Penn – the Social Ivy

I am amused to find a 1999 newspaper column (see below) that I wrote for The Daily Pennsylvanian preserved on the Harvard Crimson site. Did I write it at their request? Syndicate it? Damned if I remember but at least I can claim to have published at Harvard.

Joan Didion wrote: “We are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the poeople we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I don’t think I’d find my 19-year-old self attractive company. Her politics are non-existent and the jokes are toe-curling. (The Fresh Prince! Really?) But bless her, she had chutzpah.

In West Philadelphia, The Social Ivy

Welcome to the University of Pennsylvania.

If you want to find out about that state school with the good football team, you’re in the wrong place. But if you want a school that offers its undergraduates a vast array of academic opportunities; great sports teams (well, for the Ivy League); and a thriving metropolis (if you can call West Philly that), then read on.

Here’s an account of the good, the bad and the toast throwing to help you see if Ben Franklin’s university is the one for you.

Academic Life

Before you applied to Penn, you selected which of the four undergraduate schools you wanted to be a part of: Wharton School of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences, Engineering or Nursing. What you probably didn’t know is that when you chose a school you also chose your academic reputation for the next four years.

Wharton is the best undergraduate business school in the nation, and the Wharton students will never let anyone else forget it. From their building in the center of campus to their computer labs from which everyone else is banned, Whartonites spend four years looking down on everyone else on campus.

The college, often referred to as the College of Arts and Crafts, is the largest of the schools with departments in the liberal arts as well as the natural and life sciences. The college also offers very popular interdisciplinary majors, such as biological basis of behavior and politics, philosophy and economics. Some college students have an inferiority complex, because they do not have a clear professional path to follow after graduation. But most enjoy the flexibility the college offers.

Students in the school of engineering and applied sciences (SEAS) are not known to be the most fun-loving people on campus. If you see someone in the library on a weekend night, they are probably in SEAS.

Nursing is by the far the smallest of the four schools with only 80 students in each year. But nursing students have the highest average starting salary of the four schools.

No matter what school you are in, you will find that your classes are almost always taught by professors. The only classes that teaching assistant lead are some of the introductory foreign language courses and many of the writing courses.

Penn has its share of the huge lecture classes, too. If you take introduction to economics, psychology, biology or chemistry, expect to be in a class with hundreds of other. All of these big classes break into recitations once a week to discuss the material in a smaller setting.

You will also have the opportunity to take small classes of under 18 students, especially if you are in the college. It is not unusual to have dinner at the professor’s house once during the semester. Many students have found themselves at past Penn President Sheldon Hackney’s house after taking his seminar on America in the ’60s.

The one thing that students in all four school agree on is the problems with the advising system–or lack thereof. Although all students get an adviser in their school and then one in their major, many students feel that advisers exist largely to sign innumerable forms and to give unsolicited advice based on precisely no prior knowledge of one’s skills or goals.

Out of the Classroom

The place where you will learn the most is probably going to be your extracurricular activity.

You can join the oldest all-male college comedy troupe in the country, Mask and Wig, or one of our many a cappella groups. You can write for a daily newspaper or go skydiving with our outdoor clubs. Whatever you choose, you will find yourself and other students completely in charge of running organizations that are among the best in their respective field in the nation. And who cares if that means no sleep?

Many students complain that Penn is a completely apathetic campus. This school is not the type where you will find students having many protests. Penn students this year were the only ones in the Ivy League not to hold a rally about sweatshop labor.

But Penn students do get excited about some things, namely our football and basketball teams. After the third quarter of every football game, students sing a song which ends with the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.” Back in the day, Penn students used to drink alcohol after singing that line, but many years ago the administration clamped down on the practice. As a protest, Penn students threw actual toast on the field, and the tradition continues to this day. Many Penn students also spend a whole weekend in October camping out at the Palestra, our fabled sports arena, in order to get season basketball tickets.

After the football team clinched the Ivy League title this year, Penn students stormed the football field, tore down one of the goalposts, marched to the Schuykill River and threw it in. And students loyally followed the basketball team to Princeton to see them capture the Ivy title and then tore down the Tigers’ own nets. Some students even flew to Seattle to see the team play in the NCAA tournament.


Last year, Penn decided to create a “college house” system, so its dorms would feel more like communities. Dorms, or college houses, now have senior faculty living in them and many programs based in the residence. Many students say they don’t notice the difference with the new system, but it is too early to tell how these will pan out.

As a first-year, you likely want to be in one of the four college houses in the Quadrangle. About half of the students decide to move off-campus. But most of the off-campus housing is directly adjacent to campus, so even if you live there, you are still close to everything. Many upperclassmen who decide to stay on campus move to one of the three high rises, apartment-style college houses.

Social Life

They don’t call Penn the “social Ivy” for nothing. Come Friday and Saturday nights (and often Thursday nights, too), you will find Penn students leaving their work behind to find a good time.

Much of your social life during the beginning of your first year will center around fraternity parties with cheap beer and bad ’80s music. However, only a third of people at Penn are involved in the Greek system. Rush occurs in the spring, so you will already have a group of friends and a better idea of how you fit into the school before you have to decide about joining.

Penn students do not confine themselves to campus, but rather take advantage of all that Philadelphia has to offer: from attending concerts at the Electric Factory to dancing at the many downtown clubs to dining out at Restaurant Row. You can easily reach downtown using the subway system, SEPTA, or taxis. But we warned, SEPTA, is dirty, slow and not so safe to ride alone at night.

