We face a lot of difficult questions during our time at Penn. We’re prompted by professors and tasked with problem sets. Our families ask us what we’ll do after graduation and we likely ask that of ourselves. Recently, however, I was struck by a question that didn’t come from any of those sources. Instead it came from a fellow Penn student, a freshman. She asked me if I had any advice for someone who was just starting out. And after taking a second to think it over, I had to admit that I didn’t.
Even as a senior, I feel out of place telling someone how best to navigate Penn. I’m still trying to figure that out for myself. But what I do feel confident speaking about — and what I’d wish I’d told this freshman in particular — are all the issues I have with Penn. The problems that cannot be alleviated or avoided with a few words of wisdom.
Rather than tell her which classes to take or how many clubs to join, I wish I’d let her know just how isolating and anxiety producing this place can be. And how the primary method for alleviating these feelings — that play hard mentality the tour guides joke about — can often exacerbate that pain rather than ease it. I also wish I’d told her that, despite the fact that Penn says it will give you the tools to change the world, Penn itself is extremely resistant to change.
The great irony of being a senior is that the moment when you’re the most invested, most ready to tackle these issues is also when you have the least amount of time left to do so. It can feel extremely daunting, impossible even, to leave a lasting positive impact on Penn in only a short four years. But what we can all surely do is impart our grievances to the next generation so they can be better prepared to combat the issues we all face.
When a prospective student is first introduced to Penn, they’re given the rosiest perception possible. That includes the beautiful tour, the glossy brochure, all of which are meant to highlight Penn’s merits and obscure its faults. Even after they step foot on campus, we, the current students, continue to paint this institution in the best light. We try to sell them on our clubs, our greek organizations, our athletic teams. Very rarely do we let them know how trying their Penn experience may likely be or how disenchanted they’ll soon become.
Of course that isn't to say that those commendatory messages are invalid. It’s true that Penn has a lot of amazing opportunities and experiences to offer its students — I’ve certainly had my share of them. But it’s because of all the positive experiences I’ve had and the inspiring people I’ve met, that I feel so strongly about wanting to change the things about this institution that are anything but positive.
If we truly want to ensure that each new crop of students has the best possible experience at Penn then we should waste no time in introducing them to its faults. Initiatives such as the student created Disorientation Guide — which describes histories of racism and sexism along with legacies of activism at Penn — are a crucial first step in this endeavor. I couldn't agree more with one of the authors of the guide, Miru Osuga, who told The Daily Pennsylvanian that disorientation guides, “covered a huge amount of topics that I wish I had access to when I was a freshman.”
If I could have another opportunity to speak with that first year student, I’d tell her that my favorite thing about Penn is that we have so many students who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Students who care about the fact that the board of trustees won’t seriously consider proposals to divest from the fossil fuel industry — as evidenced by their tweet long response on the matter. Or that Penn still refuses to support Philadelphia public schools by making PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes), which other Ivy League institutions have made for years.
I’d tell that freshman that, if I’ve learned anything from my peers, it’s that the goal of your four years should not be to seek out the best things about Penn but rather to find the things that you think need changing.
And to my fellow upperclassmen, let me say this: When you find yourself speaking to a new student, don’t just impart words of wisdom, impart a call to action. Don’t tell them how great this institution is, tell them how much better it can become.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College senior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Thursday.