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” look.
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” … 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 at Penn.
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.
Mary Harris, C’98, is a senior psychology major from Bethesda, Maryland. She is the features editor of 34th Street magazine and a University Scholar.