Penny Metchev has told the story many times before and on the surface it is primarily about her father. But as the Wharton and College senior prepares to enter her final semester as a Penn World Scholar, Metchev says she has come to realize that she will be the one to write the final chapter.
Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Metchev says the four years she has spent in the United States, and at Penn, have been an extension of a dream that began long before she was born—her father’s dream.
His name is Peter Metchev. He was born in a small village in Bulgaria and raised under the oppressive yolk of communist rule, his daughter explains. He studied engineering in college and was allowed to travel to West Germany for a work assignment, “but only under the careful watch of two government officials,” Penny Metchev says.
Determined to seek a better life, Peter Metchev concealed his passport and his college diploma under his shirt and jumped from a moving train as it rolled through what was then Yugoslavia. Alone and unsure who might be following him, Metchev made his way across the Austrian border.
“Over the next 18 months in Vienna, my father could hardly contact his family in Bulgaria, until one day, in the city center, he heard two women speaking Bulgarian,” Penny says. “He approached the women and asked if they’d take a letter to his family.”
They agreed, and told him to meet them at their house later in the evening. When Metchev arrived, he saw a large man with the women. He’d fallen into a trap. The two women were Bulgarian state informants and the man was there to take him back.
“He knew his only options were death or a labor camp,” Penny says. So, he asked to use the bathroom and escaped, once again, through the window. “Within days he applied to emigrate.”
Peter Metchev’s dream was to come to the United States, his daughter says. “Specifically Philadelphia, since it represented the birth of American democracy.”
He was, however, accepted into Australia and that is where he settled, starting out as a manual worker in a clothing manufacturing company owned by another immigrant family. Over the years Metchev married a fellow Bulgarian named Svetlana, became the father of two daughters and eventually became the owner of his own clothing manufacturing company.
Penny says while she and her younger sister, Margaret, grew up knowing the story of their father’s plight, they did not think it had much influence over their own lives.
“But now that I’ve had four years at Penn, I’ve had time to reflect on what it actually means to move to a different country. … I have a better understanding of what it takes to live away from your family and your country,” Penny says.
Despite her father’s dream to come to the United States, Penny says the decision to apply to an American college was all hers. And, she says, winding up in Philadelphia and at Penn, was “a bit of serendipity.”
During her senior year of high school, Penny says she stumbled upon a presentation being made by representatives of Penn and Brown one afternoon in the school auditorium. “I had a rehearsal there at 5 o’clock and I was milling around,” she recalls. “So, I just went in to the presentation, and I was blown away.”
The representative from Penn, in particular, captured her attention with talk about how the University encouraged students to pursue studies across academic disciplines.
“The Australian system is like the British system,” Penny says, explaining that high school seniors must select a narrow academic path to follow as university undergraduates. “There is really no such thing as liberal arts,” she says. “So, when this person from Penn said you could study any subject from any school, and that you could do extracurricular studies, it was too good to be true.”
She says in her home “there was a strong hope that my area of study would be law or medicine.” But Penny always loved learning new languages, liked learning about different cultures, enjoyed helping her father work in the clothing factory and wasn’t eager to leave behind the German she’d studied in high school.
“I took a brochure and I went home and told my mom that I wanted to apply,” she says. “Nobody took me seriously. It had never been discussed that I would ever study abroad, especially since Sydney University was only 20 minutes away.”
Penny applied and was accepted to the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, focusing on economics, advanced language training, international studies and liberal arts. But how would the family afford the tuition?
If you want to be at this school, and you can get in, they’ll make it happen."
“It was a moral thing with me,” Penny says. “My parents have worked so hard and did so much to get me through an expensive private high school that I couldn’t ask them to invest again everything they have.” She applied for as much financial aid as she could, unsure whether it would be enough.
Penny was selected to be a 2012 World Scholar and also was granted a scholarship established by Wharton alumnus and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy and his family.
“That’s why Penn is so great. If you want to be at this school, and you can get in, they’ll make it happen,” Penny says. “It was so nice to know that most of my tuition would be covered by financial aid.”
When Penny first arrived at Penn, her father made the trip with her. When it was time to leave her in her freshman dorm, Penny says he had tears in his eyes. “He said, ‘Go achieve what I could not. Be kind to people and never forget those who need help.’”
After graduation in May, Penny intends to remain in the United States, working at The Boston Consulting Group in Chicago. Then, after a few years, she says she’ll return to Australia “and work in the political sphere.” Maybe even run for national office.
Most of all, she says, she wants to one day be able to provide a scholarship to Penn for a future student like herself.
“It is the nicest gift I’ve ever received … the opportunities this education provides to you are once-in-a-lifetime … and it would be nice to be able to offer that to someone,” she says.
Originally published on December 15, 2011