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Photo from Ashley Ahn. Credit: Kylie Cooper , Tyler Kliem

People tell you to explore in college — take diverse classes, join different clubs, find out what you like to do. I took that advice with no idea that it could ever come with a risk.

My first year, I took a variety of classes that seemed interesting and joined the DP as a reporter. I cast my net out wide to give myself as many options as possible, but I was left feeling more confused and lost than before. I liked the DP but figured it would just stay a hobby, and I did not particularly love any of the classes I took.

Not sure of what to do, I shifted gears and became pre-med. I liked chemistry and knew I would be able to make an impact as a doctor, so why not? I also started to take more East Asian studies classes, because I had always found the topic interesting but never had the chance to study it before college. But as I became more involved with the DP, I fell in love with reporting and storytelling. I would spend 30 hours in the DP office a week writing and editing, and I found a group of people who loved it just the same as me. Before I knew it, I became an East Asian studies major and chemistry minor, taking all the pre-med classes while seeing if journalism could be a potential career for me.

The expectation at Penn that you need to have it all figured out by the time you graduate sets an unrealistic timeline for any sort of in-depth exploration in multiple different fields. While this should be far from the truth and the reason for post-baccalaureate programs, online courses, and career shifts after college, this pressure at Penn, greatly stemming from its preprofessionalism, gives students very little room for trial and error. 

If you want a good chance at a full-time job out of college, you recruit for consulting companies and investment banks as an underclassman for summer internships which you hope lead to job offers. You start taking computer and information science classes as an underclassman in order to land big tech internships which you hope lead to a job. You start taking pre-med requirements as an underclassman so that you can apply to medical school by the time you are a senior.

But are you truly able to explore when you have to get it right on the first try? When you already have to start narrowing down on a major and take enough requirements to even declare the major by the end of your first or second year, depending on the school?

I soon realized that trying to keep my options open while exploring was an almost impossible feat. Working 30 hours a week for the DP, 25 hours a week for CNN, while taking a full load of classes junior year — all so I could keep exploring my different interests without completely ditching the other — made me question whether college truly allows students to explore their interests without setting them up for failure.

I ended up taking all the pre-med classes to realize I wouldn’t become a doctor, dedicated my Penn career to the DP to realize I wouldn’t become a reporter right out of college like my other colleagues, and majored in East Asian studies to pursue a master’s in computer science hoping to work at the intersection of technology and journalism. Admittedly, much of my journey filled with detours and dead ends has to do with my own indecision and inability to let go of this idea that I could do it all. I do not regret it, because otherwise, I would not have found my home at the DP, lifelong friends in the windowless, pink palace that we call our office, and my hidden love for journalism. But I do regret blindly believing that college is four years of free exploration. This vision is an idealized truth and hides the reality that exploration comes with great risk and sacrifice.

The college experience, particularly one like Penn with a hyperfocus on preprofessionalism, conflicts with the nature of exploration. True exploration requires time and sacrifice, which is difficult in an environment that expects you to have a job or concrete plans within the span of four years.

I am not discouraging the pursuit of different interests, because it could unearth something unexpected, fascinating, and worth dedicating your entire career to, as it did for me. And maybe you could be the lucky one and strike gold on your first swing, but do not naively expect that to happen. Do not expect your path to be more glorious, clear, or worth it by the end of your four years of college. The path may be even more strenuous and filled with doubt and confusion. You might constantly feel lost and question the point in your endeavors when all they seem to do is lead to dead ends. And it is up to you to determine whether the twisting, grueling climb is worth the nice view at the top.

I had the privilege of taking many different classes at Penn, like a curious kid sampling all 60 Coca-Cola flavors at the World of Coca-Cola museum. I had the privilege of learning the stories of countless students, faculty members, and West Philadelphia residents and holding the University accountable through the DP’s platform. I had the privilege of reporting at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with CNN’s health and science team, an opportunity of a lifetime. And I would be amiss if I did not acknowledge that this was all only possible because I dedicated myself to exploration.

I am not claiming that you cannot take classes that interest you nor explore your diverse interests at Penn. But be warned: Explore at your own risk. 

ASHLEY AHN is a College senior from Atlanta, Ga. studying East Asian area studies. She served as the executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian on the 137th board. Previously, she was the news editor on the 136th board and a beat reporter.