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Credit: Kylie Cooper

Editor's note: This note was originally sent via email to the Professor's students in EAS 545, otherwise known as "Introduction to Engineering Entrepreneurship," on May 4, 2020.

EAS 545 Students,

I am disappointed that our semester has to end in a virtual space and that I couldn’t see you in person at the final exam. Thank you for being an incredible class and staying engaged in the virtual world. Teaching EAS 545 was one of the highlights of my week so I’m sad that it has come to its end. We’ve had some really fun discussions and the chat scripts from both the class on incentives & our final class about financial planning, make me smile when I think about them.  

I’m writing to wish you luck in your finals but to also put everything in context for you as well.  As a Penn undergraduate student, I remember how stressful the finals period was and I’m imagining that in this virtual environment, this stress is likely amplified. 

I want to remind you that although this magical number, “my GPA”, has been the focus of much of your journey at school, it does not predict future success. In fact, over time you will see that its importance fades exponentially — even faster than the amount a new car depreciates when you drive it off the lot. So, put the next two weeks and the stress with it into this context. You should not let yourself be defined by your GPA — whether it is high, or it is low. Remember that it’s an artificial construct and the only thing that a high GPA really indicates is that you are able to take tests well — that’s it… 

Normally a final is given in a classroom under the watchful eye of your professor, but COVID-19 has forced us on-line, which means you will need to proctor yourself. Your North Star will be tested in every exam that you take over the next two weeks. There have been many debates in faculty meetings on how to ensure our students don’t cheat and I’ve heard some elaborate ideas to minimize cheating. I don’t believe in elaborate monitoring because it is a coercive extrinsic tactic to ensure that each of you are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing.

I’ve stressed over the semester the importance of trust and ethics and it doesn’t take much to lose both. As such, I trust that each of you will abide by Penn’s Code of Academic Integrity and your own moral compass. I trust that you will only refer to the two pieces of paper that are allowed in the final exam and as tempting as it may be to look at your class files or binders during the exam so that you get a better grade, I implore you not to. I’ve seen people who have allowed small cracks in their moral armor and over time, they become emboldened to do more and more questionable things and before you know it, their North Star is completely off. I guarantee that every person in the world who has ever taken an exam has thought about cheating, but what’s important is how you act in that moment. So do your best tomorrow, don’t sacrifice your morals for something as insignificant as a GPA, which by the way, takes up less than 1% of your resume. If you become tempted during the exam, flush that thought away and instead send me a note after the exam about how the thought crossed your mind but you did the right thing and didn’t cheat.

I’m proud of every student in this class and know that each of you will go on to do great things. I’m always happy to help you in whatever way I can, so please stay in touch!

Vanessa Z Chan

VANESSA Z CHAN is the Jonathan and Linda Brassington Professor of Practice in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.