World-renowned for its quality of education and notable alumni, Penn is deemed among the top universities for both undergraduate and graduate students alike, and it can be said that the Wharton School plays a considerable role in its prestige. For the same reason that former President Donald Trump did not waste any opportunity throughout his presidential campaigns, speeches, and interviews to mention his Wharton education, with fewer references to the University as a whole, many students can likely attest to the fact that Penn’s business school tends to receive a disproportionate amount of attention as compared to its other schools.
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Over the summer, I decided against a jog in Hudson River Park after reading that Manhattan was engulfed in an intense heat wave, with temperatures rising to what forecasters estimated felt like 105 degrees Fahrenheit. And three weeks ago, Penn canceled all university operations, including classes, due to flooding from Hurricane Ida. For the most part, this is frankly the extent of my experience with climate change. It appears in headlines, and when this crisis does land on my doorstep, it is limited to minor inconveniences rather than calamities.
With the return to nearly pre-pandemic conditions this semester, the thought of on-campus life elicits genuine enthusiasm for what is to come, including offline lectures, more vibrant in-person gatherings, and even lighthearted conversations with friends as we walk to and from classes. In spite of this eagerness to experience college in its full capacity, a part of me cannot help but look back on last spring somewhat nostalgically. The pandemic allowed us to wake up minutes before class and fall right back into the comfort of our beds as soon as the hour was over. It meant a markedly less rigorous workload, an awakening to some simpler pleasures that came with alone time, an escape from constant surveillance.
What it means to be patriotic is to take pride in the nation’s complex history and love thy country for where it is today. For Americans, this means alignment with the age-old ideals of the Great Experiment and acknowledgement that, in spite of the United States’ past and current shortcomings, we have come so far politically, economically, and socially. Every Fourth of July, we are reminded of our country’s greatness: only 250 years after our independence from a tyrannical monarchy, we have been exalted to global supremacy. Often seeded in this nationalist sentiment, however, is the folly of American exceptionalism — the idea that whether it be due to geographic advantages or the illustriousness of our founding documents, the United States was destined to rise above all others and remain in this position of eminence.
In June 2020, Penn joined countless universities nationwide in a decision to make standardized testing optional for the Class of 2025. Considering that the pandemic placed financial strain on numerous households, gave rise to unforeseen health-related issues, and prevented students from accessing testing centers, universities in the United States were correct in waiving this requirement. However, a number of universities — including Penn — have extended this test-optional policy for next year’s admission cycle, and others have taken this opportunity to make the SAT and ACT permanently optional. This might actually hurt students rather than help: once COVID-19 is behind us, Penn should revert to its previous mandatory testing requirement. Standardized testing should remain an integral part of the way universities evaluate applicants.
With nearly 3 million vaccine doses administered per day in the US, we are growing more optimistic than ever that this troubled episode of our lives will soon be behind us. Indoor gatherings are slowly becoming more socially acceptable. Universities across the nation, including Penn, are resuming in-person instruction this August. And, contrary to the recommendations of public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, some states have even lifted mask mandates. For the most part, this gradual transition to a post-COVID-19 world has understandably been met by widespread enthusiasm. An inescapable feeling of pandemic fatigue is rendering people impatient, restless, and more eager than ever to gather in groups without stigma or the risk of contracting the virus. However, our desire for normalcy regrettably translates into a longing for the past, high anticipation for the future, and outright demonization of the present. I fear that we are too willing to put the pandemic behind us and risk abandoning some of its indispensable lessons.
In July, my sister left for Manhattan to start her new job, and for the first time in my life, I could not cast away the uneasy feeling that something serious could happen to her. A rise in COVID-19 cases, coupled with xenophobic rhetoric from the former President, had led to a significant spike in hate crimes toward Asian Americans, ranging from acid attacks to stabbing incidents. After what I had assumed was a gradual decline in such crimes, the recent death of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee only reaffirmed that people like my sister and I are not as welcome in this country as we had thought.
On Feb. 15, Provost Wendell Pritchett and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli announced that as part of the University’s Second Year Experience (SYE) program, second-year students will now be required to opt into on-campus dining plans. They also introduced a new dining plan, which will provide approximately 10 swipes per week, as a result of discussions with student focus groups. With this recent initiative, Penn has taken one step forward but many steps back. Under the guise of varying our options and taking measures that are in our best interests, the University is continually acting as a nanny state, unilaterally making decisions on behalf of the student body with no forewarning.
One day in 1929, a wealthy day trader exited his office building and went over to a shoe shine stand. He struck a conversation with the boy working the stand, who unexpectedly volunteered stock tips to the businessman. Surprised by this encounter, the day trader then returned to his office and immediately sold his holdings. As the story goes, one of the best sell signals is when a person off the street can tell you what stocks to buy.
Ever since word got out that first-year students have been violating Penn’s COVID-19 guidelines, I’ve had to set the record straight countless times: I was not at one of those parties. Just this past week, I was met with a frenzy of varied reactions to our so-called “not-so-quiet Quiet Period.” A professor sarcastically called me out in class for attending these social gatherings. An off-campus classmate fervently went on an Instagram tirade about our irresponsibility. And my parents called to remind me always to wear a mask — even when indoors — concerned that one week into the semester, we would already be sent home.
Last Wednesday, Anthropology professor Robert Schuyler participated in a Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) annual conference, where he used a Nazi gesture and phrase directed at another panelist. When University of York Ph.D. candidate Liz Quinlan, who was speaking about increasing the accessibility of the SHA, deemed Schuyler’s question not relevant to her presentation, he replied, “I’m sorry, but I have freedom of speech, and you’re not going to tell me it’s not the place to bring this up.” He then held his arm up in a Nazi salute and stated, “Sieg heil to you,” a victory slogan originally used by the Nazi Party and later adopted by white supremacists in the United States.
As a student living in Korea, I was offered the choice of taking a number of my classes asynchronously during the first week of the semester. For some international students, this was an easy decision to make. Asynchronous learning, after all, entails watching recorded lectures, often at 1.75x speed, without a substantial increase in workload compared to other students. Out of an unexplainable blend of ambition and guilt, however, I reluctantly decided to sabotage my sleep schedule in order to take synchronous classes. I figured that in the worst-case scenario, I could later bail and request offline instruction if things got too tiring.
Any passive politics enthusiast knows that the outcome of this election is as unpredictable as ever. With the issues of race relations, climate change, and COVID-19 on the line, this voting season will determine whether the nation can heal after months of conflict, not to mention whether the elected candidate can reorient the US down a path toward sustainability. Current polls anticipate that former Vice President Biden will come out on top, though one can never be sure. As we learned in 2016, a candidate who does not win the popular vote may still be inaugurated due to the electoral college. Whether the US people favor this institution is another question, however.