A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a prospective Penn student, which gave me pause for thought. Telling me why he was interested in Penn, he spoke to Penn’s drive for social impact, thirst for learning, and love of challenge. As a fully matriculated Penn student in the midst of a soul-crushing, pandemic-ridden semester, I was jarred by his view of Penn. To be honest, it has been a struggle for me to view my Penn experience very positively this year, and I know I am not alone in this. For many of us, no matter how many years out from writing those impassioned 300-word supplemental essays we are, it is easy to forget what brought us here in the first place.
With a COVID vaccine and a new presidential administration on the way, many people are tentatively finding hope as we head toward 2021. Even so, we cannot deny that our country’s poorly-bandaged scabs have been ripped off by the events of the past year. A failure of our healthcare system as well as police brutality ravages communities, and the future of democracy remains at stake. As the United States struggles for a sense of normalcy, so does Penn. Whether you are struggling to finish out this unprecedented semester or searching for clarity during a semester off, it can be hard to see a future in which we are back in lecture halls, chatting with friends in between classes, and getting ready for Spring Fling. While this sense of confusion, despair, and frustration is omnipresent and this semester has been anything but traditional, there is hope and strength to be found even in the smallest of things.
Classes have taken on a new role during this online semester: a safe space to discuss hopes and fears of the turmoil around us and a place to find solace. The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered many of us displaced and feeling lost as we struggle to adhere to social distancing guidelines in order to protect those at high risk of severe illness from COVID. But I’ve found that within the confines of a Zoom call, among tiny boxed profile pictures, Penn’s community still thrives. In my small 12-person Health and Social Justice seminar, a place where we discuss the future of American healthcare, I found students confiding their fears about their communities and their families. Our discussions are rooted in listening and understanding in the middle of a time where both of those entities are scarce. In my large, 300-person CIS-160 lecture, I found a professor whose quick wit and sharp teaching – though at times terrifying – creates a learning environment supportive of students and their growth, even within the constraints of Zoom.
In those classes among others, I have struggled and felt challenged for sure; but I have also found communities of people still striving to uphold “a proud tradition of intellectual rigor and pursuit of innovative knowledge” while making space to explore with, support, and learn from their peers.
This year has also pushed student activism to the forefront of the collective conversation. Penn students used their voices to address everything, from Penn’s complicity in police brutality to Penn PILOTS, to mental health at Penn, all while the pandemic raged around us. This Penn student activism pressured the University to commit to $10 million annually for ten years to ameliorate environmental hazards in local Philadelphia schools and convinced Penn to add on three additional mental health days during the spring semester. Student efforts to combat inequity and injustice at Penn and beyond reflect a commitment imbued with the words of Ben Franklin, “well-done is better than well-said.” That is not to say there is no significant work ahead of us. There is work to be done on all fronts. But we Penn students are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work, toiling to inspire and to effect change wherever we can. So come on 2021, we know how to make the best of whatever we’re dealt, and we’re ready for whatever you’ve got.
AGATHA ADVINCULA is a College junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. studying Health & Societies and Computer Science.
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