Penn is cutthroat. Its academic prestige and emphasis on pre-professionalism attracts ambitious, determined students. Their desire to succeed here, paired with factors like forced grading curves and unnecessarily stressful club culture, can have the effect of pitting students against one another, thus fostering unhealthy levels of competition.   

Just last year, Wharton professor Adam Grant noted that Penn’s hyper-competitive culture was the worst he’d ever seen it. “The way it is at Penn is far, far, far more damaging than at Harvard [University], or [University of] Michigan, or [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill],” he said.  

About two weeks ago, as a part of an effort to promote a more positive campus culture, the Class Board, Undergraduate Assembly, and Penn Wellness organized “Random Acts of Kindness.” 

Jars were placed around campus with suggestions of nice things to do, ranging from reaching out to a high school friend to sharing study guides. 

While the sentiment behind this initiative was well-intended, its execution was highly problematic. Being nice shouldn’t be an assignment allocated to one week of the school year; we should strive to be kind all the time. 

Caring for one another is not a chore to be completed. We cannot simply do one nice thing for someone and dismiss our responsibility of being good people. The issue with “Random Acts of Kindness” is its neglect to address a greater problem: Penn is not a kind place.  

Although the hyper-competitive culture here can be toxic, being ambitious and treating each other well are not mutually exclusive. Instead of proposing short-term solutions to cultivate a more friendly campus culture, we should try to eliminate the parts of Penn that make it feel like we can’t be both ambitious and kind. 

For example, the forced grading curve in many classes discourages collaboration. It also pushes students to compare oneself to others in unhealthy ways. Many are so focused on beating the person next to them that working to advance their knowledge becomes less of a priority. In other words, the curve compromises the purpose of learning. 

College junior Maria Formoso noted that during “Random Acts of Kindness” she “overheard one girl pull out a deed that read ‘share your study guide,’ and right away she said, ‘no way that’ll mess up my curve.’” The fact that,  in order to increase their GPAs, students can’t be bothered to collaborate with one another, is indicative that this problem exists within our campus culture.  

“Random Acts of Kindness” fails to target the root of the problem that lies within Penn’s culture of hyper-competition; the environment here is one of extremes where ambition and collaboration cannot coexist. 

Recently, however, we have taken some steps in the right direction. Some students are working to develop the Penn Club Review in order to combat the excessive anxiety associated with the superfluous selectivity of clubs. The Penn Club Review serves as a way for students to monitor the selectivity of clubs and provides them with important information on different organizations in a similar manner to the Penn Course Review. This coupled with new regulations from the Students Activities Committee on interviewing for club recruitment have made the club process less intense. This could alleviate some of the competitiveness that prevents us from being kind to each other.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with “Random Acts of Kindness.” It is important that we set aside time to be nice to those around us and providing ways to do so is a fine idea. But the fact that we need to be reminded to be kind to one another is a major problem. 

At Penn, unkindness is the norm. “Random Acts of Kindness” highlighted this without doing anything to fight it. We should do away with superficial methods for tackling the negative campus culture here and instead adapt more active strategies like the Penn Club Review. 

The ultimate aim of receiving a college education should be to further our knowledge, and prepare us for the real-world. For Penn students, the desire to succeed is a fundamental component of our personalities. But here, the issue is that competition is unfriendly, uncollaborative, and unproductive. 

Kindness at Penn shouldn’t just be reserved for one week; it should be just as integral to our identities as our competitive spirits.


ISABELLA SIMONETTI is a College freshman from New York. Her email address is isim@sas.upenn.edu. “Simonetti Says So” usually appears every Tuesday.

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