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Credit: Julio Sosa

After some time at Penn, it becomes both easy and exhausting to talk about our school culture in the same tired way – hypercompetitive, sleep deprived, overachieving, etc. As I noticed in my first weeks at Penn, sometimes we talk as if signing up to be a Penn student means signing up to be always too busy. The thought of having to rush through college at the expense of deep engagement was disappointing, but approaching life in a more thoughtful way proved to be a challenge.

I had hoped to build friendships, eat well, sleep well, exercise, get as much as I could out of my classes, and enjoy free time in college, but it appeared that trying to live well was trying to do too much. I didn't sleep well and I functioned poorly on too little sleep. There was almost always more schoolwork to catch up on.

I was often too exhausted to appreciate the opportunities that Penn offers, but it seemed like everyone I met was sure they were at the right school, making lots of friends, and joining exciting activities. I didn’t find it reassuring that others were also losing sleep, cramming, and stressing out. It was easier to feel guilty for taking a walk or wanting to sleep better when people around me were pulling all-nighters. Investing oneself in classwork seemed extravagant when classmates mentioned their BS-ing of assignments. When people said that it might take some time to adjust to Penn, I thought they meant accepting the seemingly standard hyperbusy lifestyle.

However, we don’t need to be able to sustain a rushed, accomplishment-oriented approach to life – nor do we need to have attained a satisfying lifestyle – for Penn to be the right place for us. While it is still frustrating to not spend one’s time in fulfilling ways, acknowledging that being a responsible student may not look like either, and finding ways to improve my actual life helped introduce some balance and satisfaction. As I gradually realized, the best way to not have too much to do isn’t to have done it all already, which means that we don’t need our work to be under control to spend time away from it and we don’t need our lives to stop feeling chaotic to invite meaningful experiences into it. 

For much of the year, knowing that other students gushed with love for Penn, I felt bad for being overwhelmed with reasons that college was misery. I frequently complained about my life and mourned all that I wasn’t doing. Although I had wanted to be independent and resilient, I ended up comparing myself to others and getting dragged down by failures to accomplish my goals.

Sometimes failure is encouraged, but often with the expectation of a happy ending. We say failure is good when it's attached to usefulness, which can sometimes make it seem like there’s a wrong way to fail. But embracing failure doesn’t just mean drawing good from bad, it also means undergoing the process of failure, with all the ugly details of struggle that can never be fully conveyed in future retellings, and recognizing that what we need may not be what we think we want.

Finding our place at Penn doesn’t have to involve forcing ourselves to prioritize external accomplishments over internal fulfillment. Reaching a satisfying and healthy existence at Penn might mean focusing on ourselves, but we might not automatically be good at doing so. Approaching each day in a way that rejects the norms of a hypercompetitive culture can mean failing as we try to do so. It can mean seeing the process, rather than the accomplished achievement, as where we need to be. 

College after freshman year and life after college will get harder in some ways, and we will keep navigating surprises and uncertainties throughout life. Maybe we never have to be “adjusted” to Penn — or to anywhere in the world — if it means ending all discomfort. We just need to be okay with always being adjusting, which might mean sometimes feeling like we’re in a mess where we don’t have everything under control.


PEARL LIU is a College freshman from Farmington, Conn. Her email address is pearlliu@sas.upenn.edu.


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