Penn students are long awaiting an email from President Amy Gutmann announcing the University’s official decision for the upcoming academic year. The latest email, sent on May 21, details four major scenarios in consideration. All four scenarios consider some extent of online classes, and thus, it is clear that the 2020-2021 academic year will not be like any other academic year before.
This implication brings a series of concerns, namely worries over the incomplete Penn academic experience. But another concern that is separate from the in-person office hours, the one dimensionality of online message boards, and the maintenance of academic integrity, is the fear of missing out on the “best four years of your life.” I have never believed this expression to be true. Now, I see quarantine and the upcoming academic year as a perfect opportunity to reconsider the role college holds in our lifetime.
To characterize the four years where you are finishing off your teens and entering your twenties as the “best” years of your life seems like an overshot statement. Underneath all the glitz and glamour of college — the frat parties, the impromptu late-night Wawa runs, the unforgettable all-nighters in Van Pelt — we awkwardly transition into a foreign territory of adult life.
This turbulent transition is filled with uncertainties about one’s future and identity, and now, during quarantine, when we are physically deprived of the usual social interactions that help mitigate and divert us from these apprehensions, the uncertainties rise. But I find value in embracing the uncertain because that is what makes this time a formative one. College should allow us to explore and grow within that ambiguity, but it cannot protect us from the pain and awkwardness that comes with that exploration. The overwhelming pain and awkwardness should not make your college experience the “best four years of your life” — it might be even more painful to forcefully convince yourself that it is fun when it is otherwise. But rest assured that they won’t be a wasteful four years, because the growth will guide you to a more confident and secure self.
Variations of the phrase “college is the best four years of my life” come across as another classic Quaker effort to “tick something off,” like another one of our extracurricular activities or classes at Penn. This tagline makes us stress about not having enough experiences to prove for these four years to be in the best of our lives. But these four years should just be one chapter of our lives, and not the climax. This chapter will be noted for its youth for some, for its confusion for others, but above all, just one chapter out of many others that will follow it. And I hope that can mitigate the high sense of urgency to create such a deep meaning for four short years.
There is so much waiting for us post-graduation that will change and transform us. If we look at some of Penn’s most illustrious alumni — John Legend majored in English then later worked for Boston Consulting Group, Elizabeth Banks majored in Communications and minored in Theatre Arts, and Tory Burch majored in Art History — their careers started once they left Penn, not while they were still majoring in their respective fields. As Ton Nguyen articulates, “all of these alumni are not remembered for what they studied or even what clubs they were involved on campus.” Of course, the definition of “best years” can be contested, but I believe that these alumni would not label their college years as their best when that would discredit their much later successes — such as Legend’s 11 time Grammy wins or Burch’s successful fashion brand and recognition as Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women but even the ordinary of things like marriage and parenting.
Our time at Penn should be remembered as a “great” four years, rather than the “best.” We can strive to make our college years “great,” but to make an experience the “best” without knowing what the future holds is foolish, and almost depriving. Allow yourself to live today, tomorrow, the following weeks, and months without the burden of making it the best. This kind of label on our college experience produces an urgency that prevents us from living in the current moment. Savor each day because these days, as untraditional and unprecedented as they are, will amass into what we call college. Consider “college” as another adjective, another modifier, rather than a definition in and of itself. And so, as we await the decision for the fall semester from the University — relax, your best few years are still ahead of you.
STEPHANIE YOON is a rising College sophomore from McLean, Virginia. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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