Here’s something to do on the (rare) bright days in the months to come. If you sit at the perfect angle in the Van Pelt amphitheater, at the perfect time — two hours before sunset is a good bet — and you look southwest, towards the Wistar Institute, you’ll be treated to a faceful of sunlight streaming through the (mostly bare) branches above you. It’s far more than my eyes, at least, can handle; I always have to look away after a few seconds. But to have to squint in the middle of winter is a wonderful, warm feeling.
I have spent much of this semester, in this column, telling people what and what not to do, both at Penn and in their lives — I’ve talked about how I wished we’d all quit half the clubs we’re in, stop complaining about the all-nighters we pull, and cease to think of ourselves as agents in our own decisions. I stand behind much of what I wrote — I do think I’d like Penn more if, as I told a friend some time ago, “we’d all stop lying to ourselves” — but I recognize, too, that I wrote some pieces at a time when I was pleased with neither Penn nor the person I’d become as a result of Penn.
It’s not an easy thing, to begin to feel that you don’t belong at a school that felt so very right when you visited it with all the glow of a recent admit; it’s even harder to have to tell your parents this when they’re (relatively speaking) so far away, when there’s not much they can do about it, and it’s more difficult yet for them to hear.
My mother says that I let what other people think and do bother me too much, whether it’s something as tiny as typing with unwarranted vigor during class or something rather large, like the prevailing attitude on this campus towards work and play. She’s right; I’m far away enough from my other columns to realize that they were mostly ways in which to tell Penn, and the world, how much they bothered me.
So here’s what I want to say to you now, with the understanding (I think) that this is my last column, and also with the understanding that I, and you, won’t be at Penn forever: we all have a lot of growing to do, and we shouldn’t be expected to accomplish all of that here. The best thing we can do for ourselves now, I think, is to figure out exactly what we want from this university and why we want it — and, in the best way we can and doing the least harm, obtain it.
For my part, I’m struggling to figure out exactly what “it” is. I suspect, though, that it’s markedly different from what I thought I wanted when I got here. I started out (with great enthusiasm) hoping to be some kind of software engineer, working in natural language processing. I joined clubs, I went to tech recruiting events, I did it all.
Then I had a string of less-than-stellar grades in computer science classes, an unfruitful flirtation with the world of Wharton, and — boom — a class that introduced me to a field I hardly knew existed, a subject I want to study academically, a way of thinking that I now view as, well, the solution to all the problems in the world. But if you’re still doing what you started out doing, or your future does not include doing what you love but rather doing what it takes to do what you love, then you’re not wrong, you’re just using the resources at your disposal in a different way.
These are four years in which we, on average, change a lot — though that’s not to say that if you haven’t changed at all, you’re somehow doing things wrong. Our friends, opinions, and values are often in flux, changing in response to seemingly random stimuli in the constant stream that college presents us. If there’s one way I’ve changed since the start of this semester, it’s in beginning to understand that (in my mother’s words) letting what others do bother me, and critiquing them for it, is less productive than observing and understanding.
SHILPA SARAVANAN is a College junior from College Station, Texas, studying linguistics. Her email address is email@example.com. “Phone Home” usually appears every Thursday.
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