I always tell people that my semester abroad in Paris was the highlight of my time at Penn. That’s partly because I was able to live in another country, speak a foreign language and see the world. And I love French food. But it also was an experience I needed at the time, because I had to get away from the hopeless place that Penn had become for me.
I left for Paris the semester after my friend, Amanda Hu, committed suicide. We met in math class freshman year. If she were still alive, she would be graduating with us today.
When people ask me what’s the one thing I wish I knew about college before I arrived freshman fall, I generally tell them how hard it is to balance courses, extracurriculars, friends and sleep. But the recent suicide of Wharton junior Olivia “Ao” Kong has brought back memories of Amanda’s death. And it’s made me realize that the one thing I really wish I knew before Penn is how difficult it would be when one of my friends died.
Since my freshman fall, 10 Penn students have committed suicide. Another six undergrads have died of other reasons. Each death has been just as difficult as the previous one. As a friend once put it to me, it’s so hard to deal with the death of a classmate because young people aren’t supposed to die.
Everyone deals with grief in a different way. For me, going abroad was in part a coping mechanism. Being in a foreign country gave me time away from the sadness of campus, and Paris became a new source of happiness. It allowed me to bring meaning to Amanda’s death and reflect on my life and what I really wanted from it.
My friends also helped me deal with my grief after Amanda’s death. We were there for each other. We shared memories of her, and we continue remembering her as we move forward with our daily lives.
But while Amanda is gone, we are still here. While Tom, Arya, Oliver, Joseph, Alex, Wendy, Alice, Kevin, Pulkit, Madison, Elvis, Theo, Timothy, Steven and Olivia are gone, we are still here. We owe it to them to remember their good qualities — and their bad ones — and let our memories of them shape us into better people.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Penn, it’s that life is precious, so you have to make the most of it. These past two semesters, I’ve started seriously reflecting on what I want from life and how I can find that at Penn. For me, that meant delving into my courses, teaching math as a TA, enjoying drinks with friends and watching John Oliver with my roommate. It meant traveling to Panama for spring break, calling home more often and — for a while — praying every morning. It meant returning to the DP, my family on campus, to work on a data-based project about Penn Course Review.
As I reflect on my time at Penn, I have put the sadness of death into perspective. I think about all of the things that I learned inside (and outside) the classroom, and all the friends that I made — both the ones still here, and the one that is gone. I am thankful for the comfort, support and love that my friends have given me. And most of all, I cherish the support of my parents and family who have always been there for me and who have loved me in all that I do and for all that I am. It is because of the people I’ve had in my life that I can say, in spite of the hopelessness I sometimes felt at Penn, I am happy to have spent these past four years here.
There’s a mantra that one of my best friends had posted on her bedroom wall freshman year that helped her — or, at least, helped me — remember why someone could be happy, even when they don’t want to be. Writing this column has made me think back on those three little words, and how meaningful they really are.
Life is beautiful.
It really is.
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Harry Cooperman is a College senior from Forest Hills, N.Y., majoring in math and minoring in French. He is a former news editor, reporter and opinion board chair for The Daily Pennsylvanian. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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