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With advanced registration just a little over a week away, mock schedule mania has begun. Alumni, professors and fellow students extol the virtues of taking random, interesting-looking classes — and with good reason. Languages and regional, religious and gender courses give students the chance to see the world from a different perspective, offering topics that the average Penn student has never encountered. Testimonials abound from those who took a class on a whim, only to find a deep and lasting passion for the subject. But while it’s fun to surf Penn InTouch for the most unique class out there, it’s not narrow-minded to discount interesting subjects closer to your personal identity.

In theory, every student would have enough room to act on every academic whim. “My own opinion (and hope) would be that students should use the time when they are at university to explore other cultures than the one with which they are most familiar,” wrote professor Roger Allen, chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. It’s a view expressed by many teaching languages and cultures not heavily represented in the Penn student body.

However, most students’ schedules aren’t very flexible. Filling sectors often comes down to choosing something either new and exciting or vaguely familiar. For example, a choice between Beginning Tabla (a South Asian drum) and Italian, even if your family emigrated from Sicily 100 years ago.

While it might not be as exciting as throwing caution to the wind and taking the most academically fanciful class you can find, taking a course that resonates more with personal identity has its own set of benefits. Practically, it makes a lot of sense to take a class in a subject you’re already familiar with, to deepen your understanding of a religion, language or culture you might have grown up with, not knowing its intricacies.

With limited time (only eight semesters!), you get more bang for your buck building off knowledge you already have, whether it’s basic familiarity with a subject, or even previous formal study, than by starting in a class at square one. Even if you don’t buy into a certain religion or become fluent in a language, you gain a deeper understanding through continued study, and it’s arguably better to be well-versed in a few topics than to have a vague understanding of many. Studying a region or language you have no ties to might motivate you to travel there one day. But realistically, it’s more useful to study a region where you have family that you visit, or a language that relatives speak.

Even if you don’t choose to take courses that completely line up with your background, certain topics complement what you’re already familiar with in a more specific way than a totally far-fetched class would. Studying different regional courses that share a common religion or learning the other language of a bilingual region are two ways to match practicality with exploration. For example, many Jewish students study Arabic — important to understanding the complex history of Middle Eastern relations.

“I decided to take Arabic because I want to live in Israel, and I think it’s important that citizens of Israel speak BOTH national languages,” wrote College sophomore Rachel Baker in an e-mail. “How are we supposed to make peace with our neighbors if we can’t even understand what they are saying?”

Obviously, if you have time in your schedule to explore classes arbitrarily — as well as deepen your understanding of personal identity — it’s great to take classes for both reasons. But if you don’t, really look hard at the benefits of expanding on something closer to you. Taking an advanced course in Korean at the expense of a totally random (albeit potentially awesome) course in beginning Pashtu might be far more rewarding if it means you can communicate more effectively with your grandma. Don’t feel like you’re missing out by not taking the most exotic courses you can find.

Katherine Rea is a College junior from Saratoga, Calif. Her e-mail address is

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