penn-state
Credit: Sanjana Rao

“So, how’s Penn State treating you?”

It’s the question that every Penn student has been asked at one time or another. Maybe you’re a little bothered by it, or maybe you have become accustomed to it. We all know that Penn doesn’t have the same name recognition as some of the other Ivies. It has a bit of an identity problem between “UPenn,” “Penn,” and “University of Pennsylvania.” I’ve seen the Facebook posts and the T-shirts that say, “Not Penn State.” And I’ve heard the jokes from my peers in high school telling me that I’m going to a state school. But why does it bother some of us?

I was unaware of this confusion until after I was accepted. When almost everyone in my small hometown thought that I was going to Penn State, I felt a little disappointed, but why? Because people wouldn’t give me the recognition I thought I deserved? Because I wanted my peers to tell me how amazing I was? I’ll admit that I felt bothered when people asked me that question genuinely. At my core, I wanted them to think highly of me, and I wanted them to know that I was going to a top institution.

Credit: Isabel Kim

So much of my self-worth was tied to my accomplishments and what people thought of me. My identity was tethered to what college I was going to go to. I was constantly chasing the next big accomplishment so that I could be thought of as “amazing” by my peers. And if people didn’t know that I was going to a prestigious college, then what was all this work for?

Two of the many reasons we strive to attend a top institution are: One, because of the strength of the institution in academics or job training, and two, we like it because of the prestige it carries. The name attached to the university is something we want to be a part of. For a lot of us, it feels good to say that we are going to X university.

I strongly argue that the second reason is unnecessary, and even more so, it’s harmful. The notion of brand recognition is inherently egotistical. We shouldn’t be at an Ivy League university so that we can brag about it to others. That’s why Penn actually offers the best package out of the Ivy League: an amazing institution without the elitist branding and name recognition. Penn has many wonderful opportunities to learn and grow, and we can achieve all of this without having our egos fed by how elite people think Penn is. The fact is, we aren’t as lauded when asked about our university than, say, if we were at Yale or Harvard, but this allows us to move past bragging rights and focus on the things we do here, not the things other people think about us.

Coming to Penn has made me question who I am without my accomplishments. Coming to terms with the fact that many people would never know that I attend a top university was a reality check on my true intentions in picking Penn. My motivations were partially to show off to the people around me. But, I realized that at Penn I was able to fully focus on the side of me that loves to learn. My ego didn’t actually need to be fed. 

When people are disappointed by the mix-up between Penn and Penn State, it hurts to think that it’s because we don’t want people to think of us as “Penn State Level” rather than “Ivy League Level.” This superiority complex is what feeds into our toxic and elitist culture. 

If you’ve ever felt frustrated that people think you go to Penn State, take a moment to think about what that means. In all honesty, it shouldn’t matter what others think of the school you go to, or how elite they think you are. Their opinions of you don’t define you. If you feel compelled to let others know that you attend an Ivy League school, I think you should question what your motives for being here are in the first place. Most people don’t know that we attend one of the best universities in the world, and I think that’s a good thing.

This Thanksgiving, when your aunt asks you, “So, how’s Penn State treating you?” just say “It’s going great,” and help yourself to another plate of stuffing. 

JOEL LEE is a College sophomore from Groton, Conn. His email address is joelslee@sas.upenn.edu.

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