My mom graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. Her love for Penn is the reason why I had Penn sweatshirts before I could walk, why she would drag us to TEDxPenn every year, and why getting into Penn was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
When I decided to attend Penn, my mom was ecstatic. The excitement and pride she felt because I was going to attend her alma mater are best represented by the high school graduation pictures of me wearing her vintage Penn sweatshirt. To this day, her weirdly sea-green, slightly stained Penn sweatshirt, in the XXL size popular during the late '80s, remains one of my favorites. But upon arriving at Penn, I was met with a much different reality. I quickly learned that telling people, “Oh yeah, this sweatshirt belonged to my mom when she went here,” was not a good conversation starter.
Rather than initiating a discussion about why Penn ever sold that color sweatshirt in the first place, it revealed to everyone around me that I was a legacy student. Suddenly, my family’s joy over my attending the same school as my mom wasn’t seen as a strength. It marked me as someone who made it into Penn the easy way. So, instead of embracing my Penn heritage, I hid it.
But we need legacy admissions. Top universities and colleges like Penn consider legacy status because they understand the important role legacy plays in contributing to their brands. Like it or not, colleges are run like businesses: The goal is to be the most prestigious, a title bestowed on those with the best students, the largest endowment, and the highest rankings.
So yes, a student with a prestigious family name is particularly desirable not only because of the clout associated with their name, but also because of their potential philanthropy and the establishment of the Penn legacy within their family. By accepting these students, Penn reinforces a narrative of prestige all within the context of a Penn education. In short, go to Penn and you too will gain wealth and prestige.
That said, legacy is just as closely tied with a school’s spirit and community as it is with its prestige. It is the families with three generations of Penn alumni who show up for football games, pose for pictures in front of the LOVE statue with their children, donate money to express their gratitude for a Penn education, and ultimately hope to send their own kids to Penn after them. That may be you in 30 years.
While I myself might not carry a particularly prestigious last name or have my name on a new library, I still burst with pride over attending the same school as my mom. It is this pride that drives my mom back to Penn every year with her freshman year roommates to see Penn Masala shows and throw toast at Homecoming games. And it is that same pride which Penn needs for its brand: the type of pride that drives its successful alumni to come back and reinvest in their school.
If you’re a non-legacy student reading this column, you might be angry. Of course this girl can talk about legacies being relevant; she may not even be a student at Penn without her legacy status. This is the crux of the negativity regarding legacy students on campus. But this sentiment extends beyond Penn’s campus.
Speaking at Penn, Malcolm Gladwell joked that Penn did let in “slow” students because they let in legacy students. His comment may have been just a lame attempt to solicit a laugh from the crowd, but for those of us who are legacy students, it was a joke at our expense. Whether or not you believe legacy should be considered in admissions, it will maintain a firm presence on Penn’s campus. Legacy is part of the fabric at elite institutions. For all of us already at Penn, we are creating our own legacy right now, one that will be passed on to our families, regardless of whether you’re a first-generation student, or the fifth generation to attend Penn.
No more hiding for me. I’m the one in the sea-green Penn sweatshirt. Yes, I am a legacy student. Yes, my mom attended Penn. And yes, in the future, if my kids have the opportunity to attend Penn as well, I will send them off with as great a sense of achievement as my mom did. If you want to label me lesser because my legacy may have contributed to my acceptance, so be it. But in 15 years, don’t hang a Penn pennant in your kid’s room, don’t buy them a Penn sweatshirt, and definitely don’t tell them to apply to Penn.
AGATHA ADVINCULA is a College sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y. studying Health and Societies.
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