FeatureNovember 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

The Dissidents

Penn’s brochures would have you believe that starting freshman year is like walking onto the set of some combination of “Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network,” and “A Beautiful Mind.” For many, disenchantment sets in as the classes are more boring and the people less thrilling than advertised. In the end, 97.3% of Penn’s freshman stay onboard, accepting these as inevitable facets of a stressful college life. But the remainder just can’t shake that disenchantment – roughly 30 students leave Penn every year, for various reasons. Below are 5 of their stories. [*Some of their names have been changed to preserve anonymity].

Darren Eggert* - Brown University

Wharton wasn’t what Darren Eggert had expected when he arrived at Penn — he found the curriculum dull. “It didn’t have the kind of pedagogical self–reflexivity that is incumbent upon a liberal education,” he says. Eggert was in awe that Wharton allowed students to graduate as subpar writers and didn’t necessarily require them to read books. The intellectualism Eggert so desperately sought was shot to the ground by a pre–professional ethos.

According to Eggert, one has few choices but to buy into the Wharton discourse. Eggert couldn’t get comfortable with Wharton’s morals, or lack thereof. He was uncomfortable being taught that the logic of hiring and firing was reducible to cost–benefit analysis. The ostentatious lifestyles of the pupils and graduates became other contributing factors in his disillusionment with Wharton and Penn. As Eggert grew more critical, he came to believe that there was no such thing as a self–skeptical Whartonite. He found the entire school to be nonsensical, filled with corporate buzz–words and without the academic milieu he had originally anticipated.

Eggert was also discouraged by how the Wharton mentality bled into the social life on campus. He thought that the Greek system in particular fostered an atmosphere of exclusivity, status and rank. He felt that frat life really did nothing for a person. “The kind of relationship you have in a frat is fake. It doesn’t move you, it doesn’t encourage you to grow, it’s just vapid,” he says. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t just hang out with whoever he wanted. Eggert found fraternity life to be anti–intellectual, and that it put up barriers to students’ empathetic development. He was frustrated that one either had to buy into Greek life or feel lonely.

Additionally, Penn’s spatial layout made it hard for Eggert to bring together his disparate friendships. A lack of congregational space (other than Greek houses) made Penn feel “centrifugal and disperse.” After being out of the social scene for awhile, Eggert decided he needed to transfer.

Now at Brown, Eggert is an independent concentrator in Political Theory. He’s pleased with the less stressful atmosphere. He admits his new home is definitely less glamourous, and that he misses Philadelphia and its music scene. Brown, however, has provided a new home for Eggert’s rampant intellectualism — one that allows him to pursue his academic and social interests free of the Wharton/Greek ethos.

Alissa Arnold - University of Southern California

A San Diego native, Alissa Arnold never anticipated the kind of elitist socializing she’d encounter on Penn’s campus. Arnold discovered within months that she definitely didn’t click with anyone here. The stereotype of a harsh East Coast personality was realized in the immature, inconsiderate girls she met — the kind she “wouldn’t even want to network with.”

Even the Greek system proved a major disappointment for Arnold. She was angered that pre–formed groups were already set up on campus. “Everyone’s dad worked for Goldman Sachs and everyone had been to the same Jewish summer camp in Maine,” she says.

Arnold also found that Penn’s faux–“Ivy League Prestige” was not reflective of the quality of school. She was disappointed by the teaching and campus community, but the lack of pride for Penn sports frustrated her the most. “Sweatshirt schools are your ideal college experience, but there really wasn’t pride aside from the name,” she says. She concluded that people were only proud to go to Penn because it was an Ivy.

Missing the SoCal sun and disillusioned with Penn, Arnold transferred to USC. She’s elated by the change, having found the people much more considerate and sociable. “People out here are more willing to talk to you and help you out. At Penn it was every man for himself. If you’re struggling in class, ‘I’m not going to help you.’ Common courtesies don’t exist. People are in their own world,” she says.

Now, Arnold feels she’s more academically challenged. She feels she’s receiving more individual attention and is gaining internship opportunities in the field she’s interested in, entertainment.

Particularly exciting for her is the change in appearance of her fellow students. “Penn is one of the least attractive campuses I’ve ever seen in my entire life. To be an unattractive person and have a bad personality, what the hell do you have going on for you?” she wonders. On the whole, Arnold found Penn girls exceptionally unattractive and the males only slightly better.