Penn is also home to Spring Fling, the biggest party on the East Coast (or so they say). This year, however, the University implemented a new alcohol policy that slowed down, but certainly did not stop, people form drinking. A committee is still reviewing the alcohol policy, so it is unclear how is will affect future years.

The ‘Hood

Perhaps Penn’s most famous feature is its location: West Philadelphia. Everyone has heard the stories about the threat the neighborhood and the neighbors pose to the safety of Penn students.

However, while West Philly certainly isn’t Hanover, N.H. or Ithaca, N.Y., it is not half as bad as it is made out to be. In the past few years, violent crime has dropped dramatically. There have been a few major incidents, including an assault in the fall, and there are always the nuisance crimes, such as panhandling and bike theft. But overall, students, including the large number that come from “sheltered suburbs across the country, feel safe.

By now, you have learned almost all there is know about Penn. (You’ll have to wait until you get here to find out about Naked Dash through the Quad.) If you are looking for a school situated among rolling green hills with students who spend their free time discussing Anna Karenina, Penn is not the place for you. But if you are looking for an urban environment with students who study hard and party hard, then head on over to West Philly. The Fresh Prince is waiting.

Writing & Responsibility

I’m writing a book called The Grown Up Guide to Running Away from Home. My motivation is not so much wanting to write a book but wanting to read a book. I am sick of newspapers, sick of nervous talk and general discontent. I know there are people who love their lives, who wake up happy and go about the day with a sense of purpose – and not because they have a mansion, or a perfect body, or a vast investment portfolio. I want to know their stories. That was the big idea: find people who choose, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, to “live deliberately.” Talk to them; write about them.

Two months in and GUG, as I call it, has already changed my life. How do people cope who don’t pry into the lives of inspiring strangers? I’ve talked to a woman who cycled 25,000 miles with her pre-teen sons; a teenager who has climbed the highest mountain on each continent; a man who turned his love of the Transcendentalists into a remarkable education programme; a woman who transformed her life through movement; another woman who, at 76, belies every stereotype of aging and literally runs around the world inspiring people to not give up on themselves.

I hoped to be inspired, but I didn’t realise how profoundly this book would affect me. More than once I’ve come to an interview with a sunken heart. Too tired, too glum, too wrapped up in my own head, too stressed, too apathetic, too ‘can’t be bothered.’ Every single time, as the interview begins to flow, my spirits lift. No two of my subjects are alike. Different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, nationalities. I wouldn’t necessarily invite them all to the same dinner party. Yet they have a collective wisdom. In different words, they repeat the same messages: be brave, cherish your life, love people, trust yourself, persist. They throw out lightning-bolt sentences and challenge my fixed ideas. I catch myself repeating their words and rereading my notes just for fun.

I feel privileged they are choosing to tell me their stories. And humbled. I have a responsibility to share their wisdom, kindness, generosity, insight and passion. I have to dig down and find words to express not just what these people do but how they make me feel. If I can do that, GUG will be the book I want to read.

Saying Goodbye to Books

It is surreal being in the flat where I used to live. I feel like a ghost haunting a life that might have been. The kitchen is new and the shower works properly now but my trainers are still in the closet, along with make-up, duty-free perfume, my nephew’s school pictures. My wedding dress is still swathed in the drycleaner’s plastic and hangs next to a striped Benetton button-down I wore to my last job interview. The dress I danced in at my wedding party is bundled into a bag, its gold, red, blue and green metallic threads still glint; it still fits. Memories so faded as to be half-dream suddenly come into focus: parties, dinners, nights that rolled into gritty-eyed mornings. Wisps of old emotion drift past like wisps of fog.

Dumping the trainers is easy, even the family snapshots. The grey suede boots in which I sashayed into a hundred clubs are busted open at the heels – they can go. I dump old diaries, mix CDs, a dress I wore to a funeral, prescription medication and out-dated copies of my CV. It is only the books that break my heart. The Complete Poems of WB Yeats – source of the lines I emailed my first love: “Wine comes in at the mouth/And love comes in at the eye;/That’s all we shall know for truth/Before we grow old and die./I lift the glass to my mouth,/I look at you, and I sigh.” The Sea, The Sea which I bought in a drunken Border’s binge after a Q Christmas lunch. What Maisie Knew, The House of Mirth, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, As I Lay Dying – a relic of my favourite university lit course. The clothbound Chekhov short story collection I bought in Mallorca, Andy’s Christmas present The Third Policeman, Kat’s: The Misfits. My childhood favourite A Summer in the South. The copy of Fear and Loathing in America I was reading when I moved to Ibiza. The offbeat Salinger editions I bought in a Dumbarton Road charity shop for £1 each. Confucius, Lao-Tse, Joan Didion, Homage to Catalonia, The Fight, The Moonstone, Songs of the Doomed. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Tycoon and A Diamond as Big as the Ritz – one of his worst short stories. Books I haven’t read yet: Cheri, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Social Construction of Reality, The Doors of Perception. Research tomes: Last Train to Memphis, Childhood and Society, Mystery Train and The Hidden Injuries of Class.

I want these books but I can’t keep them. These aren’t my bookshelves. It isn’t my flat. Even though the sequin top I wore to a long-ago DC10 closing is lying in the bottom of the wash-basket and my Van Gogh mug is in the kitchen cupboard. This could be my life. It just isn’t.