The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 6, 1999


Lessons of Penn: Promise, possibilities and cheap pasta

Bar Talk: for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
Several hundred graduating University of Pennsylvania seniors took this year's "Walnut Walk," a 20-bar, 10-hour pub crawl that takes place annually a few days before graduation. The Walk begins at the Delaware River and moves west along Walnut Street toward its final destination in University City.

I wanted to find out what these ready-for-the-real-world students thought of their education, so I put on my walking shoes and tagged along.

The first thing that came up was cost. A four-year undergraduate degree at Penn costs about $120,000. "I came to Penn loving political science," said Marc Kushner, "and then found a field I enjoyed even more, which is architecture. I don't know if it was worth $120,000 to find a field that I enjoyed, but it was certainly worth a large sum of money." Niharika Desai, a psychology and South Asia regional studies major, said, "It wasn't worth all the stress and guilt complex I developed after realizing that my parents broke their backs trying to send me here."

Natalie Denney, a molecular biology major, told me why she's moving to Costa Rica for a year to teach English: "I want to go somewhere that isn't so wealthy, because Penn is full of conspicuous consumption and I want to see how people live, to see the ideals that people hold onto when they are not living with all this money."

When asked about how the future looked, most were quick to say it was exciting and bright, but they admitted that the excitement was mixed with fear and uncertainty. "I'm scared I won't get into grad school, get a job or be able to pay the rent," said Rebecca Falkoff, an English and comparative literature major. "But I believe things will work out in the end." Anthropology major Jessica Chace, who hopes to be a photojournalist by the time she's 70, chose to take things one day at a time: "I made the decision to work and make some money, and after that I'll make the decision for what September or October or November will bring."

What will these students miss? The most popular answers were their friends and the social scene. "I'll miss having no responsibilities, except to learn," said philosophy and management major David Min, "and being able to drink and perform other acts of debauchery without any consequences." Doree Shafrir, an English and history major, discussed the scholarly side: "I'll miss that feeling of community, the academic stimulation, the intellectual give and take that's inherent in universities."

What other useful things had these students learned during the last four years? French major Marianna Allen, who touted time management as a critical skill, also said, "I learned about human relationships, society, about different cultures." English major Beth Scanlon added: "It's learning how to live independently from your parents, how to deal with people, from roommates to administration to professors."

Chris Keslar, a theater arts major, took the personal slant: "I learned that my voice is the most powerful tool I have as a human being. . . . If there's nothing else to rely on, I have my inner voice."

Pete Semonche, the only non-graduating student I talked with, had a different story. Though he should have graduated this year, he "took the scenic route," dropping out of college for a year and a half to work 12-hour shifts in a paper mill. He was just returning as a geology major.

"I screwed up." he said. "I didn't have my priorities straight. I was expected to be brilliant; I was expected to be a millionaire; I was voted most likely to succeed in high school. I got to see what's out there if I don't graduate from college." Now Pete's headed to the Canadian high Arctic to work at a paleontology site, an Eocene forest about 10 degrees from the North Pole.

And philosophy, politics and economics major Maggie Dickinson, who had an epiphany that what she wanted for graduation was a car, a two-man tent and $1,000, reported this practical lesson: "I learned how to buy a three-pound box of pasta and eat for a month. Pound for pound, it's better than ramen."

Hanging out with these students brought me back to my college days, the fear and uncertainty, the promise and possibility, the four-for-a-dollar macaroni and cheese. Some things never change.


© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.