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"Choose Your Own Adventure"
The perfect college turns out to be two of them.
By Mary Harris
MY FIRST VISIT TO PENN was sandwiched between
Swarthmore's and Haverford's campus tours, during one of the hottest weekends
of 1994. By the time my father and I got to the admissions office, we
were already sweating and looking warily at the other members of our tour
group. I had begun to hate applying to college -- and I hadn't even filled
out an application yet.
Our tour guide managed to keep smiling for the entire
tour, telling us the sort of facts that one only learns on admission tours:
how many books there are in the library, why Hill House has a drawbridge
in front of it, who built College Hall. At Franklin Field, he paused dramatically,
then announced: "This is where you will spend the majority of your
time freshman year."
I shot my dad an "I am not going to apply here"
I didn't. Not that year, at least. A new city, a sprawling
campus, and the intimidating prospect of more than 2,000 new freshmen
were enough to keep me away. I'm a suburban kid from a relatively small
public high school -- and I'd always enjoyed writing for my high school
literary magazine more than watching the homecoming game.
After spending the month of April agonizing over where
I would attend school the next year, I chose a small women's college in
the Philadelphia suburbs. The campus was beautiful, the people were friendly,
and the student body was small.
At my new school, I threw myself into campus life.
I published poetry, I tutored inner-city kids, I sang in an a cappella
group. But after a year in a single-sex environment, I began to wonder
whether I was losing something by not including men in my college experience.
The suburbs began to feel too suburban. And the small-college atmosphere
began to feel stifling.
I decided that this time around, I wouldn't rule out
applying to Penn -- to the surprise of almost everyone I knew. Theories
about Penn and Penn students abounded at my tiny school, based mostly
on the opinions of the few women who would go into the city on weekends.
Everyone was a Greek. Students were mugged or shot on campus all the time.
The classes were easier. They had cheerleaders. But I slipped the
application in the mail, anyway. If my "perfect" first-choice
college could have flaws, I figured, Penn might just have advantages.
After getting in, I decided to visit campus one more
time. After two years of suburban seclusion and quiet dormitories, there
was something alluring about the city, the huge campus -- and even Franklin
Field. I knew if I didn't at least make a good-faith effort to change
schools, I'd regret it. I also knew that, entering as a junior, many of
my classmates would already have solidified groups of friends, not to
mention the fact that many of them would be abroad. Socially, I'd be a
freshman all over again.
I told my friends and family that I was taking a "year
abroad" Š in Philadelphia. Instead of withdrawing from college, I
took a leave of absence, meaning that I could return to my old school
whenever I wanted, without reapplying. In August, I headed to Penn for
Transfer Orientation and the beginning of classes.
"Year abroad," as it turns out, wasn't so
much of a misnomer. I went from a gothic, three-story dorm where the doors
were always open to a 24-flight high rise with security guards. It was
out with my old school's quaint tea parties, championship badminton team,
and May Day celebrations and in with frat parties, football, and Spring
Fling. Those first few weeks, I was a stranger in a very strange land
-- where I'd safely carved out a niche for myself at my former college,
I had to begin whittling new friendships and a new place for myself here
It was worth it. Penn isn't so strange anymore, and
once again I feel like a part of my campus. I withdrew from my first college
this past June, and have almost finished getting all of my credits transferred.
What I've learned from this experience is that I haven't
changed much. I still prefer writing to football games -- but that doesn't
mean that I don't like throwing toast on Franklin Field. At Penn I can
choose not to go to the football games -- but at my old school, I didn't
have that choice. Besides, there are plenty of Penn students who don't
care one bit whether the Quakers are the Ivy League champs. No one college
could have provided me with the elusive "perfect" college experience
-- what I thought was right for me when I graduated high school turned
out not to be what was right for me two years later. What some of my friends
have considered a "piecemeal" college life has been what I prefer
to call "Choose Your Own Adventure."
The night I arrived on Penn's campus I ordered carry-out
Chinese food; my fortune cookie read, "Now is a good time to try
something new." I still have that fortune -- it's still a good time
to try something new. Next year I'll be in yet another environment, maybe
law school, maybe graduate school, maybe the workforce. I can't wait.
C'98, is a senior psychology major from Bethesda, Maryland. She is the
features editor of 34th Street magazine and a University Scholar.
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1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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