The impact of Penn’s high-pressure environment on mental health has been a trending topic over the past few years. Following a string of suicides, our university has been forced to reconsider the campus’s culture. Joining this conversation, I would argue that an important aspect of Penn’s culture has gone unaddressed: we reject the concept of rejection.
In internships, in graduate school admissions and especially in student activities. We slap on the Penn Face and pretend rejection doesn’t happen, or at least it doesn’t happen to us. But in such a competitive atmosphere, everyone has been dealt his or her fair share. Only by opening up about and taking away the stigma of rejection will our campus truly become a mentally healthier place.
Ideas about handling rejection are complicated. In a New York Times article entitled “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”, failure is described as a necessary element to success, but only in small doses. Essentially, too little failure makes someone smug, while too much failure wears someone down, especially if he or she isn’t in a supportive environment.
Penn isn’t always a supportive environment. Admission was just the beginning of our application journeys. Almost every club here requires an interview, audition or some kind of screening process. Many times, prior experience is necessary. One of my friends noted, “As a freshman, I wanted to take that advice to ‘try new things.’ But Penn just wasn’t letting me.”
The reality is that Penn students get rejected all of the time. This year, less than 18% of those who auditioned for dance groups were invited to join. In Alpha Iota Gamma, Penn’s pre-health fraternity, about 20.8 percent of those who rushed received a bid. The Kite and Key Society, which coordinates admissions-related activities including tour guiding and day hosting, accepted 20 percent of the students who applied. Women’s Club Volleyball took five out of the 35 girls who tried out. 25 percent of Penn students who apply to medical school don’t get into even their safety. PennQuest, the camping pre-orientation program, rejected about 85 students last year (fall of 2014), sending a clear message of exclusivity to freshmen before they arrived on campus.
With statistics like these, it’s obvious that rejection happens frequently, in various campus spheres. I can rattle off dozens of times my friends and I have been turned down. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; rejection is a part of life, and being able to handle it is important. But handling it and pretending that it didn’t happen are not synonymous.
I’ve been on both sides. I’ve watched auditions, sorted applications into “yes” and “no” piles and interviewed countless girls during rush. It is inevitable that some communities are small. But we should approach how we reject differently. If we want people to apply so badly that we change our cover photos, flyer on Locust and blast listservs, we should take a moment to write a thoughtful email to those who didn’t make the cut. And if it feels awkward? Rest assured that they feel significantly more awkward than you do.
To make rejection a more acceptable topic at Penn is no easy task. Naturally, there is a sense of embarrassment that accompanies rejection. But thinking of rejection as a shared experience helps. When I was turned down from the position I most wanted freshman year, a sophomore who had had a similar experience the previous year reached out. Knowing that she understood my upset made it okay.
Overall, we are an incredibly privileged group, and these rejections won’t likely impact us in the long run. But everything is relative. It’s easy to see how these rejections, and our overly exclusive campus culture in general, contribute to Penn’s mental health issue.
I want to clarify that this is not an effort to have Penn administrators and professors coddle students. Because students do a solid portion of the rejecting, it is within our reach to shift this aspect of Penn culture. Let’s acknowledge that rejection is normal here. And if we’re discussing rejection, maybe we’ll change how we go about rejecting.
I’m working with an incredible team to create a wall covered with polaroid pictures and notecards depicting student rejections in the Weigle Information Commons in Van Pelt. This is a student managed exhibit hosted by Penn Libraries. The wall is meant to represent how the common experience of rejection can unite our community. We’ll be in Van Pelt on April 25, 26, 27 and 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and all are welcome to contribute. Please join us! No application necessary.
BECCA BROWN is a College junior double majoring in sociology and communications.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.