Ivy League. Top 10. Prestigious. Elite. The University of Pennsylvania.
Coming to Penn, I imagined that I’d be living a life as close to Rory Gilmore’s as a California girl could get. Penn has it all: the beautiful, old-school collegiate campus, the Hogwarts-looking library that fits into the “dark academia” aesthetic, and the crisp cold weather that would have me drinking a daily latte on my walk to class.
As enchanting as this seemed, my sights initially were set on public institutions, specifically the University of California at Berkeley or University of California, Los Angeles. After all, I would be following the same path as my parents, brother, 14 first cousins, and all my aunts and uncles that had the privilege of attending one of these premier public universities.
Even beyond my family, though, it was routine for graduates of my small, homey Armenian school to attend an in-state college, as both the desirability of California and the pressures of an immigrant family lead most of us to stay close to home. Thus, it was natural for me to apply to the UC schools, with big dreams of one day becoming a Bruin or Golden Bear.
Yet at the same time, I wanted to break out of the mold and try something new and unknown — at least for me. As I applied to several private universities around the country, I assured my friends and family that I was doing so “just for fun” or “just to see what happens,” as I assumed that the admission committees of these schools wouldn’t give serious thought to a student from a small and relatively unknown high school thousands of miles away.
That all changed on Ivy Day. My friends, family, and I thought that there was no way I could turn down an elite institution like Penn.
And so, after extended deliberation and a first-time visit to campus on one of Penn’s Quaker Days, I declined my offers — and dreams — of attending UCLA or Berkeley, and became the first in my family and school to matriculate to the University of Pennsylvania.
With no one to fill me in on Penn culture, I boarded my flight from LAX to PHL eager to pursue my undergraduate degree in history with hopes of becoming a journalist. Penn had other plans.
Many things came as a shock to me as my first semester swung into action. Before starting at Penn, I had never heard of McKinsey Consulting or really understood what Goldman Sachs did. And yet early on, I learned that everyone around me seemed to be interested in some form of professional consulting.
I quickly realized that making lots of money is very important to many Penn students, and the University is a springboard for students to achieve their goals of wealth. Indeed, even the students who aren’t in Wharton aspire to work at a consulting firm or go into investment banking in New York City after graduating.
The ethnic Armenian community I grew up in at home kept me mostly sheltered from the finance and power-driven culture that exists at Penn. Instead, the pinnacle of careers in my circles has always been doctor or lawyer, the only “acceptable” choices to many immigrant families like mine. Thus, even though I have aspirations of being a foreign correspondent, I always keep the lawyer plan in my back pocket, knowing very well that a career in law would be a more practical — and respected — option.
But now, the Penn culture is having an effect on me. Yes, being a journalist or lawyer is one thing, but I also find myself thinking about the importance of financial success and stability. Yes, I’m a history major, but perhaps I can use that knowledge in a consulting career. I can enter a specialized industry such as consulting for museum exhibitions or use my obtained logic and research skills to aid me in other branches of the consulting industry.
Penn’s culture is rubbing off on me in other ways, too. Cognizant of the importance of social networking, I’m thinking about my Friday night plans instead of paying attention in recitation. I also began to apply to clubs that I wasn’t even interested in — and unsurprisingly wasn’t accepted to — simply to keep pace with other students. The pre-professional frenzy doesn’t all come naturally to me, but I understand why it's important.
To be clear, these changes to my mindset and preconceived ideas of the college experience are not necessarily negative ones, but they can promote poor mental health trends and create a trend of forced involvement in unwanted activities. It is therefore imperative to take the competitive social and academic scenes at Penn with a grain of salt. Even if I had known about Penn’s somewhat cutthroat and pre-professional culture before arriving here, it would not have changed my decision to be a Quaker. One’s Penn experience is shaped by their ambitions, choices, and proclivities. For me, Penn has opened my eyes, encouraged me to think beyond my norms, and allowed me to develop personally and as a member of our community.
It’s important to begin college, especially at Penn, with an open mind. I am living comparably to Rory Gilmore at Yale University, but with a few tweaks that make my experience both very me, and very Penn. I’m far away from home, but have established friendships and connections with people from all points of the globe, a privilege I never had in my primary years. And I am considering more life paths than ever before. Who knows, maybe a career in consulting is in the cards after all.