Some of the 2,451 members of the freshman class talk about the diverse paths that brought them to Penn.

By Susan Frith | Illustration by Phung Huynh

Gabriel Martín

From: Washington, D.C.
Penn Connection: He grew up listening to his grandfather, the Hon. Angel M. Martín W’39 WG’40, sing Penn songs while shaving and tell stories about a bar called Smokey Joe’s.
Biggest Change for Him: Attending school with women.
Interests: Plans to play intramural soccer; volunteer as a tour guide for Kite and Key; and write for Punch Bowl or The Daily Pennsylvanian
Major: Undecided

The Quadrangle room where Gabriel Martín’s grandfather used to live has now been turned into a study lounge. But each time the freshman passes through it, he can picture his grandfather gazing out into the Quad through his bay window at night. “He said he never stopped studying until he saw more than half the lights off, because that meant he was studying more than half the people at Penn.”

For Gabriel Martín, having a connection to Penn through his grandfather—a former Supreme Court judge in Puerto Rico, former president of the Penn Club of Puerto Rico, and recipient of the Alumni Award of Merit in 1960—has heightened his enjoyment of college life. “It’s a really good feeling to walk down the same paths, literally, that he walked down.”

Martín finds Penn’s social scene “fun” and “really well-balanced. If all you want to do is hang out with friends, that’s fine. If you want to go out to the frats and party, it’s OK. One of the kids I hang out with doesn’t drink at all, and he still comes out” to parties.

“The diversity is intense,” Martín adds. “A guy down my hall is from China, and across from him is a guy from Norway, and two doors down there [are students] from Singapore, Trinidad-Tobago, and Georgia. Everybody has their own story. The guy from Norway has been in the Army; he’s 20. And the guy from Georgia lived this summer for about a month out of his car, doing landscaping.”

But the biggest change for Martín—the graduate of an all boy’s Catholic high school—is the presence of women. “I made a comment one day in sociology and this other girl jumped at me. Nobody had the female perspective at my old school, so I think it’s extremely helpful.” Martín believes that single-sex schools create better friendships, and that’s one of the reasons he’s looking for a fraternity to join. But he’s thinks the mix of students at Penn is great. “I don’t think when my grandfather was here they had that kind of diversity.”

Bari Spielfogel

From: Jericho, N.Y.
High School Accomplishment: Inventor of Busguard, to prevent sleeping children from being left on school buses.
Major: Computer and systems 
Interests: Club basketball.

Bari Spielfogel kept hearing news stories about sleeping children being accidentally left on school buses. So for a science fair in 10th grade, she decided to build a device to keep young snoozers safe. 

Working with a mentor from the New York Institute of Technology, Spielfogel studied electrical engineering as well as computer programming as she developed her project. Called Busguard, it uses infrared beams to detect when a student boards or exits a bus. A computer program then counts people getting on or off, and a display near the driver indicates the number on the bus at any given time. “At the end of the route,” Spielfogel explains, “if it’s not zero, then the bus driver knows there’s somebody who got on and didn’t get off.

“It was really good to learn at that level and be taught by a college professor starting in the tenth grade,” she says. “That’s what got me interested in engineering, and that’s why I applied to the Engineering School at Penn.”

Spielfogel worked with bus suppliers to try to make the device better than others already on the market. But because of time constraints, the project never went further. “If time permits,” she says, “I will definitely work on it” while at Penn.

Karla Zepeda

From: Grew up in Guatemala City; 
recently came from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Previous careers: Tourism magazine editor and radio broadcaster.
Why She’s Here: Before coming to Penn, she worked on a project to bridge the digital divide in two Honduran villages. “I want to learn skills so I can return to my country and finish what has been started there.” 
Potential Major: Possibly combining psychology with a business major.

“A kid from my country is not different than a kid in New York or London,” says Karla Zepeda of Honduras. “The difference is that they lack opportunities.” Before coming to Penn, Zepeda helped transform two isolated Honduran communities, San Ramón Centro and San Francisco, into “solar-net” villages through donations of solar panels and specially designed computers. Helping the Honduran government work with other organizations and companies, “We started many programs like distance education, telemedicine and microenterprises in those villages to improve their quality of life.” In the process, Zepeda says, “We discovered three kids that are really geniuses.”

But there is “so much to do” toward the goal of making those villages self-sustainable, she says. And that’s why Zepeda finds herself a freshman at Penn at the age of 23.

Zepeda went straight from high school in Guatemala, where she grew up, to the job market in Honduras, where she moved with her family. Showing up at a radio station one day to promote her boyfriend’s ska-music CD, her enthusiasm so impressed the manager that the station offered her a broadcasting job. “That was a challenge for me,” she says. “I’ve always been laidback and shy, more of a writing person, but I took the challenge. I had my own pop and rock music show, and I had to talk every two songs and be really prepared to say jokes and important things to keep everyone awake in their cars.” That job led to an offer to write for, and then edit, a tourism magazine—“a great challenge.”

