Reflections on Penn

I’ve been attending classes for nearly three weeks here at the University of Pennsylvania, and in this short month I have already experienced many aspects of college life: meeting new people, making new friends, learning new things, trying new things, seeing new places, and so on… (This post was originally drafted in September 2011 but has been revised for December 2011; the new intro follows.)

Update (January 28, 2012): I’ve decided to remove password protection from this post and open it up to the world.

Update (December 2014): I’ve updated some of the campus photos, added links, and updated the objective factual statistics.

I just completed my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania. The past three months have brought me many joys: new friends, new experiences, and new knowledge. It’s been a rollercoaster of sorts—the cycles of stress due to impending exams, strange sleeping patterns, and a litany of decisions from picking courses to prioritizing assignments. It has been, however, rewarding.

College Hall, College Green, University of Pennsylvania

For those who have not yet left the warmth and comfort of a family home, the most important thing to know is that university life is quite unlike high school life. (You probably knew that already, but I wanted to confirm it nevertheless.) Yes, there will still be classes with people you know, but lectures are much bigger, and it is entirely possible that TAs and professors will grade your papers/tests without ever meeting you face to face. Of course, university life is also different in that you will be running your own life. I’ll elaborate on this later.

For those who are experiencing university for the first time as well, it will be interesting to compare your experiences to mine. Every university has its own unique atmosphere, level of academic rigour, diversity of students, breadth of opportunities, and social climate. Of course, there are some common traits, such as students’ immense freedom, increased responsibilities (not only in time management, but in eating well, shopping for basic living needs, doing laundry, etc).

To anyone who is reading this post, I want to make it clear that anything subjective I write is only my personal opinion. My perception of Penn, or of college life, may differ significantly from that of someone else in a different social circle, program of study, or undergraduate school; it may also differ from that of someone who is living a (virtually) identical life. Even if I am experiencing something joyful at Penn, I cannot guarantee that you would make the same conclusions after the same experiences. The same goes for anything I complain about. Still, this post will contain objective information about the educational experience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania

Notice of Americanism: I will use the term ‘college’ to refer to four-year institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania, interchangeably with the term ‘university.’ Don’t let this confuse you, my non-American reader.

Let’s jump right into how I feel about life at university in general.

College Life in General, and Independence

Hanging out with friends. Finding a solitary spot in a silent location to read. Grabbing breakfast on the go. Running across campus between classes. Studying together for an impending midterm. Going downtown to shop. Attending a show by various campus performing arts groups. Doing laundry—and rushing to catch the washing machine before someone else claims it. Sleeping after 3 a.m. Learning to deal with loud neighbours.

Those are just some of the things that seem to define college life. There is so much flexibility and freedom that students must take advantage of, which, of course, come with a great burden of responsibility. There is no longer a parent looking over my shoulder, telling me to sleep, calling me downstairs to dinner, or worrying if my whereabouts are unknown during the wee hours of the night. Meeting with friends is a decision to be made on my own; there is no one to consult anymore.

I enjoy this kind of lifestyle. Many high school students seek the sort of independence that living on their own provides. Going to school very far from home certainly adds to that aspect of independence. It’s also different, I would surmise, even for those who are accustomed to life at a boarding school, since there are few boundaries or rules enforced by the institution with regards to a student’s personal life and activities.

College: sleep, social life, good grades. Pick two.
A very real problem for college students—at least, those who care.

It’s important, as an independent young adult, to balance my priorities, just as it is for all others undergoing post-secondary education. College life invariably means some mixture of academic work with extracurricular involvement and socializing. Sleep is in the list of three things to pick from mostly because it is a biological necessity. At times, it truly takes effort to complete a lab report, write an essay for Intro to Bioengineering, prepare for a physics quiz, and get enough sleep (but not too much, since the lab starts at 9 in the morning)—all in one night.

Academics at Penn

That brings us to the academics. Penn is, of course, an Ivy League peer, and has a reputation built on its standards, in addition to its opportunities. (That’s not to suggest that other universities, such as Stanford, MIT, Duke, Chicago, or Berkeley, do not match or exceed us in their own ways.)

