On paper, Penn wasn't the best school for me.
There's no journalism major, which was a key determinant in deciding where I would transfer to my sophomore year. (I had an epiphany three days into being a physics major at my first university that I did want to pursue my dream of being a photojournalist.) Its reputation as the "Social Ivy" has never been something I’ve identified with, and its culture of preprofessionalism still makes me shiver.
These thoughts have been ever-present in my mind throughout my time at Penn, prompting the dreaded thought that I wasted both my first and second chances at college. I chose Penn because I wanted to be academically challenged for the first time in my life and be surrounded by peers who felt similarly. But had I hurt my odds of becoming a photojournalist in favor of a rigorous education and prestige?
Looking back now, I think coming to Penn was the best decision I could've made. Despite the lack of a formal photojournalism education, I've had opportunities at Penn and in Philadelphia that I don't think I could've received at another university.
First, I want to acknowledge that it was a relatively difficult journey. There was no alumni network of photojournalists I could look up to, there were no opportunities offered through the University that fit my interests, and only one other student shared my desire to pursue the field professionally. Structurally, there was no support; what I learned, I learned largely on my own.
But there was a place I could turn to as a launching point and home base: The Daily Pennsylvanian. It is thanks to the DP that I first felt the pure adrenaline rush that comes with news photography. In November 2019, I photographed the Fossil Free Penn protest during a Board of Trustees meeting. I knew from the moment I met them at the Button, where they organized before the meeting, that I was covering something that had stakes. The adrenaline only increased during the meeting as they drowned out speakers with chants and songs and, ultimately, shut down the meeting.
When the pandemic hit midway through my second semester, I was back to square one. I had commuted to my first university, which made being back home feel like I’d taken two steps backward in my educational journey. But a global pandemic had shut down much of the world, and I felt a responsibility to document its effects on my tiny sliver of the world.
Even though campus was closed, I had to be in Philadelphia; I hadn't done all of the work to transfer to Penn only to stay at home. I was fortunate enough to be able to return to Philly on May 31 — one day after protests had broken out in the city over the murder of George Floyd.
Less than 24 hours after moving in, I was photographing protesters marching through Center City, following them onto Interstate 676, and subsequently getting tear gassed by police. It was quite the welcome back to Philadelphia and the hard photojournalism I had missed so much, to say the least.
As we all know, the year continued on with the presidential election. I had the opportunity to photograph Donald Trump's rally in Johnstown, Pa. and have a front-row seat to the Count Every Vote demonstrations outside of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the votes that ultimately propelled Joe Biden to win the presidency were tallied. It’s without question that being in Philly and working for the DP allowed me to experience these major moments in United States history.
The wild events of 2020 have been balanced out by closer-to-home but equally-important stories that I’ve been able to document in the time since. My time as Penn Sustainability’s photographer introduced me to the worlds of food and environmental activism, which I don’t think I would’ve gotten the chance to explore so deeply otherwise.
Contrary to the “Social Ivy” mindset, I’ve always felt the desire to go to school events with a camera in my hand rather than as an attendee, and I’ve come to accept that that’s okay.
The people I've met and events I've witnessed in my three — albeit unconventional — years of being a Penn student have given me more real-life experiences than I would've gleaned in a classroom. Studying something at Penn that isn’t finance or academic isn’t impossible. I've come to truly understand that there are stories to tell no matter where one is, so long as there’s a passion and curiosity to seek them out.
And that is one of the best lessons I could ever learn as a photojournalist.
KYLIE COOPER is a graduating College senior from Westport, Mass. studying communication and journalistic writing. She served as photo editor on the 137th Board of Editors and Managers. Previously, she was the 2020 news photo editor and summer multimedia editor.
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