Outside, snow is gently piling up, Locust Walk is oddly silent, and for once, I feel strangely at peace. I’m sitting here in Saxbys, writing my last column of the semester on my 20th birthday. 

I feel obligated to write about something meaningful. The combination of the end of my teenage era, the end of the semester, and the icy weather outside somehow demands sentimentality, reflection, and contemplation. In the few quiet days before the craziness of finals finally hits, I want to say something of significance and importance that extends beyond our collegiate concerns.

When people ask me how old I’m turning and I respond, “twenty,” there’s usually an exclamation of surprise. “Wow,” someone told me, “You’re so old!” In response to this, I tend to laugh it off and agree, joking about being washed up or something along those lines. 

In reality, however, I don’t feel old or washed up at all. Just a few weeks ago, the thought of leaving behind my teenage years scared me, but as the clock struck midnight, I hardly felt different. Instead, I felt a new sense of power, of agency — as one part of my life ended, another one began. As someone who is constantly anxious about the passage of time and the thought of time passing too quickly, this was a new, unique feeling of calm for me. If anything, it indicates that I’m slowly growing up and slowly accepting that.

Time is such a tricky, fickle concept. Especially at Penn, we’re trying our hardest to cram as much as we possibly can in the four years we’re here, or at least we’re trying to make something of ourselves. Getting older is scary; the thought of graduation without a semblance of legacy is scary too. Our high-achieving culture compels us to stress out about if we’re doing enough here, but when these negative feelings arise, we must take a deep breath and realize it’s okay to just let go and exist.

In high school, I loved submitting my work to creative writing contests and getting instantaneous, positive feedback — winning competitions was a way of validating myself and what I was good at. As a “teen writer,” my writing was impressive. However, when I turned 18, I realized I was no longer considered a young teen who was good for her age — suddenly, I was thrown into the arena of real adults, and I felt somehow that my writing ability was diminished in some way. 

In an environment of over-achievers who grew up as the “gifted” kids, the concept of getting older comes with some consequences — the understanding that we cannot control everything in our lives, and that we might not necessarily be able to achieve everything we want in college. But recognizing that our lives are long and that this is just one chapter in our lives helps mitigates those anxieties, and allows us to realize that we are still so young and there’s still so much ahead of us.

In every sense of the word, we are still growing; we are not done with anything in our lives so far. In many ways, college is a starting point for many of us to launch our careers or life goals, and it isn’t an experience that needs to be wrapped and tied with a perfect bow. As we grow in this limited space, we should recognize that we have an incredible amount of autonomy in our hands, and our lives are just beginning. Therefore, whether you’re a first-semester freshman or a second-semester senior, push on and continue to learn and take in as much as you can, because that is what Penn is here for. 

As our semesters come and go, we can sometimes wonder what we have to show for our time here, or where it went to begin with. Though tangible progress and achievement are important and well-valued, there is something to be said about simply existing and learning as a young adult, without the rush for titles or degrees or positions that seem to imply an elevated status. The more I go through college, the more I realize that though our time here is precious and finite, there is no wrong way to spend it or live it. 

So as I sit here and say goodbye to my teenage years, I am a bit nostalgic about the past and what I’ve been through so far in my time at Penn. But more so, I am excited for what’s to come, and hopeful for the future beyond Penn.

JESSICA LI is a College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is jesli@sas.upenn.edu. “Road Jess Travelled” usually appears every other Monday. 

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