But what brought Zepeda to Penn was another challenge. When her family returned to Honduras, her father became the minister of science and technology and started a project to bridge the digital divide in Honduras ( “I was fascinated and wanting to know more, and that was the way I got involved.” Zepeda helped with some of the logistics as well as translating Spanish and English during meetings, but was frustrated that she could not play a bigger role. That’s when I realized if only I had a degree in engineering or computer science or economics or some other field, I would actually be working on one of these projects.” 

Zepeda lives in a single room in Ware College House, citing her need for privacy, sleep, and study time. At 23, she believes she has the advantage of a few more years’ experience: “I’m organized and I know what I’m looking for. But in a way I feel I’m in the same ship [with other freshman] by being away from home and [making a] cultural adaptation.” 

Zepeda admits, for example, that she was thrown off by the unisex bathrooms on her floor. She came up with a compromise, putting a brick just inside the door, so the men on her hall would know when she was taking a shower and leave. “Every guy in that hall has been very respectful.”

Another thing that has helped her is forming friendships with others in her hall who live in single rooms. “We’ll call each other and ask, ‘How was your day?’” She’s also making plans with her boyfriend back home to chat “with a video camera on the Internet. Having his support to come here was incredible.”

Jacob Boyars

From: Silver Spring, Maryland.
Best Experience: Working last summer on a kibbutz in Israel’s Jordan Valley. “Though I’ve previously held jobs which required hard work, I came to love waking up early, working with my hands, getting dirty.”
Service: He is a member of a Chevra Kadisha, a group that prepares the dead for traditional Jewish burial.
Potential major: History and/or Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.
Favorite Class: A freshman seminar taught by Professor Robert Engs, which combines biography with history of the Gilded Age.

When Jacob Boyars was considering colleges, the presence of a large Orthodox Jewish community on Penn’s campus appealed to him. But when it came time to select a dorm, he consciously chose not to live in one of the high rises that has an Orthodox Jewish residential program.

“I figured if I decided to go to a secular university, it was kind of ridiculous to only associate with people who come from the same background as myself,” he says.

For Boyars, who deferred admission to Penn to spend a year in Israel, studying at a yeshiva and working on a kibbutz, that background also includes volunteering as a member of a Chevra Kadisha. “The job is one which the community needs done, and which few people are willing to do,” Boyars explains. “I am far from the best Jew in the world; far from the best Jew I can be. I feel that by taking part in this, I can carry out an awesome and grave responsibility, essentially helping someone to prepare for an important meeting for which he is unable to help prepare himself.”

The Chevra Kadisha, which translates, approximately, as “group of purity,” are those who carry out the requirements of Jewish law in preparing the dead for burial, Boyars says. “When someone requests a traditional Jewish burial, a group of four or five men (or women, if the deceased is a woman) from the available pool are assembled.” 

According to Boyars, “The job consists of cleaning the body, saving any dam nefesh (blood of life). The actual tahara (ritual purification) consists of pouring a certain volume of water in a constant stream, about three household buckets worth, while reciting the phrase tahor hu (‘he is pure’).” At that point, he explains, “the deceased is then dressed in shrouds, shards of broken pottery are placed on his eyes and mouth, and he is sprinkled with dirt from Mount Zion. The body is placed in an all-wood coffin.”

Throughout the process, the main concern is kavod ha’met(respect for the dead). “That means no extraneous talking, no passing things over the body, generally gentle treatment of the body, and attempting to keep his eyes and private parts covered at all times. 

“I started work with the Chevra Kadisha when I was in 10th, or possibly 11th grade,” Boyars says. “My father was a team leader, so by going with him those first few times I was able to ease into it pretty comfortably.” 

Easing into Penn has been another matter. From the 20-minute walk to reach kosher dining services to the party atmosphere that permeates the dorms, Boyars has encountered a number of differences from the life he grew up with in Silver Spring. 

“It sucks to be alone on Friday night, sitting in my suit and kipa, while everybody else is” out partying, he says. “For the first week, and now every Thursday through Saturday, everybody on my floor [in Hill College House] goes out and gets trashed. That’s all they can think of doing. I’m friends with some of them, and they’re cool people, but I’m fundamentally not into [the party scene]. 

“Deep down,” he adds, “everyone who got into Penn was a ‘tool’ in high school. Now that they’re here, they [say things like] ‘Dude, I have no idea what class I’m in. I was trashed, and I tried to go to sleep on a table … ’ If people are really like that, then okay, but they’re just putting on a show because of what they think other people will be impressed by.”