Catherine Osmond* - Brown University

Catherine Osmond isn’t practical. She’s not a networker, a hand–shaker, a pre–professional type. Yet, that’s exactly what Osmond found Penn asking her to be. She saw other students defining themselves in relation to Wharton, thinking things like  “I’m an artist and I am not a Wharton person.” Osmond soon realized campus life permitted only one type of being. She, however, couldn’t understand why the archetype of investment banker had to loom in everyone’s mind.

She also found herself bogged down by the intensity of the Penn community and frustrated with the tribe mentality on campus. “When people found out what I was involved in I could see the cogs turning in their head and categorizing me,” she said.

Osmond was ready for somewhere that could offer her more academic sovereignty — somewhere that allowed her to pursue her interests just for the sake of pursuing them. Brown University became a new artistic home for her. She’s content learning whatever she wants to learn and seeing others’ enthusiasm for their own classes.

True to her character, Osmond’s transfer was fueled by a tinge of caprice. “The same reason people our age get tattoos, or do other crazy things, that same energy motivated my transfer to some extent. Not that I regret it, I just kind of had to do something,” she says. This was the time in her life, she decided, to be unrealistic and dream. Osmond found Brown to be the perfect place to do just that.

Tess Rinearson - Carnegie Mellon University

Tess Rinearson lived the life of a typical, social student her freshman year. It wasn’t long, however, before she found herself in a twisted, love–hate relationship with the omnipresence of Penn’s social life. Rinearson had to face the facts — she had come here to study and really wasn’t achieving her academic goals.

At the end of her freshman year, she decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. Unlike Penn, where “business came first culturally,” Carnegie Mellon boasted major support for her chosen interest range, and didn’t have the distractions of an intense social life.

“Work hard, work hard” is the motto at her new school. This change in work structure was exactly what Rinearson was looking for and, she admits, what she needed. Instead of wasting four years, Rinearson was ready to “need to work hard” while an undergrad.

The transition hasn’t been easy. Rinearson misses Penn’s sense of community (particularly among Computer Science majors). For example, she misses when “our computer science student group would hold social events as well as academically focused things.” Additionally, the curriculum change has placed Rinearson in several freshman classes, which she’s actually found more rigorous than those at Penn.

Rinearson is pleased with her progress and has few regrets. “I feel like I’ve learned more in the past two months than I did in two semesters and that’s really meaningful,” she says.

Jerome VivinoBerklee College of Music

Jerome Vivino thought he’d found the perfect combination at Penn. By mixing music and business, Vivino was going to be able to pursue two things that really interested him. It wasn’t long before he realized something wasn’t working. “Wharton was not the deal at all,” he says. Vivino didn’t connect with his studies, and found himself ditching class to write songs in his room. “I couldn’t force the material down my throat and I didn’t want that to affect my future,” he says.

Vivino finally decided to transfer to the College as a second–semester sophomore. He shut his business books, wrote a song called “Peace Out Wharton” and hoped for the best. Once again, Vivino didn’t get exactly what he anticipated. The music program at Penn was feeding him Beethoven instead of Dylan, Mozart instead of Marley. Vivino knew he wasn’t looking for a classical music education, and Penn wasn’t a great environment for an aspiring rock star.

That’s why he chose Berklee College of Music. “I needed to get the best education to become the best guitarist possible,” he says. After a semester off, Vivino applied with fingers crossed. He was accepted and, after a summer session of classes, was set to jam with the best.

Vivino would currently be a senior at Penn, but credits–wise he’s still a freshman at Berklee. The age difference doesn’t matter to him and neither do the 60 hours of practice classes a week, for that matter. He’s doing what he loves and for him, that’s enough.

16 People have left comments on this post

By WhartonStudent on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

I think these kids are spot on when it comes to Penn’s most obvious failings: an anti-intellectual streak, a stratified social scene, and near-obsessive fixation on exclusivity, prestige and elitism. Many people with whom I’ve spoken, even those who appear outwardly successful by Penn’s standards (popular, good grades, good job, etc.), privately express deep dissatisfaction with the experience they’ve had at school. Though grades are not necessarily easy to get, difficulty stems more from curves and hard-working classmates than actual conceptual difficulty. (Indeed, Penn’s curriculum often suffers from an embarrassing lack of rigor when placed side-by-side with those of its peer universities.) It seems that the purpose of class is not to learn but rather to separate out people with good grades from those with bad grades for recruiting/law school/med school purposes. That and the funneling of people into the same career tracks and activities engenders an environment more conducive to grade-grubbing and competition for the esteem of others than inclusiveness and the exchange of ideas. Whether or not this is Wharton’s fault, Penn is not really equipped to produce the compassionate, thoughtful world leaders it purports to.