The University of Pennsylvania offers a full range of programs, from the oft-ridiculed Communications major in the College of Arts and Sciences (henceforth “College” with a capital C) or the Finance concentration that might as well become Wharton’s core curriculum, to the typical pre-med Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB) major with an 88% med school acceptance rate, to such competitive cross-school dual degree programs such as the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology (M&T), the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, and the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management (Vagelos LSM). Penn’s most heavily burdened (you might say overworked) students are often found in M&T, the Vagelos Scholars Program in Molecular Life Sciences (Vagelos MLS), and the dual-degree program in Nursing and Health Care Management. Then there’s the new Integrated Studies program, in which students live together and learn to approach problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, just like the polymaths of the Renaissance.

Greek Literature with Peter Struck, University of Pennsylvania

Penn provides the opportunities for a motivated student to learn to his or her heart’s content. There’s also a great amount of flexibility to take classes in other undergraduate schools. For instance, although I am enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (henceforth “SEAS” or “Engineering”), I am taking a macroeconomics course in the College, a statistics course and an accounting course in Wharton next semester. Strong undergraduates are also able to take graduate-level (e.g. MBA or Master’s) classes with approval. Benjamin Franklin Seminars, too, provide enrichment at a level unusual for undergraduate education.

None of this, however, means that classes are insurmountable. 4.0 GPAs are, at least through the first year or two, achievable—and in tough classes, too. Due to the holistic admissions process, the student body is diverse enough to comprise individuals who are, variously, strong in academics (96% of students were in the top decile of their class in high school), leadership, or athletics (and not necessarily all of the above). The grading policies, which usually grant grades on a curve, also account for variations in difficulty across sections and courses. Consequently, the “true” academic stars—especially those who find little trouble adjusting to university—will continue to receive top grades, even if they elect to take Honours classes or place out using AP credit. (Students whose marks in high school were inflated, or who are valuable to the university community for reasons other than academic excellence, may be disappointed to learn of their actual achievement at Penn.)

Wharton classroom in Huntsman Hall

While Penn lacks the kind of core curriculum that other institutions such as Columbia, Duke, and Chicago have embraced, each of the undergraduate schools at Penn (College, Engineering, Wharton, Nursing) has designed common requirements that encourage a balanced education. All freshmen must take a writing seminar. Most undergrads, except those in Engineering, have a foreign language requirement as well. Wharton freshmen take a portfolio of classes across departments so that they can sample the various concentrations before focusing their path. College students have General Education requirements such as Formal Reasoning & Analysis to build a reasonable liberal arts foundation. Engineering majors also need to fulfill Social Science and Humanities requirements, including a depth requirement in one specific field.

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania
Fisher Fine Arts Library

Academic Support & Resources

I’ll just summarize some of the amazing resources that we have access to:

  • A tremendous library system, with interlibrary loans within the entire Ivy League + MIT, Chicago (as of 2013), Johns Hopkins (as of 2014) as well as another exchange with colleges in the neighbouring Pennsylvania region
    • Thorough access to online scholarly databases, electronic guidebooks and collections
    • Study spaces that can be reserved for group collaboration in all of the libraries, many College Houses, and some buildings where classes are held (notably Jon M. Huntsman Hall)
    • Powerful computing hardware and software, with multimedia suites and even rooms for film/audio editing
  • Countless free tutoring services for students who need help and a centre for learning resources and learning disabilities, another for writing, etc etc etc…
  • Professors, many of them enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their fields of teaching and research, who are directly accessible during office hours
  • A center for undergraduate research to connect students with such enrichment opportunities
  • Academic enrichment in College Houses through residential programs and coordinated activities (for example, certain professors who live in Ware College House help students with paper-writing)
  • Faculty advisors and peer mentors who guide students through course/curriculum planning—some are unhelpful, but my faculty advisor is knowledgeable and amazing
  • Study-abroad and exchange programs to broaden students’ perspectives
  • An office for career services to assist with career planning, graduate admissions, and employment search—from the time of matriculation to the end of an alumnus’s life

Sound like an ad? This isn’t meant to be; I’ve personally seen and/or used many of these resources. When a university is this great, students like me become their best salespeople.

Common Data Set graduation rate: 96%

Student-to-faculty ratio: 6:1 5:1 (as of Dec 2014!)

To put it succinctly, if you are a high school student with your sights set on elite American universities, do not dismiss the University of Pennsylvania.

