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Credit: Alice Heyeh

It’s common knowledge that Penn has produced some of the most notable leaders in various industries and fields. A statistic many hold onto is our production of more billionaires than any other university. Many students chose Penn in hopes of benefiting from this extensive alumni network and perhaps utilizing the university’s resources and title to build a legacy for themselves. But what most Penn students do not realize is that they are too fixated on an unrealistic dream, built on wealth and pre-professionalism, and fundamentally lack what it takes to one day be a notable Penn alumni.

Some of the most impactful alumni are the ones that had non-traditional experiences and traits in their undergraduate careers. We should keep that in mind as we feel pressure to mimic others in hopes of being successful.

John Legend, 10-time Grammy-award winner, is often lauded for his musical skills. But what most people don’t know is that during his time at Penn, he was admitted at the age of 16 and studied English. He would later go on to work at Boston Consulting Group, which he described as a job that you’d expect Penn students to take, and soon left the position to pursue his passions. Elizabeth Banks majored in Communications and minored in Theater Arts, and has since acted and directed hit films. Tory Burch majored in Art History and later went on to found a clothing line, and was listed as Forbes 79th most powerful woman in the world. Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, and Donald Trump — regardless of their vast differences, all have the commonality of being transfer students. 

All of these alumni are not remembered for what they studied or even what clubs they were involved on campus, but rather they are known for what they chose to do with their skills. Penn students are among the brightest and most creative people in the world, yet they are all funneling into the same job positions and firms. While it is tempting to follow the crowd, Penn students have the potential to do so much more. Penn’s notable alumni didn’t all take the same path, and we shouldn’t either. 

Most people don’t have a passion. The problem with our current culture at Penn is that we judge others based off their academic workload and their internship prospects. You’ll find students constantly grinding for classes, profusely networking, and mindlessly submitting internship applications for jobs we don’t even care about. And we do this night and day out of fear of not being good enough in the eyes of our classmates. This has become our definition of success — having a high GPA, a large LinkedIn network, and an extensive resume. Internships should not be our measure of self-worth. In fact, John Legend recently tweeted, “Unpaid internships make it so only kids with means and privilege get the valuable experience,” suggesting that some internships are in and of themselves a form of classism and privilege. 

Granted, the industries and fields that surround us are ever changing. It’s difficult not to buy into the idea that we must pursue certain majors that may seemingly be more lucrative. And that is the mindset that Penn students must change if we are ever going to make an impact on our world. Accepting what others tell us about rankings, profitability, and our self-worth will only prevent us from doing what we truly care about and what we are good at. I am not trying to undermine the hard work and dedication that Penn students put into their academics and careers, but it is very evident that we have a culture around silently shaming others for what they study and what activities they’re involved in. 

There is no correct formula to achieve notability. But one thing is for sure, you can’t make change if you play it too safe and follow the mold given to you by others. Regardless of where your priorities lie, it is important that we don’t over glorify social status and forego the importance of being true to ourselves and our passions. We must challenge the notion that you must be pre-professional at Penn in order to be "successful," regardless of what your definition of success may be. 

TON NGUYEN is a college junior from Atlanta, GA studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Her email address is nton@sas.upenn.edu.  

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