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Penn football loses their first home game of the season to Villanova, 41-7. Credit: Zoe Gan , Zoe Gan

It’s all the same. That is, except for the differences.

The typical American collegiate experience is four years. While some deviate from that path and finish early or late, a majority of students at Penn find themselves on a similar track.

For any fifth-year student, life in that extra time on campus clearly changes, as most of one’s friends and classmates have graduated and left Philadelphia.

Naturally, teammates play an enormous role in the daily lives of Penn’s athletes throughout their tenure on a given team, both on and off the field. Athletes spend hours a day with their teammates at practice or lifts before often electing to socialize and live with the same people.

“My social group was also my teammates, so I was really involved with [them] outside of playing,” Kendall Turner — who finished a four-year career with Penn volleyball in 2014 — said.

For those athletes who complete their four years on a varsity team and run out of eligibility to play, staying at Penn for a fifth year is especially different.

While in the same location, what they spend their hours doing and who they see on a daily basis is radically altered.

“I think it’s sad to still be at Penn but no longer be considered an athlete and no longer be on the team I’ve been with for four years,” Jenny Thompson said.

Formerly a triple jumper with Penn track, Thompson is one of these athletes. While an athlete, the Piedmont, Calif., native transferred from the College of Arts and Sciences into the School of Nursing, a move that forced her to spend a larger amount of time in University City in order to complete her clinicals.

And after competing for four years with the Quakers, Thompson now finds herself not with a surge of free time but, rather, a different allocation of her hours.

“I’m taking more classes and harder classes,” Thompson noted. “Now, I’m more focused on classes [whereas] before I was focused on doing well at my sport.”

But different athletes experience the shift differently.

A running back with Penn football from 2011-2014, Kyle Wilcox was surprised with how much free time he gained by not being part of the team anymore.

“I didn’t expect it to be as much as it is,” Wilcox said. “Even though there’s more class and stress about jobs, it’s not nearly as much as when you’re playing a sport and trying to do well [in school] at the same time.”

A middle blocker by trade, Turner is spending her fifth year at Penn completing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Like Wilcox and Thompson, her life as an athlete often revolved around practice and traveling to games on weekends, as well as spending much of her free time and social activities with members of the team.

But while these former athletes are similar in their shifting experiences in college, they are distinct in how they have reallocated their time and efforts.

“All the time that was [dedicated to] practice, I switched to school, which was kind of nice because I had never done that before,” Wilcox — who transferred into the School of Engineering and Applied Science, prompting the extra year — said. “But I also filled that in with [club] gymnastics.”

On top of changing his focus off the field, Wilcox also left University City altogether, moving out to an area by Temple University in North Philadelphia.

For Turner, finishing her stint with the Red and Blue has opened up more possibilities beyond redirecting attention to academics and serving as a teaching assistant for certain courses.

“I can take trips to random places on the weekends like up to the Poconos without having to okay it with my coach or be traveling anyways [for volleyball],” she said. “But I also coach for the volleyball team, I haven’t escaped completely.”

For all of these athletes, their living situation is one manifestation of their social circles have changed.

“I don’t associate with the team too much because I live far away,” Wilcox said. “It’s hard being in their dynamic when you’re not actually on the team or coaching.”

Turner is in a slightly different position. Maintaining a relationship with the volleyball team in a coaching role, she is more connected to her former team than both Wilcox and Thompson are currently. But it remains incredibly different than being an athlete.

“I think the strangest part is that I only go in a couple times per week,” Turner said. “So I show up and everyone on the team has been there every day in the gym, in the weight room, doing everything so rigorously like I used to. Now I just stroll in whenever I feel like it.

“It’s less of that really strict athlete mentally, which is an interesting juxtaposition for me. But mostly I just enjoy being back with my teammates.”

This taste of a different life at the same school did not make these athletes question their choices over the past four years.

Despite the free time and the ability to focus on school work and join other groups, the trio is extremely grateful and pleased with their Penn Athletics’ experience.

“If I could’ve played this year, I definitely would have again, and I definitely miss it,” Wilcox said. “But I appreciate how structured it made me and the growth that I had from it.”

“I would never trade my time on the team for anything,” Turner noted. “I enjoy it as a sport, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

“I’m extremely thankful for my years being on track and I actually wish I could continue doing it this year,” Thompson agreed.

With no regrets regarding their academic decisions that forced them to spend more time at Penn, the athletes’ experiences are undoubtedly different, in both good and bad ways. It is a hard transition because of its in-between nature.

“I’m still at Penn,” Thompson said. “So I sort of feel like I’m in the same place but it’s not the same at all.”

So it’s the same Locust Walk and the same Penn but a different experience.

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