come across as acceptable when I know that we are all, more or less, in the same boat. Time management has as much to do with making sure to dedicate sufficient time to each of your classes as it does to budgeting time to be with friends and family.

Maybe losing our otherwise well-defined sense of kindness is just a part of growing up.


ALEX SILBERZWEIG is a College sophomore from New York, studying mathematics and economics. Her email address is alexsil@sas.upenn.edu. “Brutally Honest” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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