Living & Social Life

Quadrangle, University of Pennsylvania
The Quad

“Okay, I get it,” you say. “Penn is a great school. But I don’t want my four years just to be about my education—I want to meet people and have fun too!”

You’re reading the right post.

The student population at Penn is diverse. Some people excel at certain academic areas, while others have non-academic skills in networking or community service. Some are boundlessly passionate about politics, while others might focus their passion on computing and technology, and yet others choose music and the arts. Some come from Philadelphia, while others hail from halfway across the globe. Some are the first in their families to go to college, while others are the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, or professors. Some receive federal Pell Grants and Penn’s generous no-loan financial aid, while others’ families pay tuition and fees in full. Some are staunch atheists, while others are devout Christians; yet others make up a large Jewish population. While we each seek out friends with whom we share commonalities, we also learn to appreciate them for their differences.

Ware College House, 2014-2015

In my first semester, I realized how much I loved my College House. For those of you who are unaware, Penn’s residence system isn’t just a bunch of dorms and buildings; immense communities exist within them, and they are often freshmen’s first place to make friends. Residential programs, such as the Study of Infectious Diseases floor in Ware (in which I currently reside), create clusters of like-minded individuals who have common interests and who take part in enrichment activities. Study breaks, hall brunches, house dinners, orchestra/ballet outings… all serve to foster student communities that are inextricably linked with the faculty of the House.

Ware College House and the Lower Quad
Ware College House: this is where I live.

Stepping outside the safe haven of the Quad, one finds 468 student organizations (at the time of initial publication; as of Dec 2014, there are 560 registered with the Office of Student Affairs), with clubs for people of every background and interest. Ethnic groups, faith-based groups, performing arts groups, student government groups, civic groups, publications, LGBT groups… the list goes on and on. Those who are so inclined may party with the fraternities and sororities and pledge starting in the spring of freshman year. Those who don’t crave these groups will still build their own friend groups out of shared interests and existing friendships; I know my friends and I are totally capable of enjoying ourselves on our own.

The Penn Band with President Amy Gutmann, during NSO 2012

Alcohol and drugs are, like at any other university, a part of some students’ lives. (Alcohol more so than drugs.) One might even say that it’s part of the act of networking. Even aside from frat parties, clubs usually have casual BYOs at restaurants, creating chances for students to socialize in a different kind of atmosphere. It speaks volumes, however, that students take part in mandatory alcohol/substance education prior to freshman year, and those who choose not to partake in these activities are in no means obligated to; there is no widespread campus culture of substance abuse. Although underage drinking is illegal, the university seeks to rehabilitate rather than punish students who do so. Disciplinary action for underage drinking in the College Houses usually consists of a mandatory session with a trained counsellor, and rarely progresses much further. A liberal medical amnesty policy ensures students’ safety and health above all concerns of disciplinary responses.

If you want something to do aside from student clubs, house activities, parties, and BYOs, there’s always downtown Philadelphia (Center City) a few subway or trolley stops away. Restaurants, malls, the orchestra and ballet, and classy as well as quirky shops can all be located on the other side of the river. If you like to play sports, Penn Park was recently built and boasts tennis courts, soccer and baseball fields… not to mention the picnic area.

Center City Philadelphia, as seen over Penn Park
Penn Park, with Center City Philadelphia in the background

What does all this mean?

Allow me to be blunt and straightforward:

I have greatly enjoyed my first semester at Penn, and cannot wait to see what the next three and a half years will bring.

If you are a student in high school, I want you to come to Penn. I don’t know what effect this post will have had on you, but I hope you get the idea: I love it here. I think you would, too.

Back in the days before I applied to Penn, I posted about the 5 best university admissions videos. If nothing else, I implore you at least to take a look at Penn’s.

This last video isn’t targeted to admissions, but it also captures the university in film.

Happy New Year’s, everyone.

  • Frederick J. Ding

One Reply to “Reflections on Penn”

  1. I visited the UPenn campus earlier this year (I’m a sophomore) and I absolutely loved the place as soon as I visited and talked to some students. After reading your post, GAHHH I want to go!!!!!!! I’ve even started requesting the library to buy books written by professors and faculty members. Please post more on student life! I really want to know more about how the place really is!

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