On the other hand, to dump all this on Wharton and its inherent pre-professionalism seems a little unfair. Those who would prefer to pursue “intellectual” pursuits all too often cast themselves as opposed to the “greedy” world of business, but at the end of the day we can’t all be professors, NGO workers, or artists (nor should we all be). Casting aside business as shallow constitutes a dangerous retreat from the real world and how it operates. Many of the most passionate, creative people I know are in Wharton because they want to look at how business can catalyze positive change around the world. Contrary to popular belief, this requires more than knowledge of the latest buzzwords; it takes hard thinking and rigorous analysis. Instead of demonizing aspiring bankers or consultants, we should instead look towards fostering an environment where we can respect other pursuits and not pressure people into entering fields for the wrong reasons.

By College Student on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

I agree that it’s a bit simplistic to blame Wharton. This may be a bit biased towards the humanities since that’s what I know but Imma just roll with it, would be glad to hear the perspective of non-humanities students, but I think one of the biggest problems, as Wharton Student said, is that most students see their classes as nothing more than a grade instead of trying to use those learning experiences to change the way they see things. In this way, the intellectual environment here becomes completely isolated, if it even exists at all, instead of making it a social process that colleges are meant to promote. A big part of this is grounded in how pre-professional the school. People are focusing on the most marketable aspect of school, the grades, rather than the knowledge those grades are supposed to reflect. I’m a Poli Sci major and this emphasis on the grade has kept most people in classes, including myself a lot of the time, from getting involved in the content beyond what we had to get an A. To describe it as “the Wharton Effect” ignores the fact that College students want to succeed just as much as Wharton students. It’s not about “profit focused” versus “ideas focused”, it’s about being focused on your own development rather than being focused on your resume’s development. People in the College and Wharton constantly strive to pad their resumes and boost their GPA instead of focusing on developing themselves because that is the path of least resistance. That’s not to say resumes and GPA’s aren’t important, it’s just that they’re a means to an end, not the ends themselves. It’s really sad because the professors we have are INCREDIBLY brilliant and a lot of the students here are really smart too, but the school turns these four years into a dress rehearsal for life as a “young professional” instead of a chance to expand our knowledge and challenge our beliefs.

By Stuck at Penn on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Hell ya Alissa Arnold. I’m with you 100%. Too many Jappy hos in this shithole.

By Casey on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

For every person on this list who got fed up and just left there are a hundred others who feel the exact same way but are just biting the bullet in the hopes that things will get better or that all this will somehow be worth it in 4 years. These complaints are spot on, and I’m glad to know I’m not crazy to have expected something more from Penn. An excellent and much-needed article.

By Southerner in the College on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

The students you’ve interviewed raise valid points about Penn: girls can be cliquey, there is definitely an “elitist” portion of the social scene more focused on play than work, and it’s easy to feel bogged down by the pre-professional pressures (not just among the Wharton crowd, either). Admitedly, I found my own studies in pre-med disenchanting: it’s completely possible to understand material and still fail, given the competitive nature of the coures and grading. Many students are more focused on dominating over their peers than actually learning, which is personally not an attitude I can support.

HOWEVER, I don’t think you can characterize Penn solely on these negative attributes. What about all the great aspects? Maybe I just take more of a “role-with-the-punches” attitude, but I absolutely cannot understand when students solely ramble on about how horrible the school is, the people are, etc. If you don’t like something, why not change it? Penn’s a big place, and I think in most cases there’s a niche for everyone. In the cases of these particular students, it appears that they clearly had strong motives to transfer, so I am not in anyway criticizing their decisions to leave or their opinions of the school; it would not be my place to do so. But for portion of the student body that remains on campus and still continues to dwell on everything they want to complain about, why not do something about your situation? Yes, there is an elitist social scene, but I’ve found a great group of hard-working, down to earth friends from all economic classes. And I don’t feel like I’ve been judged for involving myself in whichever activities I choose; if you are judged, get over it! Maybe that’s easier said than done, but stand by your decisions, socially, extracurricularly, and academiclly. And in relation to the academic nature of the campus, I think it’s quite a stretch to say that it doesn’t foster academia. I didn’t like my pre-med curriculum, but I found another program where I’m engaged in my studies and the other students around me are also passionate about learning, not just about their grades. Call my naive if you wish, but I consider myself FORTUNATE to attend a school with so many brilliant minds and opportunities. Why dwell on the negatives?

By a dissident who stayed on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Good work. This is what we need. The “well be fortunate it’s not COMPLETELY shitty” attitude is not what we need. Higher standards = better world.

I just wish you guys had also interviewed some people who stayed behind but still held these views. Figure out why they stayed and what the effects of that have been.

