“A year is a long time.”
That’s a phrase that my friends often echo back at me when I bring it up mid-conversation. As my exchange year at Penn comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being here for what is proportionally a very short period, but what to me has simultaneously felt like both a lifetime and an instant. But what I’ve realised is that by the time we reach the end of what is, for everyone, a relatively fleeting visit to Penn, most of us feel the exact same way.
When I was a first-year back in Edinburgh, my friend sent me this article by the late Marina Keegan, which she wrote upon leaving Yale shortly before her tragic death (and which you should absolutely read). She describes the sense of belonging she felt on campus as “the opposite of loneliness”, for lack of a better word. While I thought the article was beautiful and loved the concept, it wasn’t something I quite understood on an emotional level at the time.
Little did I know that that was exactly what I was subconsciously looking for when I applied to attend Penn almost two years ago. I understand now that what always drew me to American college was how the experience is so centred around community. We (or you, I suppose?) have a real pride in our institution, conveyed through school spirit events, excessive merch-wearing, sports fanaticism and more, which doesn’t exist at all in the United Kingdom aside from at Oxford or Cambridge. I wanted to feel like I was a part of that: the emphasis of my application essays was on making my mark here just as much as any normal student would.
But what I was worried about was that I would be limited by my temporary status as a “visitor,” and I wouldn’t be able to truly fit in with everyone who goes here full-time. Nonetheless, I soon realised that I needn’t have worried at all: just like all of my first-year and transfer compatriots, the Penn community has accepted me with open arms. The Daily Pennsylvanian, specifically, has been a source of so many incredible memories: from the thrill of seeing my articles in print, to donning a press pass to skip the lines and cover events, to simply debating issues on campus with the incredibly well-informed and diverse group of perspectives in the Opinion department. Between here and all of the friendships, classes and clubs I’ve been lucky to be involved with across campus, I truly feel that I’ve found my place here. All of us have. It’s been everything I’d hoped for.
Now, less than a year later, I get to experience the flipside to joining with the new students: wrapping up and preparing to leave alongside the graduating seniors. It’s a deeply bittersweet experience: final GBMs, new execs and senior send-offs, outgoing parties. Your final lecture. Your final paper or exam. Your last stroll down Locust Walk.
More than reflecting on my final interactions with what I’ve spent months or years taking for granted, I’ve found the oddest experience to be Quaker Days. Watching the fresh-faced class of 2027 come in and gaze in wonder at our campus, many of them for the first time, served as a stark reminder that my Penn experience is ending just as theirs begins, and that our paths here will never really cross.
Leaving Penn is equal parts daunting and exhilarating. But having spent so much time and effort cementing my place here, it’s disconcerting to me that come August, it’s simply going to move on without me. Nothing has ever made me feel more like a visitor than that.
Coming to terms with that process, though, has reminded me of just how much this place means to me. I wish I could argue to Marina Keegan now that to me, there is a word for the opposite of loneliness: connectedness. That’s what I’ve found, what we all find, at Penn. And no, I don’t just mean connections on LinkedIn: I mean that community which stretches far beyond our physical and temporal presence on campus (even if I don’t get to officially become an alumnus). It’ll be there every time we put on our P-sweaters or our Penn caps, every time we return for homecoming or with our families, every time we reminisce with our former peers, and every time we cheer when Princeton loses. It’s a tattoo on my heart that I will wear with pride wherever I go.
Everyone’s time to leave Penn eventually arrives, whether it’s after one year or four. But what’s truly important is that Penn doesn’t leave us: though our names may become forgotten on campus after a while, the memories that we forge, that feeling of connectedness that we find, persists forever. Though my year here has been more like an instant in the grand scheme, it's the impact it’s had on me that will be sure to last a lifetime.
To the class of 2023, my class of 2024, and all those who come after: cherish your, our, connectedness. It will be the greatest and most enduring part of your visit here.
Thank you for sharing it with me.
ALEX BAXTER is an outgoing junior on exchange from the University of Edinburgh studying politics, philosophy, and economics in the College. At the Daily Pennsylvanian, he served as an Opinion columnist and a Photo associate.