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Credit: Insia Haque

Walking down Locust Walk every day is one of the most universal experiences at Penn. Everyone knows what it feels like to be running late — embarrassingly half-rushing to get to class on time — or lingering by the compass to meet friends, or standing with a blaring speaker during a passing period handing out flyers for your club. Locust Walk is the heart of Penn and where I feel most connected to the larger student body. However, that feeling starts to dissipate as I get farther and farther from Locust. 

When I arrived at Penn around six months ago, I was surprised by the lack of a homogenous school culture. Yes, I’ve found camaraderie and community within classes, clubs, and individual friendships, but I often feel like those things are separate from the fact that I attend Penn. Perhaps over time, these experiences begin to meld into one cohesive sense of belonging. Yet I often reflect on how, as a first-year, Penn culture seems to revolve around the idea of being unique or differentiated from the pack, forcing students to seek out separate areas in which to build community. 

Penn Admissions says that each one of us is special for being handpicked to join our respective classes: in the class of 2027 admissions blog, they praised the applicants for their prowess, achievements, and talent.  However, I’ve found that this concept of implied specialness does not dissipate when we step onto campus. It’s common to see students noting that they attend Wharton rather than Penn in their Instagram bios, just so we know. If calculated, the admission rate to certain preprofessional clubs would certainly be lower than the most lauded universities. And oftentimes the greek life culture perpetuates the idea of an invisible social hierarchy.

During the first weeks of the year, I was disappointed by the hasty formation of cliques and an apparent overreliance on previous connections and friendships that had existed before Penn. The prevalence of exclusive, ticketed events enforced this social segregation. Even within days of arriving on campus, Penn students are faced with the decision, along with many others, to attend either a fraternity darty or the class photo on Franklin Field, creating a dynamic from the beginning that students must choose between Penn and other exclusive groups.

Now with the upcoming Spring Fling, students are choosing not to attend in favor of events unaffiliated with Penn. Not just because they don’t care for Metro Boomin’s music, but because for many, attending school-sponsored events is neither important nor meaningful, especially since this idea is reinforced as early as NSO.

Other aspects of Penn also appear to intentionally maintain a certain level of exclusivity that hinges on proving how special and one-of-a-kind you are. Club culture has spiraled out of control in that many of the preprofessional groups require rounds upon rounds of interviews, expecting their candidates to already be proficient in a field when they have only just stepped onto campus. The exclusivity of these clubs feeds into anxiety that you have to differentiate and market yourself as special to earn opportunities to learn and join extracurriculars. 

Moreover, the competitive preprofessional culture and crazed evolution of the job recruiting process at Penn inevitably play a role in this pervasive need for students to feel different from one another in spheres beyond just professional. But Penn, as an institution, also supports the concept that it is academically and socially beneficial to place individuality over that of shared values and collaboration. This is evident through Penn’s reputation, on campus and beyond. Students take it for fact and frequently describe Penn as preprofessional, competitive, and emphasize the work hard, play hard culture, so even if Penn’s administration does not concur with these descriptions, they are well-embedded within the general consensus of the student body.

Not to say that this is all a bad thing. Penn students are awarded a rare opportunity to carve out their own world at Penn without any restrictions or obligations. However, the risk is that — after the first few months of forging friendships and joining groups — students emerge feeling more allegiance to their team, fraternity, club, or undergraduate school than to Penn itself.

It is inevitable that each student here will use a different formula to make the most of their college years and will be fulfilled by different things. However, at the end of the day, we are all receiving a diploma from the University of Pennsylvania — and not the tens of other communities that we chose to be a part of. I wonder when we are no longer walking down Locust every day — constantly being reminded that we are part of a school with thousands of other students who lead distinguished and yet parallel lives — if we will attribute the community we felt to the small coalitions that we independently committed to or to Penn as an institution. Maybe over time, once we’ve graduated and left behind our college years, these coalitions will become synonymous with Penn in our minds. 

Nevertheless, I believe that Penn needs to make an increased effort to create tradition and community. Whether that be by enforcing more mandatory events for first years or a greater emphasis on positive communication with the entire community, students would benefit from knowing that we have more in common with our peers than the fact that we all walk down Locust everyday. 

ELIZA CARROLL is a College first year studying international relations and art history from Greenwich, Conn. Her email is