I remember the day I was admitted to Penn like it was yesterday (off the waitlist, I might add). I was home in China due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was four days before my high school graduation on Zoom. I breathed a sigh of relief as the sense of certainty settled in: I was finally going to have a normal college experience.

But who was I kidding? My friends and I were graduating from living rooms, cars, and socially-distanced football fields. People took to the streets around the world to advocate for racial justice. And the 2020 United States presidential election, one that was as long as it was mentally tormenting, was in full swing. We all yearned for normalcy, but nothing about our lives was normal.

While I had to begin my first year at Penn from my bedroom in China, I was determined to not let it diminish my experience. As such, over a Zoom meeting, I joined The Daily Pennsylvanian’s multimedia department. As a staffer, I took photos in corners of my world that had any miniscule resemblance to the writers’ experience in America. My first big assignment came when former photo editor Sukhmani Kaur asked me to stay up all night and edit photos as they rolled in on Election Day. What kind of first year gives up a night of sleep for a little club assignment? Not normal.

Though my journey at the DP started with me completing one assignment every two weeks, I would have never foreseen how it would come to define my time at Penn.

Being photo editor in 2022 allowed me to further see Penn through my camera lens. I skipped classes and meals to follow former Penn President Liz Magill to all corners of campus during the first 100 days of her tenure. I negotiated with the Secret Service to allow our own photography equipment into a campaign event with President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama. I drove a group of photographers home at 4 a.m. after Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Dr. Mehmet Oz’s respective election night parties. Normal? Hardly.

As president in 2023, I would go on to sign my name on the dotted line and initiate the purchase of a permanent home for the DP. Our team weathered a pivotal chapter in Penn’s history which culminated in the resignation of University leaders. In those months, I woke up to dozens of hate emails in my inbox every day, and our reporters worked around the clock to keep up with national news organizations which possessed more manpower and resources. 

One of the copy editors on the 139th board, Allyson Nelson, quipped of the news cycle at Penn as “when it rains, it pours.” As fun (and often exhausting) as it was to spend an ungodly amount of time in our infamously windowless office and eat countless Zesto’s pizzas, I also realized how abnormal of a collegiate experience it was. I was missing out on weeknight hangouts with friends, happy hours during restaurant week, formals, parties, and other archetypes of a “normal” college experience. For the first two and a half of my three in-person years, my friends have considerately learned to not schedule dinners with me on weeknights.

Not normal! (Shoutout to my friends for putting up with me).

Though as time went on, I grew to love the abnormality. Reporting taught me how to work with tight deadlines and competing priorities. Photographing protests showed me the importance of connecting with different communities. Leading a team through crises challenged my empathy, grit, and social consciousness. The abnormality presented me with a unique skill set and undoubtedly shaped my character. Above all, I loved how it strengthened my optimism and resilience.

Or maybe it’s because I loved giving people ridiculous reasons on why I cannot make lunch: “I HAVE TO go to the airport and photograph Air Force One.”

I am acutely aware of the fact that my sense of abnormality is not unique. In many ways, the normalcy the Class of 2024 yearned for at the start of our college years never arrived. While we no longer have to wear masks in classrooms or get swabbed twice a week in a giant air-ventilated tent, we are in the midst of another pivotal U.S. presidential election. We are having unprecedented discussions regarding First Amendment rights on college campuses, and our communities are feeling the inevitable ripples of conflicts across the world.

Rather than letting these challenges loom over our impending graduation, we should consider the opportunities that they present. We are uniquely positioned to speak out about issues close to our hearts, have constructive conversations on the most contentious topics of the day, and act to improve the community around us.

While the COVID-19 pandemic put in-person socializing on hold, we learned how to forge connections and friendships through screens. We saw the importance of becoming more self-educated and practicing our civic duties during the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 elections. Not since the civil rights movement and Vietnam anti-war protests of the 1960s has so much media attention been dedicated to college campuses across the country, and we must use what we learned from the abnormality of our college experience to rise up to the challenge.

Between our myriads of farewell toasts, I realize that what began as a quest for normalcy evolved into an embrace of abnormality. Our college graduation is hardly the ultimate epilogue; it is merely the cliffhanger to the rest of our lives. The abnormality we saw throughout our time in college will undoubtedly change the ways in which we can and will approach the world. So in all the ways we are celebrating the Class of 2024 this graduation season, here’s cheers to the abnormality that made us one of a kind.

JESSE ZHANG is a Wharton senior studying business economics and public policy and marketing from Shenzhen, China. He was president of the DP’s 139th board. His email is