“The truth is,” he says, “I know I’ll stick it out” at Penn. It’s not the first time Boyars has immersed himself in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Before coming to Penn he spent about nine months learning in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, which “I concluded rather emphatically … was not my cup of tea. In spite of this, I stuck it out, learned a great deal, and more importantly formed some incredibly close relationships, both with other guys and the rabbis.”

Last summer, he went to work on a kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu; its members are Orthodox Jews who support the State of Israel and serve in the Israeli army. Boyars would rise at 4:15 a.m. to work in the date groves—pruning, planting, and laying irrigation lines—finishing before the worst heat of mid-afternoon. “I met some fantastically interesting people, and got to live in a world which most suburban-bred undergrads, even those with religious and educational backgrounds similar to mine, would never dream of,” he adds. 

Asked if he expects to return someday, Boyars says, “I feel a very strong personal connection with Israel. I feel it’s in a very precarious position in the world. So if I have the ability to help with that, I kind of have the responsibility to do so.” Boyars briefly touches upon the Middle East conflicts, then apologizes if he’s sounding “too political. In yeshiva I was the big leftist. I was arguing all the time. Here at Penn I was hoping I could be the Zionist. I’m disappointed I haven’t had any big arguments yet.”

Desirée Tunstall

From: Springfield, Virginia.
Pre-Penn Experience: Wrote speeches for a congressman.
Major: Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics.

Desirée Tunstall must have liked what she heard whenever she tuned in to the orations of U.S. Representative Bob Etheridge on C-SPAN. After all, during her junior-year internship with the North Carolina congressman, she wrote many of his speeches. “It was an exciting experience, listening to him talk and thinking, ‘I wrote that.’” Because Congressman Etheridge had a smaller staff, Tunstall explains, “I was given more responsibilities and tasks than I would have been given in a larger office. Towards the end I did pretty much all of the speechwriting, and I also did some legislative work.”

From that experience as well as internships she’s had in private law firms and participation on her high school’s model-judiciary team, Tunstall comes to Penn with “a serious interest in law and government.” She hopes to participate in Penn’s Pre-Law Mentoring Program, Black Student League, and a host of other campus organizations, “but my grades are the priority.”

“In terms of the social scene,” she says, “I don’t drink, first of all. So most of the parties here I’m not really interested in, and I don’t go. Or [my friends and I] will do what we call ‘taking a walk.’ We’ll walk over there [to the fraternities] and walk back.” 

Tunstall says she has bonded with many of the residents in DuBois College House, where she lives. “It’s like a small community, and there are lots of activities such as house meetings and Sunday brunch.” And she has already begun training at the student TV station, where she’ll be helping with a “sports talk live” program—at first behind the scenes, and later, she hopes, in front of the camera.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Penn so far for her has been the opportunity to listen to campus visitors like linguist Noam Chomsky C’48 G’51 Gr’55 Hon’84 speak at Irvine Auditorium and take classes under individuals whose books she’s read or whose faces she’s seen on television. For example, Tunstall read Sociology Professor Douglas Massey’s American Apartheid over the summer; she has a class with him this semester. She also is eagerly awaiting a class that Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, will be teaching next semester. “I read his book, Holler if you Hear Me, and his biography of Martin Luther King. Then I saw him on BET. I thought, ‘Wow, he teaches here. That’s incredible.’”

George Cooper

From: Baltimore, Maryland.
Before Penn: In his junior year he started a research project in machine translation (the translation of text from one human language to another, using a computer).
Plans to Study: Cognitive science, specifically computational linguistics.
Penn Activities: University Choir. Practices conversational Spanish during meals and coffee hours in his dorm, Gregory Class of 1925 College House.
Favorite Class: Music theory, “for my own enlightenment. I’ve been playing piano for 10 years and singing for as long as I can remember with Maryland State Boy Choir. I wanted to get more theory training to understand what I’m [performing] better, and maybe even compose.”

As a high-school sophomore, George Cooper wondered why commercially marketed software programs that translated one language to another were not very good. Sometimes, for example, the verb and noun in a sentence might not agree. “Or if you tried to give it an idiom, it would give you a totally literal translation and not make sense.” So he set out to fix these problems. “Of course, when I started looking at it seriously, it was harder than it seemed at first sight.”

For a science project that year he wrote a computer program that did some very basic translation from English to Esperanto, an international language which is known for its simple and consistent grammar. “It was a success, but still below the level I’d seen in commercial packages for translation,” Cooper recalls. Still, it piqued his interest. “So when I was given an opportunity to do a research project in 11th grade, I was able to find a professor at Johns Hopkins University who was doing research in that area. He agreed to be my mentor for the project and gave me some reading on the kinds of grammar being used not only for machine translation, but other natural-language tasks such as speech recognition and search engines. 

