I am a sucker for good endings. (Perhaps that’s why I like the slow build-up of British novels — the focus of my very first English class at Penn that got me hooked on the department.) I think most Penn students would agree. After all, many of us got here through a display of delayed gratification, grinding hard during our teens for the sweet reward of a college acceptance. My high school years did not have real hardships, but on a day-to-day basis it was a little isolating to take different classes from my friends and spend my nights studying instead of socializing.
In light of our abridged semester, I want to applaud a student body that has worked so hard and deserves to feel completion, despite the lack of graduation ceremonies and other gestures of closure. It is particularly sad because I know friends who purposely planned their senior spring semesters to make up for toiling during previous years: many, including myself, reserved this time for meetups, bucket list goals, travel plans, and classes to enjoy.
Upon coming to Penn, I was determined to turn away from the loneliness of my teens and enjoy the college experience I earned. All my delayed gratification rules were turned on their heads: I exchanged late-night studying for late-night talks with new friends and put off joining pre-professional clubs to try writing news for The Daily Pennsylvanian. This seemed all well and good during most of my first year, but as time went on, my peers’ priorities seemed to shift.
Making plans with others became a long refrain of “after midterms,” “after finals,” “after recruiting.” Of course, as anyone who is pre-med or works for the DP understands, I had my own “hell weeks,” too. But despite the fact that many of my friends were pretty good about staying in touch, I felt that me prioritizing my happiness and social life was not affirmed by Penn’s culture: instead of the “work hard, play hard” mentality promised in school tours and glossy brochures, there is a communal urgency to “work now, play later.” Obviously, basic time management and triaging of tasks is fundamental to adulthood. But seeing others binge on frivolity only during a handful of weekends per year was concerning to me. I’m not just talking about being social, but also about seeing a brotherly city, tapping into interests that are not pre-professional, etc. These explorations were worthwhile and fulfilling, but somewhat detrimental to my GPA. I sometimes questioned my priorities and felt like I was the only one who was willing to make this tradeoff.
I occasionally felt alone in other ways, including but not limited to being a pre-med while pursuing an English major and exploring the humanities. I felt distant from my classmates with one-track minds for STEM. Even with the rich experience at the DP, I felt distant from my colleagues whom I left behind in the office while I rushed back home to do problem sets. I have a theory that some people struggle at Penn not because of rigor, but because of an illusion of loneliness.
Now that we are truly apart and abruptly removed from our college experience, it has hit me that we have become the victims of delayed gratification, instead of benefiting from it. After this time of stay-at-home orders, it may be tempting to rush back into work at full force — to make up for the lost productivity, to scramble for a job in this precarious economy. Instead, I urge you to remember that delayed gratification only works if the plans that you carefully lay don’t blow up in your face, as many plans all around the world have. This lesson is perhaps hard to swallow after an abrupt end to life as we know it, but it is not too late to learn from it. Our society insists that we should accept harsh working conditions until the next promotion — or until retirement. However, life even without pandemics is full of pitfalls and secret traps, so after accounting for obvious responsibilities and must-dos, we must enjoy now instead of later, because there may be no “later” after all.
To those still at Penn, don’t let strict on-campus recruiting schedules or post-graduate anxieties dictate when you study abroad or take a fun elective. To fellow seniors, it may be scary to explore ourselves without the structure of class or clubs. But I am so excited to see how we will embrace our interests outside of work — or better yet, inventively combine our passions with careers.
I, too, was anticipating Senior Week, Commencement, and all the last goodbyes we never got to say. But after everything that has happened, my doubts about taking a “scenic route” instead of the expressway to my goals have vanished. Because if I had done otherwise, I would not have my memories of West Philly brunches, Feb Club, and DP banquets; I would not be part of a journalistic mission and legacy of news editors that I am so proud of and thankful for. I don’t have to mourn for my Penn experience because I indulged myself along the way; my college years feel complete because I have made enough memories before the finish line.
MICHEL LIU is a 2020 College graduate who majored in English. She served as Assignments Editor of the 134th Board of The Daily Pennsylvanian, as well as a beat reporter.
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