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graduation
Credit: Biruk Tibebe

Even now as I embark on my senior spring semester at Penn, I still clearly remember moving in as a first-year student. I was wide-eyed, excited, and found myself immediately being pushed out of my comfort zone. Not without anxiety, other first-year students and I set forth to meet as many other students as we could. On what were then foreign grounds, we were just ourselves, with no labels and, for the most part, no circles.

But the reality is that it’s never really been like that again. As we grew older, we slowly retracted into our own pockets of campus. It became much too easy to forget that we were surrounded by over 2,500 brilliant classmates and 10,000 undergrads, all of whom come from incredibly different backgrounds: each with a story and a passion.

Now, as seniors, the gravity of dismissing that fact is much more consequential. Before we try to start figuring out life beyond the cocoon of education, we need to take a step back and appreciate the environment we’re currently in. At the most basic level, as much as we love to complain about how far engineering is from 40th Street, we’ll never be spoiled by distance and brilliance like this again. This is it.

I write this not to depress you. I write this to suggest to you: live like a first-year student again. No, I don’t mean getting lost going to class or stumbling into the Quad at 4 a.m. In fact, I’m not talking about who you actually were as a first-year student at all. I’m talking about the spirit of the collective experience.

While as first-year students we were more lost and naïve, there’s something to be said about the attitude with which we approached people at Penn. We talked to anyone and everyone, met new people every day, and eventually formed genuine relationships. Even if conversations only revolved around where we’re from, what we’re studying, and where we’re living, we put ourselves out there.

But, how do we really live like first-year students again? Firstly, it requires a change of mentality. Penn’s social structure, as we all know too well, is unnecessarily divisive. We’re separated by school, Greek life, athletics, performing arts, and more. A lot of this is self-imposed. It’s on us to unshackle ourselves from these expectations of who runs in our circle and open ourselves up. It all starts with changing our perspective.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Class of 2020 President, Karim El Sewedy, challenges the graduating seniors to, "Do the big things and enjoy the little things. Just open yourself up and live like a first-year student again."

Of course, I recognize that this system is what has given us many of our friends. Naturally, these friend groups we’ve formed are what make campus feel more like home. It’s comfort. With them, you're able to do something you’re deathly scared of, and give it your all. Whether it’s performing at an open mic night, finally going sky diving, or asking out that person from your class, just do it. This is the time, just as our first year was, for us to walk that fine line of adventure and recklessness.

Beyond opening your mind up to new experiences, try actively expanding the horizons of your social circles. Steering clear of Joe Goldberg territory, I challenge you to reach out to that person you keep running into but never actually hang out out with. Let “sometime” be this time. Make the effort to reconnect with an old friend and reflect on how similar or different you’ve become. Go to an event or party where you barely know anyone and put yourself out there. Take a chance on meeting someone random in class and ask them to get lunch. Have a real and raw conversation with someone new and see where it goes. But it’s not necessarily about ticking these boxes; it’s about stepping out of your comfort zone because that’s where friendships really begin.

I truly felt the power of this wisdom when I got lunch with someone who I share no mutual friends with and decided to be a bit more vulnerable than usual. I told her about how lost and confused I felt about my future after graduation and how I struggled to hold myself accountable. This prompted her to open up and share how deeply and similarly she felt. Now, we meet every week to talk about our fears, goals and failures. She’s become a real friend of virtue.

Above all, make sure to recognize and appreciate all the little things — the things that you simply won’t have when you graduate. Cherish staying up all night talking to your best friend, relish in the ability to get a meal with a different person every day, and enjoy the freedom of just being a college student on a college campus. Approach it all with the same wide-eyed eagerness you once did as a first-year student. Life is much more exciting that way.

United by that first-year student spirit, our journey at Penn will come full circle. While living that adventure, we've been marked by much good and bad throughout the years. But, I hope that we can rediscover the same energy from the commencement of our time at Penn. Do the big things and enjoy the little things. Even though they’re no longer down the hall, the right people are all more accessible and closer than you think. Just open yourself up and live like a first-year student again.

KARIM El SEWEDY is an Engineering and Wharton senior studying  Systems Engineering, Marketing and Operations Management, and Entrepreneurial Management. He is the 2020 Class President. His email address is karimels@wharton.upenn.edu.

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