“I essentially came up with my own way of parsing, taking a natural-language sentence and converting it into a hierarchical syntactic representation that a computer can deal with.” Cooper didn’t solve the problems that intrigue computational linguists, but his concerns should mesh well with those of scholars here.

“Here at Penn is the only large-scale research project in the U.S. involving the method of machine translation I studied, which uses Synchronous Tree Adjoining Grammars,” he says. “This project, known as XTAG, and one of the best linguistics programs in the country made Penn the natural choice for me. Now that I’m here, I’m about to start working on the XTAG system myself for work-study. I know I couldn’t have had this opportunity anywhere else.”

Paul Baker

From: Darnestown, Maryland.
High School Highlight: Started a free soccer camp for economically disadvantaged boys three years ago.
Major: Finance and international business.

“My mom, the guidance counselor at Watkins Mill Elementary School, told me that the kids there don’t play on sports teams, nor do they get a chance to go to sports camps over the summer,” says Paul Baker. “I thought running a soccer camp for the kids there would be a great idea. Being at a Jesuit school, a heavy emphasis is placed on giving back to the community.”

After convincing the school board to approve the camp, Baker solicited donations of equipment and asked some friends from school and from his club soccer team to coach. The last camp drew 50 players and 14 coaches. But Baker’s involvement with the school didn’t stop there. He also ran a winter clothing drive for the school and worked there as a “homework club” tutor.

Now that he’s at Wharton, Baker is studying, among other subjects, Mandarin Chinese. He hopes to study abroad in China and either work in that country after graduation or work here in the United States, focusing on Asian markets.

Lu Wang

From: Beijing.
Interests: Violin, Chinese calligraphy (won first prize in 10 calligraphy contests). Working as a reporter for the Beijing Student News Agency, she got to interview students, faculty, and visiting scientists at local high schools.
Accomplishment: Published a book in China about her travels abroad.
Potential Major: Media and communications.
Lives In: A single room in Stouffer College House. “I heard [that] to get a good roommate or a bad roommate, the chances are both 50 percent.”

Lu Wang studied constantly in her home city of Beijing. Then she went abroad to Italy for a year through an exchange program and was amazed at the free time students had to socialize and “do things on their own account.” Sometimes, she says, “if students don’t want to attend classes, they just go on strike. When they don’t prefer certain professors, they set Post-Its on the doors, saying, ‘Tomorrow for certain reasons, we don’t want to attend class.’”

Upon returning to China, Wang says, “I closed myself in my room for about two months, concentrating on writing and collecting the journals I wrote during my stay there.” She combined these with journals she wrote during earlier travels to Japan and Hong Kong. The finished product was a book entitled, A Girl Traveling Abroad, which she had published through an acquaintance of her mother, who works as a journalist. Several TV companies interviewed her about the book.

“I think most Chinese students are very interested to learn about other countries’ schools,” Wang says. “School in China is the whole life of students, whereas in Italy it is only one part of life. I didn’t stress which was better, which was worse. I just laid out all the facts and let the reader think and judge.”

In China, she believes, schools “restrict students’ interests.” But in Italy she felt there was too much leeway. “I think without certain rules, students will get crazy.” That’s why, Wang says, “I am very suited to Penn. Not only do I have the freedom to do certain things, I can see this school has certain rules which make sense.” She enjoys the flexibility in creating a schedule under Penn’s pilot curriculum, which reduces the number of course mandates in exchange for classes in four sectors of knowledge that cross disciplinary boundaries.

“Also, the professors here help you a little bit. They have office hours you can just come by and talk,” whereas in Italy she was told to ask questions only during class. And, she says, students can exchange ideas with their professors at Penn, “not just listening and following instructions.”

In China, Wang notes, most students her age remain single and are still very attached to their families, making important decisions with their guidance. Students in the United States seem to bring to college a broader array of experiences. Were it not for her previous travels, Wang believes she would have felt overwhelmed the first couple of days here. But she is more independent and knows how to make friends. “I don’t wait for someone else to know me.”

In the United States, she notes, “people seem to have very open friendships. This means you can very easily make a ‘hello friend,’ a friend to go out with, but it’s much more difficult to make a soul friend here,” she says. “Probably because I still haven’t overcome the language barrier, it’s hard to explain feelings. That’s why it can seem that a lot of Asian groups tend to be a unit—not because they’re not willing to accept different ideas, but because of the cultural background and language barriers.” 

One wonders if her time at Penn might inspire another book. Wang says she will wait until she knows more about the people and customs here. “If on the first day of arrival you record your feelings, then after one year or two, when you take it out [to read], you probably don’t agree with your first feelings,” she says. Over time, she adds, you will get used to a society’s customs “and know that society more profoundly.”

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