By a dissident who stayed on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Good work. This is what we need. The “well be fortunate it’s not COMPLETELY shitty” attitude is not what we need. Higher standards = better world.

I just wish you guys had also interviewed some people who stayed behind but still held these views. Figure out why they stayed, what the effects of that have been, and in what ways they’ve tried to improve Penn.

By college student on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Despite its myriad of flaws, I frickin love Penn. The school literally gives you all the resources you need to find the social/academic life you desire (even though it may take some time and effort to find it). As someone who transferred to Penn, I think there’s huge value in being able to view your school from both sides. This article offers that other side. Good work

By Penn sucks dix on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Holy shit, Alissa Arnold is spot on. You are my hero. It’s so funny how these ugly japs think they’re the shit when if they went anywhere else in the nation they wouldn’t even get called back to a ZTA equivalent. Get off your high horses ladies and gents because you are losers (yeah that’s right, you suck just as much as you did in high school)

By horrahpennsylvania on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

A more accurate title for this article would be “students attempt to justify transferring to shittier schools.” No way that whore is more challenged at USC….

By Southerner is on point on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

All of these criticisms are valid, and hamper everyone’s experience at Penn.

But I have loved my time here after simply looking the other way and focusing on things that satisfied me. The beauty of Penn is the spectrum of opportunity that the school offers, in so many disparate areas — yet it frequently goes unnoticed or unexploited. First, all types of people go here — even if they’re not the easiest to find, and even if self-segregation (whether on idealogical, religious, racial, or socioeconomic bases) is a poison that pervades too much of campus. You can, if you work for it, find and interact with and learn from such a diverse group. Moreover, the combination of our 12 schools and lax policies about taking classes across them, coupled with a healthy financial status that allows student groups to be well-funded and thrive sweetens the pot substantially. Add that to our setting in Philadelphia and the countless contacts, programs, and outlets the school has across the city and you’ve got what I’d argue is a truly unparalleled spectrum of opportunities for any student to take advantage of and enjoy. It’s just a matter of putting in the work to do so.

By transfer student on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

As someone who transferred into Penn from an elite LAC, I can safely say Penn students are not really different than students at any other elite university or LAC. Yes, some schools have a slightly greater percentage of “artsy” students or “brainy” students, at the end of the day, all elite schools are filled with wealthy overachieving ass-kissers (many of whom are Jewish and Asian). To say that these kinds of issues (preprofessionalism, elitist social scene, anti-intellectualism, resume padding, etc) are unique to Penn, is ridiculously misguided. The selectivity of elite schools rewards risk aversion

By it's what you make it on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

I think the school is what you make it. Freshman year, I was on a hall that was full of somewhat wealthy, cliquey girls, which I disliked. So I gravitated towards other groups of friends who were less focused on status (which truly wasn’t hard to find). I really think that for every rich elitist, there’s a kid who was quirky and nerdy in high school and really just came to Penn to learn.
Also, in terms of academic rigor, yes, one can take easy classes. But one can also seek out challenges, signing up for honors classes or grad classes and really seeking out the best professors. There are also places for true intellectualism and discussion outside of classes if you seek it.

By trannie on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

I transferred to Penn from another elite college, and honestly, I had a fantastic experience. Yeah, Penn is clique-y. Yeah, it is competitive. Yeah, it isn’t sporty. Yeah, some sectors might be anti-intellectual.

But here’s the secret: so is the real world.

I think the key is to just find your core group of friends, tell the haterz to fuck off, pull your head out of your ass, and enjoy the incredible opportunities Penn has to offer.

By Ian Longshore on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Hmmm . . . I have no idea what any of these people are talking about. Well, except for Tess (I’ve talked to her in person.) and Jerome (his decision makes logical sense since we just don’t have the proper classes at all for him).

But for people who hate Wharton: just stay the hell away from Wharton. Maybe I’m lucky because Penn has a rather good MSE department and that’s what I happened to choose, but I have to say that there is so much to choose from at Penn or any decent sized school that we can do almost whatever we want.

I suspect that the people who were happy with transferring (besides Tess or Jerome) felt that way because they got lucky with where they were placed at their respective new schools. I’m sure that they could just as easily found whatever they hated about Penn at those same exact schools themselves.

Also, Alissa, really? Complaining about people being unattractive here? That is some of the most superficial, princessy behavior imaginable. I honestly thought this article was a parody when I read that statement. And there are plenty of cute boys in engineering . . .

By TruWarrior on November 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

Alissa is clearly really superficial but after looking her up on FB I must say… I would

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