The word unique gets thrown around a lot, but there’s really nothing else quite like the Penn Relays, which celebrated its 125th anniversary back in April. For some on campus, coming as it does as the school year is winding down, the Relays remains a bit of a mystery; for others it’s a cherished annual ritual. Some volunteers—who do the lion’s share in putting on the three-day “Carnival”—have been involved for decades, reserving time off from work for the event’s dates far in advance.
The 12,000 or so competitors range in age from middle-schoolers to centenarians and include the world’s elite in track and field. And the crowds converging on Franklin Field—from Philadelphia’s neighborhoods to the large, loyal, and loud contingent from Jamaica and other points near and far—come as close to filling the stands as anything does these days, or has since Penn’s pre-Ivy League era as a national football power.
In “Penn Relays at 125,” associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 sketches in the history of the event from its beginnings as a three-hour track meet held to open the brand-new Franklin Field and shares some highlights from this year’s milestone edition—an exceptional one for Penn, featuring a big win for the women’s track team in the distance medley relay in the Championship of America, the first time a women’s Ivy League team has taken that elite college event. The article also touches on some iconic moments—Jesse Owens winning multiple events months before the 1936 Olympics, Usain Bolt’s electrifying appearance in 2010—and memories from longtime volunteers, and goes behind the scenes to see how the “civilized chaos” that is the country’s oldest and largest track meet comes together and where it may be headed in the future.
In “Running the Show,” frequent contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 describes how Nkechi Okoro Carroll C’98 chased—and caught—her dream, making the transition from financial analyst to Hollywood writer and, from there, taking on the challenge of being the person in charge of a television program. The ranks of these “showrunners” are still largely white and male, and Carroll is one of the few women of color to have attained the position. As she continues her rise in Hollywood, Molly writes, Carroll has become a mentor to younger writers and is determined to broaden the types of roles that are represented and stories that get told on screen—and the people who are doing the telling.
Dave Zeitlin also reports on another significant anniversary—the 25-year history of the student group Natives at Penn (NAP), founded in 1994 as Six Directions—in “Native Pride.” He spoke with alumni who led the effort as students over the years to establish and grow the group and lays out the continuing efforts to celebrate and advance the Native American presence at Penn among faculty and staff as well as students. The article also engages with the nuances of representing Native Americans for students who don’t necessarily “look” Native or have a deep knowledge of their culture—a theme that is also taken up in this issue’s “Notes from the Undergrad” by College junior Samuel Yellowhorse Kesler. (Also of related note: “Old Penn” highlights Gladys Tantaquidgeon CCT’29, the first Native American student in Penn’s anthropology department.)
Many high school students—and, even more, their parents—dream of gaining admission to Penn and other elite colleges. Pursuing those dreams can sometimes take an ugly turn, in ways that range from accusations of favoritism of one kind or another in admissions to downright fraud as in the recent Operation Varsity Blues scandal or, here at Penn, the admission by former men’s basketball coach Jerome Allen W’09 that he accepted cash for using his influence to get a student admitted. Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87 weighs in on those issues and more in an interview with senior editor Trey Popp in “College Admissions in Crisis.”
We’ve written before about Dean Furda’s advice to families on the college-search process [“Five I’s, Four C’s, and the Right Road to College,” Jul|Aug 2014]. One of the troubling insights in the interview is a trend Furda has noticed toward a more belligerent attitude among disappointed parents and others about having another student take a place they regard as rightfully their child’s, and a concomitant rejection of the overall diversity goals behind the college admissions system.
Fortunately, some cooler heads are still prevailing. In another essay echoing a feature subject, Brandy Bergman Marshall C’94 writes, in “Alumni Voices,” of her admiration for and pride in her daughter, whose college path didn’t lead to Penn.
—John Prendergast C’80