Throughout my first two years at the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve been confronted with challenges from two opposing fronts. The “Social Ivy” has lived up to its loaded name; the school’s cultural makeup teeters on the edge of two polarities. While most schools weigh considerably heavier on one side of the social-academic spectrum, Penn is smack dab in the middle. But Penn is not alone; plenty of other universities also provide students with both academic rigor and social stimulation. So, in the name of solidarity, for whomever this may resonate with, let’s try to understand the trademarks of this type of college culture, and how to survive in it.
Resisting the Polarities (or embracing them)
I want to preface this by saying, to each their own. Some people (like myself) love Penn for this dichotomy, while others resent it or struggle with it. For the latter, find your pole and stick to it; there is no harm in being a party girl with a work hard, party harder mentality, nor is it anything to be ashamed of if you fall into the work hard, play comes later category. Embracing your interests while disregarding peer pressure is incredibly difficult, so kudos to those of you who manage to do so. However, in my case, I want to thrive on both fronts. And what that means is resisting the polarities and maintaining a happy medium. The challenge in this is that as an ambitious student, I don’t want to simply coast; I want to excel in my classes. Figuring out how to excel academically while treating yourself to the social pleasures of an exciting and tempting college campus is much like forcing a toddler to eat dinner. You can have your chocolate fudge brownie, just finish that broccoli first.
Competitiveness, on two fronts
Students who strive for both academic and social success often share one characteristic in common: competitiveness. Competitiveness means that you crave an advantage over your fellow peers; academically, many of us are probably familiar with this. Just look at a professor who grades on a curve; do they know they’re pitting us against each other? The worse my fellow classmates do, the better I do, so why should I share my notes? Practicing this type of social behavior in the classroom is one thing we should all try to overcome. In my opinion, ambition is fine, great in fact, but getting ahead by suppressing the potential of others is unhealthy. Alternately, practicing this type of social behavior in social settings is both harder to recognize and harder to combat. When surrounded by people who seem to be striking the perfect balance (they aced the midterm and somehow managed to go out the weekend before), it is easy to compare yourself. The truth is, every person who strives to strike that balance faces difficulty; there is no perfect combination between late night dance parties and a lonely carrel in the library. Seek solidarity, not contrast; it’ll make studying easier when others are with you, resisting the loud music coming from a quarter-mile away. And for those who managed to make it to the source of said loud music, praise be upon them, because they either got their sh*t together faster than you did, or they’re going to fail next week's exam. You can be sure of one thing, though: their losses or gains are not your own. While comparing is unhealthy, it is almost impossible not to do. So worry about yourself, and by next week, maybe you’ll be the one dancing the night away while they spend a stellar evening in the dark depression of a silent library.
Smart Kids Can Get Down Too
This is probably my favorite thing about Penn: I am surrounded by people who challenge me in the classroom and interest me on the social scene. The same people who make thoughtful contributions to class discussions and open my mind to thinking in new ways might also be a part of a society that throws an outrageous late-night sweat-fest. Despite what some may think, those who attempt to strike the balance are rarely single-minded partygoers. On the contrary, they tend to be smart enough to balance two opposing pressures. Many are conscious of priorities, time-sensitive, and incredibly focused (with or without the aid of a little pill that starts with an “A”). Maintaining the balance requires a skill set exclusively gained when thrown into a culture of binaries, and I feel incredibly grateful to have (somewhat) acquired it. That being said, this loops into the competiveness anxieties that many of us face. Many students (myself included) procrastinate, have trouble focusing on a single task when so many other things are going on, and sometimes make the wrong choice (skip the day party to write a paper that isn’t really worth a large portion of your grade anyway, or spend a late night clubbing only to be greeted by a 9 a.m. presentation, in which you suffer a series of brain farts, puke in class, fake an anxiety attack, experience a real anxiety attack, or some other fun combination of humiliating indicators that no, you’re not hung over, you’re still drunk). Hey, nobody’s perfect—brace yourself for some epic f*ck-up’s.
Penn and other university cultures that tug their students in two directions are stressful, competitive, demanding, and exciting. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because I don’t know where else I would learn how to strike the balance. Life often pulls you in opposing directions, and maintaining a positive attitude that yes, we can bake our cake and eat it too, will lead us to great achievements and great failures. But I’d rather risk experiencing both than neither.