Thursday, December 20, 2012

From ILC Alum Dyana So

At the Outskirts of an Epic Liminal Space

Going to college on the other side of the country has altered the way I’ve measured time -- both in the duration I’ve been away from home and in the remaining time I have left as an undergraduate student of the University of Pennsylvania. The latter part might sound a bit dramatic and out of place, especially coming from a freshman with still seven semesters waiting for her when she comes back from her first winter break, but to refer back to the theme of time, epiphanies could care less about adjusting to your schedule.

“It’s only just the beginning,” they tell her.

“Just wait until you dive deeper,” they caution.

And so she listened. She listened and by opening her ears to the wisdom and opinions of those surrounding her in such a vibrant academic and social community, she was able to draft a light map of her place on campus. It is not much of a map and it is also more sensitive to changes relative to those of her peers that already know they will be lawyers, doctors, nurses, and engineers after college. Even in its early stages, the blueprint is complicated, but at the very least, she has something to work from.

I admit that my first three weeks of college were largely unpleasant. I felt like I was wearing a really itchy and aesthetically displeasing sweater in the midst of celebrating happy times with friends and family. It was an unsettling feeling -- to get what you’ve wanted for so long but immediately question the emotions that followed -- and every morning I felt like I was waking up with more doubt than optimism. I became quieter, shyer, and uncertain as a result and that was so unlike me; it was unlike what I’ve always wanted for myself. I hate being out of character.

But that’s what most transitioning stages are like. Though they are inescapable, recurring motifs of life, there are two good things about them: (1) they getter better with time, and (2) they offer this chance to grow more as a person than you’d ever think you would.

I think things started to take a turn for the positive when all the good things began to align with one another. Familiar faces were turning into friends with full names, backgrounds, and memories of recent conversations and adventures. My schedule was finally becoming routine, my professors became less intimidating, and I began to recognize the person staring back at me in the mirror. She was more organized, more confident, and above all, happier. The daily obstacles and challenge never changed but I had changed in order to face them.

I’ve been away from home for about 5 months now but it certainly does not feel like it at all. Here at the University of Pennsylvania, it is a wonder just how many classes, meetings, events, casual get-togethers, and ‘Wawa Runs’ can fit into a span of twenty-four hours (notice how sleep was not included in this list). This campus is always alive with movement -- be it afternoons on weekdays when the artery of campus, Locust Walk, is crowded with people, or be it Van Pelt Library at midnight where you will find students getting coffee in between problem sets and papers. There’s no such thing as night and day here; work spills over the daily borders of PM and AM as casually for students here as exchanging greetings with classmates on your way to class.

I always assumed college was this four-year pitstop of life -- a temporary rest stop to learn about the world and ourselves and possibly pick up a map or two for more permanent stops in life -- but it is much more than I had ever conceived. It’s only been my first semester but I’ve never felt so happy to be alive, to be thinking and questioning, and to be away from home to experience another kind of ‘home’.

With four finals, thousands of pages read, and hundreds of people met, I look back on my first college semester very fondly. There were many areas I could have improved on but I admit that it is through making them that I’ve come to learn how to rewrite my wrongs. I have no regrets. I am so excited for the next semester to start. I love going to school at the University of Pennsylvania.

What I’ve Been Up To: A Brief Summary
I am currently a ℅ 2016 freshman in the College of Art and Sciences. I have not officially declared my major yet but I currently have my eyes set on a double major in Communications and in Fine Arts/English (whatever I gravitate more towards for my second major I hope to have the other option drop down as a minor). This fall semester I took a total of three classes -- ‘Introduction to International Relations’ with Prof. Mansfield, ‘Modern Chinese’ with Professor Shih, and ‘Integrated Studies’ with Professor Tresch, Ghrist, and Struck.

‘Integrated Studies’ is part of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program at Penn and the goal of this honor program is to challenge students from the College with an interdisciplinary curriculum that teaches students how to think instead of what to think. The week was broken down according to the disciplines and how they were being integrated. Mondays was Classical Studies, Tuesdays was Mathematics, Wednesdays was Intellectual History, Thursday was Integration, and Friday was recitation with our TAs. The 79 students who are enrolled in this class with me are also my hallmates in the Riepe Warwick residential building so this program cultivates both a stimulating and rich social experience.

Beyond academics, I am also a work study student for two cultural resource centers at Penn: the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH) and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transexual Center. I do graphic design for both and the experience has taught me a lot about working in a professional setting, the community that these centers support and advocate for. It has also introduced me to a lot of affiliated student groups on campus so I ended up feeling less excluded than I thought choosing to work over joining student groups would.

Every Sunday I take three hour kendo lessons (Japanese fencing) and when I can, I contribute photography to Penn’s very own campus fashion blog, SEEN on the WALK. Recently, I’ve been admitted into the Communications Within the Curriculum (CWiC) program at Penn, which trains its participants to be speaking coaches for other students at Penn, and I will begin training by this upcoming Spring semester.
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It’s incredible how much I’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom in these past four months. Among the life lessons I’ve come to learn for myself include the following three which I now adhere to faithfully:

Beat the Herd: Conforming was so High School
It’s easy to copy what those around you are doing, and being in a foreign place, you are further encouraged to do so because it feels ‘safe’. Knowing that what you’re doing ‘can’t possibly be wrong’ has its benefits, but college is the time to take chances and obtain a better knowledge of who you are. And when I say that, I mean it -- these four years will never be experienced in the same way again. Don’t waste it by repeating high school.

