Over 60 years ago, Albert Camus published “The Fall”, his final work of fiction. The text chronicles the existential questioning of one character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, whose monologues include the quote, “People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves.” Nowhere is this more relevant than on Penn’s campus in 2022.
Two years ago, I found myself in the midst of my own existential crisis. After writing an article about legacy for the DP, all at once, my Penn email inbox was full of profanity and hate. Both Instagram and Facebook exploded with vitriolic private messages and DMs. Fellow classmates, who had never even met me, made sweeping assumptions about my personal narrative as they told me they hoped I got kicked out of Penn or that I’d personally decide to never show my face on campus again.
To be honest, the reaction surprised me. I first arrived at Penn excited by the prospect of meeting people completely different from myself. I looked forward to the challenges of the University; I anticipated learning and benefiting from Penn’s world-class faculty and a wide array of classes. Moreover, I was drawn to Penn’s commitment to diversity. Students come from all over the world, from all different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, representing all genders and all political preferences. In an increasingly toxic and partisan society, Penn stood out as a place where it is not only possible but encouraged to think critically about your identity and to learn from those around you. I expected such an environment to be a breeding ground for discussion, idea exchange, and exploration.
Yet, it is hard not to reflect on my Penn experience with disappointment and frustration at the ways in which Penn falls short of that ideal. As it turns out, Penn’s diversity isn’t so easy to access. Instead, it is hidden behind layers of stereotypes, assumptions, and pre-existing beliefs about who people are. Whether it’s by skin tone, fraternity sweatshirt, jewelry, hairstyle, bag brand, major, minor, last name, Instagram posts, housing, or dining plans, Penn does not hold back in its categorization of students. Much like our country’s political factions, each views the other at arm’s length with a mixture of distrust and critique.
While there is some engagement between groups at Penn, there is more judgment than anything else. For me, this meant that there wasn’t any constructive dialogue on campus after my article was published. Loretta Ross, an academic and activist, writes that “most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.” Rather than foster intellectual curiosity, Penn culture promotes purity testing; at Penn, you’re either all in or all out. As I quickly learned, I was all out.
Instead of serving as a lightning rod to promote a sharing of ideas, the article met with an outpouring of hate from students on Facebook who “Attend the University of Pennsylvania” or whose email handle was followed by “upenn.edu.” My classmates pondered big questions like whether I was at the bottom of our class or how much money my parents must have donated to get such a “lazy, clueless, foolish, dumb” student into Penn. Most did not know me and most never bothered to try.
Ultimately, my response was to recreate myself. I discovered an interest in computer science and filled my schedule with new classes and new people. I found a home in the DP’s opinion section. I joined Matriculate and realized I had a knack for college essay editing. I’m proud that two of those Matriculate students I worked with are now at Penn alongside me. As I watched them make their decisions, I felt conflicted. While I struggled to remain positive about my Penn experience, at the same time, I was excited by the prospect of them attending my university, now my alma mater. I’m sure my mom felt the same way watching me ultimately choose to attend Penn four years ago.
Today, my mom and I stand at another crossroads. Her, preparing for my college graduation, torn between pride for my successes and disappointment over the ways in which Penn has rejected me. Me, getting ready to walk across the stage, toggling between cautious optimism about the future and reflection about the past, frustrated that after four years many of my peers may still only know me by the few boxes in which they put me.
Somewhere the endlessly naïve, optimistic high school senior in me remains — the one who can still see the good in Penn, who is still inspired to guide incoming students, and who still sees the innovation and transformative learning that happens here. But there is also the beaten down and tired college senior in me who is exhausted after having spent four years looking over her shoulder, attending a university whose glittering gold exterior has gotten duller over the years.
I don’t know what Penn’s future looks like. I hope that students in the future are more open to those who come from different backgrounds and experiences than themselves. I hope more students will appreciate the power of learning, asking questions, and not jumping to conclusions. I wish I could have done more to change Penn’s limiting culture. But I am also glad that I am too old for it to still be my job.
Clamence proclaims that “each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.” When I arrived at Penn I believed people would have open minds about how they engaged in and out of the classroom. Now, I can only hope that students will make an effort to care less about appearing perfect, pure, and “innocent,” and more about critically analyzing society and themselves.
AGATHA ADVINCULA is a senior studying health and societies and computer science from New York City. She served as a deputy opinion editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian on the 137th board. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.