Isabella: In the summer of 2019, I was blissfully unaware of just how jarring my first fall semester at Penn would be. I had never heard of Penn Course Review, I did not know how to navigate the convoluted web of Penn’s social scene, and I had no clue what exactly finance was (although that one may still apply). Most importantly, however, I had no clue that other people felt the same way. Until I began meeting upperclassmen through Greek life during my second semester, I had wrongly resigned to the fact that I was the only person who felt completely disjointed from the University’s culture, lying to those around me that I was really loving it here. The adjustment from high school to college has historically been an unsettling one for many students. Now an upperclassman, I try to find sly ways of working my own experiences into conversations with underclassmen, ensuring that they feel validated in their experiences.
Vinay: Graduating from high school in 2021 meant that not only was I being thrust into the scary new world of college, but I was also reentering a physical classroom for the first time in nearly a year and a half. Before even arriving on campus, I felt nervous about whether I could succeed at such an academically rigorous institution, especially after forgetting what it even felt like to sit through a lecture or take an exam in person.
As I began to meet other first-years, as well as upperclassmen, my worries about adjusting to Penn became real. While I internally fretted over my daunting workload, everyone around me talked about which three, four, or even five clubs they were planning on joining. It was easy to just attribute this craze to first-year enthusiasm until I met more and more upperclassmen who took five classes, had an internship, and held positions in multiple on-campus organizations. Slowly I began to feel more and more out of my element in this environment where it seemed no one ever stopped moving. Even though I focused on only joining the organizations that appealed to me and studied more than I ever had before, there persisted an overwhelming feeling of inferiority. This was compounded by the persistent facade of the collective student body, often dubbed "Penn Face," that never seemed to falter.
Despite all of this, I feel like I have come a long way since those first few months. I’ve realized that my path here at Penn, my goals after Penn, and my capacity to fit the Penn student stereotype are all different from those of the people around me. However, this realization was not immediate and only came after weeks of feeling as if I was lagging behind my peers.
To that end, if there were upperclassmen who were willing to let me see past their perfect exterior—even if only for a couple minutes—and tell me that it would get better, I might have been spared many episodes of imposter syndrome. As seasoned experts who have all been first-year students at one point, upperclassmen have valuable insight and a deep understanding of the unique confluence of feelings that come with being a college first-year. By sharing this wisdom with first-years, upperclassmen can make a priceless and long-lasting impact on their lives at college.
Isabella: Penn in theory has a system in place to foster connection between underclassmen and upperclassmen; However, in my own personal experience I have found that informal connections carry less pressure and more weight. Peer advising is intended to ease the transition, but not everyone may click with their advisors. Additionally, advisors can be matched with students based on something like their intended major. For students who are undecided or switch their major, the academic advice an advisor has to offer may not align well with the student. It is also not a given that students with the same majors would have the same troubles in adjusting to college. Peer advisors will be overburdened if they are the only resource first-years have to talk to upperclassmen.
So to all the upperclassmen reading this, sit next to that first-year in class, talk to them in clubs, even reach out to ones you may know from high school. Upperclassmen should remember the struggles they once faced and instead of leaving them in the past, offer some advice to current first-year students. Even if it’s a bit unsolicited, take the initiative.
ISABELLA GLASSMAN is a College junior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Suffern, N.Y. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
VINAY KHOSLA is a College first year studying philosophy and political science from Baltimore, Md. His email is email@example.com.