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Credit: Donna Liu , Caroline Chin

The social circles of American teen movies are well documented — cliques, petty gossip and all. While the intense social hierarchies of “Mean Girls” don’t resemble a typical high school, most Penn students — regardless of background — assumed a degree of order in their social lives before college. Essentially, we arrive at Penn secure in our little corner of the universe; we know who our friends are and where to sit at the lunch table.

Suddenly, this comfort shatters. The handshakes and rushed introductions of New Student Orientation had a clear expiration date. Now, we, the freshmen, find ourselves bombarded with flyers for groups of every shape and size. Their vague names and overlapping messages disorient us. Initially drawn in by free Insomnia cookies, we stay for the chance to find the “right” set of people to book a late-night GSR with. Of course, extreme displacement is a natural part of the college experience, but Penn replaces the somewhat orderly social routine that new students are accustomed to with a hazardous, tangled web of obligations and group loyalties.

This dynamic is embodied by Penn’s club culture. In the first weeks on campus, I watched my friends swept up in a flurry of recruiting sessions, auditions, BYOs, and GBMs for organizations with every abbreviation known to man. It was quite a sight witnessing sweaty-faced freshman flinging together business-formal ensembles, only to ditch them a few hours later in the race to frat parties. And while the Undergraduate Assembly, Student Activity Council, and the Wharton Council’s efforts to rebrand and remodel club recruiting are commendable, at its core, the process is still a rat race of juggling identities.

Credit: Sam Holland

Amid the craziness of life at Penn, students need to feel secure in where they belong, so it makes sense that freshmen scramble for spots wherever they can find them. I’ll fess up to this craving — I can never be Jewish enough for Hillel, business-savvy enough for 180 Degrees Consulting, musical enough for Quaker Notes, or good-willed enough for the Netter Center. But part of me wants to have it all.

Group identity at Penn comes in rivaling forms, each with their own draw. The cultural identity groups offer comfort, the personal interest groups provide familiarity, the pre-professional groups promise the hope of a six-figure salary after graduation … the list could go on. While these groups aren’t mutually exclusive, it is impossible to reconcile them all — those with the ambition of singing in an a cappella group, playing varsity soccer, and joining the board for an investment banking club will test their temporal capacity as human beings.

Diversity of choice — it’s a reason both to love and hate this university. Even in my first weeks here, I have watched the issue of rivaling group identities agonize my peers. 

The confusing nature of social obligations at Penn comes from exclusivity. Faced with competitive application and initiation processes, new students try to display an unreasonable degree of commitment to earn their spot in a group, even when that means chugging Bankers Club during club initiation. By contrast, this leads students to judge non-competitive social groups as lesser obligations, regardless of which group is of greater value to them.

Another flaw in this baffling web of group identity is the lack of care for personal well-being — rest, reflection, and self-improvement are always in conflict with responsibilities to one group or another. The natural extension of the overworked, thinly spread Penn student is the neglect of basic human necessities. Reasonable bedtimes, regular meals, impromptu adventures — we abandon it all when we let the struggle of rival group identities take over our lives. 

Unfortunately, it is impossible to budget time for personal growth into Google Calendar. Growth happens in empty time-slots — the slow, boring moments between hyperactivity when our brains have time to process information.

As Penn students, we must earn our place time and time again. Ultimately, we can’t have it all. The paradox is, when we give ourselves to everything, we can’t ever fully commit to anything. Suddenly, the rush to escape one meeting for another takes over, and we lose the substance of what came before for what comes next. The end result: We obsess over the parts and sacrifice the whole.

JULIA MITCHELL is a College and Wharton freshman from Yardley, Pa. studying international relations. Her email address is jcmitch@wharton.upenn.edu.

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