I’ve been thinking about getting to this moment so much for the past four years that it’s hard to believe that it’s actually here.
Soon, I’ll be walking down Locust with the rest of the class of 2019 to Franklin Field for Commencement, where Amy Gutmann will reaffirm the incredible futures we have ahead of us before we throw our caps in the air for one final “hurrah.” Most importantly, I had thought for a while, today would mark the day that I would finally be finished with college — a modern rite of passage into adulthood for those privileged enough to attend, and a rite that I’ve spent most of the past four years regarding as a kind of torture.
Surely, this notion seems ludicrous. I was blessed enough to attend a world-renowned school without many financial difficulties and with supportive family and friends by my side — I had every advantage I could think of coming in to Penn.
And yet, I would not call the majority of my time here happy. In fact, I’d call the vast majority of it actively unhappy — unhappy with school, unhappy with my social life, and deeply unhappy with myself. Penn is not the easiest place for an awkward and naïve 18-year-old to grow up into a real adult, and I had a challenging time balancing the growing up part with the coursework and activities I had been so excited to start coming in to college.
I definitely bought into the whole “best four years” trope. I was a really stupid freshman, and it’s true; I pretty much thought Penn was going to be unicorns and rainbows for four years. I worked hard in high school, got into a “good” college, and I was ready to experience life-changing academics, meet the best friends I’d ever have, and pursue whatever dreams I had in mind.
Of course, as anyone with a firm grip on reality can attest, nothing works out in such a picture-perfect way. After the excitement of shitty fraternity parties wore off post-NSO, I struggled to find myself as happy as I had been expecting. I found many of my classes to be the wrong blend of time-consuming, difficult, uninteresting, and felt increasingly out of place on a campus where it felt like everyone already had everything — academics, social life, career goals — figured out. This was probably totally unreasonable: Many (if not most) freshmen struggle with feelings like this, at least at some point. But somehow, I never felt like I grew out of this adjustment phase. Not during freshman year, not during sophomore year, not during junior year. Each new semester brought its own unique challenges, but one constant was the ever-present feeling that I just don’t belong here.
And so, I began coping with this sadness by falling into a habit I developed in high school: find more work. This has been my coping strategy for almost everything at Penn. The times where I most felt like myself — or at least, was most able to fend off the creeping feelings of crisis — were the days when I had something scheduled on my calendar from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed: class, homework, my tutoring job, project meetings at The Daily Pennsylvanian, playing the drums for my jazz combo. It was easy to forget why I was feeling so unhappy when I literally didn’t have the time to remember. But after a while, these activities felt draining too, and I was profoundly confused about why the things I used to be so interested in no longer brought me the same joy they had in the past. And so, I developed other habits to cope. I found time for anything that would keep me occupied from sincerely reflecting on the source of my persistent unhappiness, not realizing that this was exacerbating the problem, allowing it to fester.
I conducted myself this way during my whole time at Penn, burying myself and my emotional well-being beneath different activities and routines. Living as such and loathing many aspects of myself, I began to loathe the things around me as well: the work, the people, the opportunities for growth. For all the internal turmoil I was feeling, I still never let anyone on to what was going on inside my head. I didn’t tell my parents. I complained a lot about work and people with my roommates, but not much more. Occasionally, I would vent to friends from high school about how much I hated being here.
But I was careful to not reveal to a soul how truly lonely and sad I felt. Again, this only exacerbated the problem. Since I was living my life behind such a bifurcated mask, I felt, how could anyone else not be? How could anyone be genuinely growing and enjoying themselves right now when everything is going wrong around them? Such thinking would beget vicious cycles of isolation and depression, and I would find myself thanking whatever powers that be at the end of every semester for just letting it be over.
But as I come to the end of my college career, I’m hesitant to allow my perception of the past four years to be colored so negatively. There were plenty of lows over the years, but I’m finally beginning to see the value in having had the experience I did, and I’m beginning to feel a renewed agency over my emotions that I haven’t felt in quite some time.
I realize now that I’ve only ever allowed myself to be happy due to external validation — doing well in school, being recognized for some achievement, performing well in a show; I had never taken the time before college to develop my own values or my own definition of success. When school and activities no longer provided the same validation that they had in the past, my initial reaction was to double down and dig deeper, sure that the reason why these things had not satisfied me was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. The idea of exploring a new major or dropping extracurriculars or taking time off to find myself seemed anathema — if I got behind, I would never be able to catch up, and all the work I had done to simultaneously do well in school and keep myself from having a total breakdown would be lost if I gave up the façade.
Little did I know how valuable taking time for yourself could be. This semester, for the first time in a while, I have a pretty light daily schedule. I take four classes, I’ve finished all of my extracurricular commitments, and I quit my job. I have so much more time than I’ve ever had before, and yet this semester has been among the most volatile of my Penn career. A lot of my struggles have come to a head, but things are beginning to change. Rather than bury myself in work as I have in the past, I’ve finally decided to take some time for myself to actively and constructively find what makes me happy. Many might think that the end of college is supposed to be a tumultuous time, with everyone getting ready to transition to the next big step in their lives, but it has honestly brought the most peace I’ve felt in a long time. I’m finally gaining the maturity to do things for myself rather than in service of some predetermined narrative.
Importantly, I’ve finally begun to realize that all of the things I sought at Penn — a perspective-changing education, close friends, and a foundation for future opportunities to do something I love — are in fact things I’ve gained over the last four years, and have been right in front of me this entire time if I had only been willing to open my eyes to them. Perhaps I could have realized this much sooner if I had taken some time to make sure I was healthy before loading up my plate with the many challenging and exciting opportunities Penn has to offer.
So, as I end this all-too-long-and-revealing column, I suppose I should sign off with some sort of takeaway for anyone who has bothered to read this far: Prioritize your own happiness during this time of immense growth. Thinking back on the negativity I’ve felt for the past four years, I understand that now that it manifests because I deprioritized my own happiness for so long. You can have a life-changing educational experience here, you can live a healthy and balanced lifestyle, and you can meet authentic people that you are genuinely close with. But it will be so, so much harder to experience any of these things at a place like Penn without first paying attention to your own well-being, something I fear is all too uncommon among us.
To my friends and family back home: thank you for being my remote support system. I know I would not have made it through four years without having all of you ready to offer an open ear when I needed it, and I can’t wait to start the next part of my life with you by my side.
To Marc and Luca: it’s hard to believe how close we are now from when we met freshman year. The laughs and gags over the past few years were much needed — thank you. You’ve seen me at my best and worst, and in a lot of ways you guys know me better than anyone else. You’re both helping me find my spark again, something for which I will always be grateful. I know that the three of us will remain close far beyond our time here.
To The Daily Pennsylvanian and especially the 134 and professional staff: It was an absolute pleasure getting to know all of you during my time here. I had the privilege of working with almost all of you in some capacity, and day in and day out I learned so much from you all. Thank you for showing me many of the best parts of the Penn community during our time together.
It may not have been the prettiest four years, but I can still walk today knowing that my experience here has left an indelible and irreplaceable influence on me that I will appreciate well after my time on this campus.
Finally, congratulations to the Class of 2019!
DAVID FIGURELLI is a College senior from New Jersey, studying Economics. He served as the Director of Analytics of The Daily Pennsylvanian on the 134th board. Previously, he was a sports reporter.
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