At Penn, the College of Arts and Sciences has the most flexible curriculum and pre-major advisors and upperclassmen truly encourage freshmen to make the most of it. Despite this, many freshmen share similar first semester schedules of math, writing seminar, language, and economics. While I agree that completing requirements early and continuing certain subjects from high school for continuity -- such as languages or math -- are good things to consider, something should also be said about finding the space to take a class for exploration.

Many schools give students until the end of their sophomore year to declare their major. How can you be so sure what you want to major in if you never took the time out to figure out what it is that you really have a passion for? Many people have more than one passion and many of them are untapped or have yet to be discovered. If you’re worried about running out of time to ‘do it all’, channel more energy to explore who you are rather than race the clock to fulfill requirements. Those requirements will get done, but the space to stretch the limits of your character narrows with every coming semester.

This goes the same for the non-academic activities you join in college. In high school, there’s always a side agenda to join clubs and groups because they look good on college applications. Don’t do that in college; challenge yourself to break away from the pressure to join what you think society will be impressed by and, instead, join what you honestly have an interest in. No group is ‘more important’ than another until you choose to rank them. Making the most of the organization you join instead of having the organization shape you says more about your character and this will naturally show when it comes time to recollect it during a job interview.

I am glad I pursued kendo instead of joining student government. I liked being politically active in high school but part of it had to do with growing into the culture (there were many times in the earlier stages that I questioned why I was even involved in the first place). I didn’t know much about kendo but I’ve always wanted to do a martial arts. By starting something with a genuine interest, I find it more rewarding as a general experience. Likewise, I am also am glad that I took the ‘Introduction to International Relations’ class instead of a writing seminar my first semester because it made me realize that I wasn’t as interested in pursuing an IR major as I originally thought. For those students who feel that they have too many interests, such as myself, it is progressive to narrow options by at least finding out what it is you don’t like.

Finding the Infinite in a Finite Space: Making the Most of What you Have
The PAACH office wasn’t always located in a tiny office space on the second floor of Houston Hall. It used to be in the Arch building -- easily accessible to students passing by the college green -- with large lounges for students to hang around in and for student groups to gather; now it was in a space smaller than my dorm room. Though I never had the chance to compare the old space with the current space (it is temporary since the Arch is being renovated), I’m familiar with the setbacks that come with relocation having work there for work study. At first I blamed the smaller space for limiting PAACH’s progress but now, I’ve come to see that such limits are really those we make for ourselves. Even within a finite space, there is room to grow infinitely.

This metaphor goes beyond the PAACH office (where the professional staff, other work study students, and I have really become creative with marketing and promotional strategies despite relocation); this metaphor has helped me make the most of my first semester. In my first four months of college, I have many ‘finite spaces’ -- I was a freshman, I had a lot of learning ahead of me, I wasn’t specialized in any major or career plans, and I was a work study student on work shifts. These were things I cannot change but I didn’t let them become excuses for not optimizing my full potential. Taking part in work study, for instance, was a social constraint. It was not much of a choice because I needed to make the most of my work study grant, but it did mean that I was willing to give up hours of my day to go to work instead of going to club meetings or hanging out with my new college friends. That was what I made myself believe for the first half of the semester until I started to look within my jobs for opportunities. Since doing that, I’ve met many students from affiliated student groups who have introduced me to opportunities -- cultural show auditions, overnight conventions, board elections, etc -- along the way.

I once thought work study would limit my networking opportunities when really, it has done quite the opposite. By making the most of what I had, by finding the infinite within the finite, I was able to reshape what I had to work from to create a situation that was best for me. As a freshman in college, there will always be limits, but rather than break them or wait on them, you should work with them. When you can’t change the system, change yourself.

Connection over Collection: Making Meaningful Friendships
It is the people that makes me enjoy college most and there is no community quite like one made of Penn people. Part of the reason I was able to get through the turbulence of my first three weeks of college was being around and talking with people -- people who were older, people who worked at Penn, and people who shared the same uncertainty and doubt I was feeling.

In college, it is not uncommon for people to see these four years as one long networking opportunity and when you go to a place like Penn, it’s a goldmine of talent and powerful connections. When I took ‘Studies of Grand Strategies’ at Yale, I read a book called Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferazzi. Back then, I thought the book was incredibly enlightening; it really made me look at the friendships I made in a different light -- in a profitable light. Granted, I’m sure that is not the core of Ferazzi’s argument, that you make all friendships with the intention of establishing some sort of intended connection, but so many people have those intentions in college.

College students are smart and when you attend school alongside Wharton students, it’s hard not to get sucked into seeing the world in terms of net-benefits and profitable markets (I sometimes catch myself using such metaphors actually). But in my humble opinion and experience thus far, one should not go about college with those intentions -- leave it for the business world that lies beyond your undergraduate years. When you approach people with genuity, in the same way you’d like others to approach you, the quality of the friendship is generally better and ultimately more meaningful.

This also eliminates the pressure of making friends narrowly. College is the time to really expand not only the size of your circle but also the quality of your circle. Some of the best connections I’ve made at Penn so far are with international students. I like that I interest them as much as they interest me. The differences in our culture brings us closer together and both sides come out mutually more informed  as a result.
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With all this being said, it’s also important to remember not to wear any more masks in college. What I’ve definitely noticed about myself compared to who I was back in high school was that I’m happier now because I’ve embraced who I am.  High school culture can be suffocating with all those ‘labels’ and ‘race to the top’ mentality. College, while still very competitive and socially intimidating at times, can also be very empowering when you let your individuality grow. This goes back to the advice on avoiding conformity and making the most of what you have; it also goes back to the theme of time. There are four years allocated to learn in all imaginable directions and I do not intend on wasting any of mine.

Wing Tung (Dyana) So
College of Arts and Sciences
University of Pennsylvania c/o 2016

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