In my final column for The Daily Pennsylvanian as a Penn student earlier this year, I wrote about the connection Penn students and alumni have with one another, and how proud I was to feel accepted as a part of a community that I admired and, in a sense, idealised so much. But these past few weeks, what has scared and saddened me is that that unity and togetherness has been lost. Even from an ocean away, I’ve heard and seen accounts which contradict all that Penn stands for: tense and stand-offish demonstrations on campus and online, students and faculty being scared to speak out for fear of death threats or doxxing, and especially my Israeli, Arab, Muslim and Jewish friends feeling scared for their safety after a vicious spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism across the West. I have reached out to as many of them as I can to express my solidarity and empathy in a time that I can only imagine the difficulty of.
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“A year is a long time.”
As an exchange student from the UK, something that American students often mention to me, especially those who have visited Europe, is how impressed they are with our (or their, post-Brexit?) sense of style. We dress so much more fashionably, I’m told, with such a stronger sense of individuality — though they never say this about my style, which I’m attempting not to take personally. This wasn’t something I instantly noticed upon coming here: Europeans hardly dress for the runway, but we don’t exactly turn up to lectures in our pyjamas either. An interesting difference that I have picked up on, though, is that European students wear far less university, club, and employer merch. That small distinction is representative of a significant cultural gap.
The day I was accepted into Penn remains one of the most exciting days of my life; it was the culmination of years of work aimed at getting an exchange offer at one of the best schools in the United States and, indeed, the world. But while the thrill of coming here was incredible, the sobering financial reality of studying here quickly set in. I soon had to explain to my parents that, unlike my friends going to other U.S. schools who could live in private accommodations, I had no choice but to pay almost $12,000 (about $1300 a month) for Penn housing. The average rent at home sits at less than half of that. And, what was worse, there was a chance I’d have to share a bedroom, something that students rarely have to do in the U.K.
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As an exchange student here at Penn, I’m often asked by people here and at home about the differences between the United Kingdom and the United States. While I could get into a million minute details, my prime example is the so-called “bubble” which arches over Dunning-Cohen Champions Field at Penn Park, where I train with the Ultimate club twice a week. Penn’s capacity to put up such a structure for its students demonstrates the incredible calibre of the facilities here, the likes of which we simply don’t have in the United Kingdom. When I sent my family videos of the interior, they were astounded.
In January this year, Liz Magill was unanimously selected to be the president of Penn by the Board of Trustees. In her acceptance speech, she talked about building on a legacy of “making a difference” through “pragmatism, creativity, and humanity,” and expressed her desire to work with the whole Penn community to achieve that. The issue is, though, that that community isn’t who she answers to — instead, the only ones with any power over her are the Board of Trustees themselves, a detached group of alumni and bureaucrats who most of us students will never get to see or meet.
When the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death broke, I, along with Brits everywhere and seemingly half of the rest of the world, was rendered suddenly and surprisingly silent. The pre-planned obituaries and messages rolled out, sure, but in the moment, most of us were left stumped as we considered for the last time what the Queen really meant to us. The truth is, she represented so much more than a face on a throne. She was present on everyone’s TVs in her annual Christmas Day speech, and her memory lives all the way down to the few pound coins I still carry around in my pocket (just in case I need them — you never know), she was an untouchable leader and global icon.