I’m Almost a Junior and Still Learning How to Adjust to College

It’s the summer before your freshman year at Penn, and all you can think about is what is to come: new friends, new relationships, exciting club experiences, interesting classes, the atmosphere of the city, and so on — a tidal wave of excitement and an endless stream of hope and imagination. This was the situation I found myself in. I was ready to take on a place nobody from my hometown has ever gone, ready to break through the negative stigmas of leaving my home state of West Virginia, and ready to take full advantage of all that Penn has to offer — whether it be through joining clubs, engaging myself in campus life, or finding belonging in my surrounding community. What I quickly learned was that for me, none of it came easy...and it still does not come easy. It is an individual process I am still learning how to navigate at the closure of my sophomore year.

Prior to my freshman year, I was very fortunate to establish many friendships through a summer program formatted to ease the adjustment for FGLI (First Generation/Low-Income) students, most of underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds, into an Ivy League education. This helped introduce me to a community of students I could relate to - a community I did not realize would become so vital to my college experience until I faced the reality of Penn and its entire student population.

As soon as classes began, I  felt like I didn’t belong. This was for many reasons: the frail background of my public education in comparison to Penn, my low socioeconomic status in comparison to the average student here, and a general discomfort I held within myself. In an attempt to feel like I fit in, I began attending club meetings, signing up for numerous newsletters, and engaging myself in my surrounding atmosphere — hyperfocusing on my heavy involvement in high school that I felt pressured to replicate here too.

I soon realized this sense of involvement would be impossible for me to balance while simultaneously trying to adjust to the heightened academic atmosphere and I found myself lost early on. My grades were low, I hated my classes, I quit every club I was a part of, my physical and mental health were deteriorating, and I felt like I was missing out on what a college experience should be. Luckily, I took steps to improve my work ethic; I began going to office hours, signing up for tutors, and meeting with my professors. This helped bring my grades up, and I shortly found a job to support myself financially in the high-cost environment of this school. However, even after finding financial and academic security, I was still left with an overall sense of misplacement and depression by the end of my freshman year, with zero club involvement due to the rigor of my classes and prioritization of my mental health. I had no interest in Greek Life, lacked genuine passion for any clubs, and if it wasn’t for the many close friendships I was fortunate to create throughout the year, I would have felt a complete sense of isolation.   

Now at the closure of my sophomore year, I can say I do feel like a part of my surrounding community. Not because of my engagement with student groups or holding a status of involvement on campus, but because of the sense of community I have created for myself. I have opened myself up to exploring the many features of Philadelphia, have spent more time in various areas on campus, engaged myself in new conversations, found what studying tactics work and don’t work for me, and have focused on spending time with the friends I have made. I have focused on activities that give me genuine enjoyment and on creating memories out of real experiences with real people in atmospheres I have naturally found myself in. I am living a life here for the sake of my own happiness and not for the sake of a resume. I am realizing it is okay to feel like I am not living up to the “Penn potential” given my FGLI status and West Virginia background.

I am still adjusting to the intensity of my environment and acknowledging that many of the issues I have faced are because of the rigor and pressure constantly surrounding me. I am prioritizing myself, my health, and the experiences I can make with the people around me, which has given me an incredible sense of individuality and confidence within this collegiate setting. Finding an overall sense of belonging in an atmosphere created for the elite is one of many adjustments I am still making, and I have realized that adjusting is an ongoing and changing process. It’s okay to feel discomfort, as discomfort works as a tool in discovering more about yourself and your happiness in a stressful environment. I am proud of myself for discovering my inner strengths by working through the hardships I have faced, and I know these strengths will only grow stronger in my remaining two years here.