As the semester winds down and I inch closer to the end of both my sophomore fall and my first semester at Penn, I can’t help but think about how little time I have left here. Two and a half years. That’s it. What have I made of my time here? What will I do to make sure that my years here are as memorable as possible? Will I bear any sort of real impact on this school, or will I be just one of hundreds of thousands of Penn alumni?
Every day as I walk to class, I pass by buildings named after people who bore meaningful impacts on this institution. They’ve made sure to make their mark on this campus through all of the buildings named after them. Just think of Huntsman Hall, the Perelman Quadrangle, Perelman School of Medicine, Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Building … the list goes on. This is a school of names and namesakes. What’s more, this school is built upon heaps of donations.
How do I feel about the nature of these donations? In a word, conflicted. Predominantly, I feel that naming all of these buildings after people who have donated to Penn is hilariously ostentatious. It almost seems like nothing more than an inherent display of wealth and reputation.
On the other hand, donations demonstrate a real sense of dedication and devotion to a place that endowed you with valuable lifelong memories. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be proud of where you went to college. More so, money that these donors provide is the reason for Penn’s robust infrastructure. We also cannot forget that these donations give students like you and me a bevy of resources that we’d not have otherwise.
Why do people donate to their alma maters? It’s a question that is less straightforward than it may seem. Some donors claim that they donate to help other students who are in the positions they were once in. Many others are much more self-interested. Why donate to your alma mater rather than a charity? Some donations may not be made in the name of financing the college career of a low-income student, but to help the donor’s own children get a Penn acceptance letter. In fact, one-sixth of all Penn undergraduates are legacies. That’s not likely to change, since 16 percent of this year’s Early Decision applicants are children or grandchildren of alumni.
Take Claudia Cohen Hall, which billionaire donor and Wharton alumnus Ronald O. Perelman named after his ex-wife and Penn alumna Claudia Cohen, a gossip columnist for the New York Post’s Page Six. After Perelman donated $20 million to Penn, he had the building renamed to Claudia Cohen Hall. While the donation was a quantifiably generous one, it makes me think that he was less concerned about his legacy at the University and more concerned about that of his loved ones, along with some of the other hefty donations made by wealthy donors.
Another example of the curious nature of these donations is one of the urinals at the Van Pelt Library that was named after donor Michael Zinman. He made a five-figure donation with the intention of having the urinal named after him. The plaque over the urinal reads, “The relief you are now experiencing is made possible by a gift from Michael Zinman,” making Penn boys uncomfortable for more than a decade.
These unique and absurd examples make me think not only about the nature of alumni donations, but of the need for us to leave behind, or even impose, some sort of legacy onto our alma mater. Penn students want to take classes that pique their interest, handle leadership positions, maintain a robust social life, and apply for lucrative jobs post-graduation. It’s a handful, but while we juggle it all, we also want to make sure that we are the best at what we do.
We want to be more than just another alumnus. We want to be remembered once we graduate because, after that, we’ll be out in the world, doing our own thing, competing against ourselves, and simply living lives of our own. College is a time where we still get to shine in the spotlight and attempt to outdo one another as a source of motivation, rather than malice. The drive to create some sort of legacy, though often expressed in unusual ways, stems from a common desire to remember and be remembered.
ALEX SILBERZWEIG is a College sophomore from New York, studying mathematics and economics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Brutally Honest” usually appears every other Tuesday.