Transitioning to college from high school can be a stressful time. For me, this meant leaving my close-knit group of friends, the small 270-person graduating class from my school in Singapore, and my family in Minneapolis to come to Penn – in a city I had never visited on a coast I had never lived in with strangers I had never met. I was initially nervous about what life would be like at such a big school – would I be able to make friends and find a community? The summer before I started my freshman year, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. One of the chapters explained a conundrum for students after graduating high school: is it better to go to a smaller, less challenging school and to be a big fish in a small pond or is it more beneficial to be a small fish in a big pond at a more challenging institution with a large student body comprised of equally talented students? I wondered this as I walked through the Quad on my first day at school: did I choose too big of a pond? Would I get lost in the crowd?
To my surprise, I found one of the many close-knit communities I became a part of right away in my freshman hall. I met students across Penn’s campus, and learned about their unique backgrounds and diverse interests, so different from my own. And before classes even started, I spent a full day at Wharton getting to know my cohort and the 450 students I would share classrooms, group projects, successes and failures with for the next four years. From the day I was handed my green Shekel t-shirt, I became part of another community on campus – this time, one that shared my interests in business and could be there to support my academic journey. Even during my first two days on campus, I had made the big pond of Penn feel smaller, and I had met so many new friends I would keep for my time here.
In all honesty, what surprised me even more about Penn was that this small community building didn’t stop after NSO. The very first class I took in Wharton was with my entire cohort, where we were broken into teams to start training as business leaders and project managers with a real non-profit as our client. This leadership journey encouraged me to forge close bonds with my team of nine other students, making my cohort community even smaller than the sixty people who I had gotten to know before the year started. I was so proud of the work we accomplished together, and found myself learning from them as much as I was learning from the course material.
Collaboration is a tenet of Wharton’s culture and classrooms, and this is where community grows closer. In every class I have taken at this school, a group project has broken the big classroom into smaller groups, and has encouraged me to speak my mind in a more intimate setting and develop friendships from the working relationships created in these teams. The common core, our business foundation, strengthens relationships and encourages collaboration: if I haven’t taken the class yet, I can ask my peers for advice and study tips and I am more than willing to pay it forward when someone asks me for the same. I realized that this is how the Wharton network becomes so close: we all share a desire to help each other succeed, have shared in so many common academic experiences, and have practiced collaborating and leading in group settings since the first day of class. These common experiences again help to make the big pond feel smaller, and have helped me grow by pushing me to do my best.
Fortunately, being part of the Wharton community is as important inside of the classroom as it is outside of the classroom. Another large component of being a student here is joining clubs and being an active member in communities that share your interests. After signing up for almost every club during Clubbing Night, a showcase for all Wharton clubs that happens once a semester, I attended as many meetings as I could in an effort to find a community outside of the classroom. My club membership has shifted since freshman year, reflecting my shifting interests, too. Now, I am a proud member of my business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi, an executive board member of the Wharton Undergraduate Consulting Club, and a proud Wharton Ambassador. By narrowing down my involvements, I have become closer to people who share my values, goals and interests, but I was glad to make just as many friends during my exploration. I still do not know for certain what I enjoy best in the business world, but my clubs on campus have become like a family for me, and I know that I am happy to continue exploring my interests with their support.
As I enter my junior year, the 450 students of the class of 2018 have become familiar faces in every lecture, around Huntsman Hall, in my dorms, and across campus. Some communities, like class-project teams, are in flux and will change after a short period of time, while others, like my business fraternity, are more permanent. I realized that my fears from freshman year were really nothing to worry about – it is hard to get lost in a big school when so many communities that make the big school small exist everywhere I look.
I recently reread the chapter in Gladwell’s book that had encouraged my doubts about freshman year, and realized that the way I viewed Penn had changed. Instead of thinking about the school as one big pond, where I was one student among thousands, I began to think about it as a series of interconnected small ponds, where I could be a big fish jumping around wherever I chose. This metaphor has helped me seek help, support and comfort, as well as challenge and growth within the same school – a unique aspect about Wharton that has made me proud to be a Quaker.