In Newton, Mass., a suburb just outside of Boston, the lawns, for the most part, are always well trimmed and perfectly green. Large brick New England houses line the streets, and children play outside on colorful plastic Playskool jungle gyms after school. In the center of town, a gourmet ice cream shop competes with gourmet coffee shops, and designer clothing stores echo each other across the streets. Only crickets chirping in the summer and snow-covered branches brushing against bedroom windows in the winter grace the town with sound during its peaceful nights. On the surface, Newton is just like any other wealthy suburb, with happy children running happy lemonade stands and happy families making happy summer barbecues, complemented by happy high school graduation statistics, happy college entrance rates and happy professionals leading lucrative, gourmet ice-cream lives. Not everyone in Newton, however, is this happy. While visiting Newton this past summer, I spotted something as incongruous with the nature of Newton as completed building projects are to Penn. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a homeless man rummaging through a garbage can. Surprised to see that homelessness existed in a perfect profitable cafe au lait town like Newton, I walked closer and noticed something even more disturbing to me on a personal level. The man was wearing a Penn alumni sweatshirt. Hurrah for the Red and Blue? And that's when it truly hit me for the first time, like a driver slamming down on the brakes wildly to prevent smashing into Bambi's mother: Will my Penn education get me anywhere in life? Will my education only provide me with a sweatshirt to keep me warm while I'm on the street -- or with something to provide for me financially, intellectually and emotionally so that I can support myself when I enter the dreaded real world? Granted, the homeless man may not have been a Penn alumnus, and the vast majority of students have full-time jobs within a few months of graduation. Maybe the man picked up that sweatshirt at a clothing drive. Or at the Salvation Army. Maybe he found it in the suburban garbage can of a family whose legacy had provided it with more Penn sweatshirts than it had bodies to wear them. Maybe a Penn student gave it to him. No matter where the man got the sweatshirt, the image was enough to really make me think not so much about my financial future, but about my intellectual future -- which is perhaps just as scary. At a recent freshman orientation I attended, a Penn alumna reassured the audience, "No matter what happens when you graduate Penn, you will have a decent salary and a decent job. Don't worry about it. Your degree speaks for you." Suppose for a minute that you will have both of these. You have a brick house, your choice of gourmet ice cream shops and your Playskool jungle gyms. But what happens when we graduate and there is no one to set up a course of study for us? When we no longer have time to go to museums? With financial stability worries satisfied, who will provide for our intellectual and emotional growth? Without the structure Penn imposes, we run the risk of being too overworked to go to museums, too reluctant to go to night classes, too drained from work to go to concerts. What will happen to us when we graduate, only to become intellectually groundless? Gourmet coffee may stimulate our senses, but it just can't stimulate our minds. And that's when the hardest question to answer surfaces: Where do we go from here to avoid getting there? The value of our Penn education cannot be judged in terms of how much we earn, how big the brick houses we live in are or how many Playskool jungle gyms we can afford to buy our children. Whether we eat at an ice cream store or from a garbage can doesn't measure it. Our education can only truly be judged in what we have learned, both as academics and as individuals, and how we can apply our knowledge to the world around us, in a job or in our daily lives. Most importantly, how we can make our educations portable by taking our desire to keep learning with us. Because if we don't dedicate our future to learning, as well as our present, we might as well resign ourselves to going through the trash.Comments powered by Disqus
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