(Fair warning: this is a long one)
I pray I never forget that all of this was once a distant dream.
I don’t want to go too far back with this post, but I’ll start by saying I remember snippets of 2013. Photos of Stanford were my wallpapers and cover photos, and I spent every single day toiling over application essays. I remember the day all the decisions came in, and I was in Malaysia so it was in the middle of the night and I woke up just to check my emails and the Penn decision was the last one I opened after a stream of rejections and a song came on but it still hadn’t occurred to me what that meant because I was still scanning for a “sorry” or an “unfortunately” as I successfully found in the previous letters. Oddly enough, I don’t remember what happened next or who I told first or what we did to celebrate. But I remember feeling apprehensive. I remember tearing up at the mere thought of leaving the country, leaving the people and places I knew, the people and places that made me, me.
And before I knew it, I was thrown into the Penn current. One of my clearest, probably most defining moments at Penn was early in the Fall semester of my Freshman year when Shahirah and I walked out of Huntsman after Malaysians@Penn Elections. The upperclassmen were talking about their other time commitments this semester and it was the first time I saw that students here were really involved, and involved in so many different cool things I could never imagine myself doing. Shahirah and I left the elections and I panicked. I felt like I was absolutely in over my head at this school. I saw so vividly the gap between where I was and where I was expected to be and it scared me. We sat down on a random bench on Locust, just past the Tampons (to non-Penn readers: it’s a structure on campus and Tampons is just the shorthand, though idk what it’s really called) and she and I just talked it out.
A friend once told me, you never want to be the smartest person in the room. Well, that was never a problem here because I think the freshman year panic attack was the beginning of four years of being on the bottom ranks of every single room I was in. It was a huge, long, drawn out lesson in humility. Repeatedly, I was tested with the temptation of comparison. Everyone else seemed to be doing so much more, so much better. I learned to tell myself to keep my head down and all my time here has been a piecemeal process towards internalising the belief that my trajectory cannot be compared with anyone else’s because we didn’t all come from the same place—and that doesn’t mean victimising myself or whatever, just… acknowledging the fact that we’ve had vastly different experiences, and any comparison is meaningless. I don’t think I’ve completely bought this idea yet, but I am a lot better at it now than I used to be.
Besides that, I think graduating college is difficult because I don’t know for sure how else I am different than I used to be. Not being able to answer that question, I’ve once said before, is like leaving the petrol station after filling up your tank without a gas indicator; you don’t know whether you’ve really gotten enough out of it. I think I find it difficult to list the ways in which I’ve grown. It’s not really reflected in my grades. I didn’t learn Excel like I thought I would. I still read primary documents very slowly. I still write with a lot of planner’s paralysis. So even though I’ve had a tumultuous love-hate relationship with Penn, I feel like I leave with a heavy heart, like I fell short, like I wasted my time.
And it’s not just the unpreparedness that weighs on me, it’s also that my grief really blindsided me. I struggled to make a home out of this place (case in point) and I revolted at the notorious work hard play hard never ever stop pre-professional pretend-everything-is-ok-even-when-its-not culture of the campus. I didn’t like it. I’ve attended college application workshops in Malaysia unofficially representing Penn and applicants would come up to me with wide-eye wonder and I’d be expected to talk up my school and I wouldn’t know what to say because I didn’t like it. I cried my eyes out like something was being yanked from inside me every time I had to leave KL because I didn’t like it. I left right after every final and arrived right before every semester’s first class because I didn’t like it (exhibit A, exhibit B). I told people I wouldn’t miss it because I didn’t like it. You get the picture! So, part of me is so upset that I didn’t see this coming. I knew I would miss my friends and learning, but I didn’t expect to feel so sad to say goodbye to all the things I feel like I didn’t enjoy. People tell me that I’m very self-aware and introspective, and even earlier in this essay, I said that I think I’ve grown most in self-discernment. So the fact that all of this caught me off guard has been really disconcerting. Do I actually so severely lack astuteness? Was I just too stubborn?
A few days after commencement, I texted my friend Hanna like “is this what labour feels like? It’s the most painful thing ever and then you give birth and see your baby and you’re like I LOVE THIS and you just do it again and again” because maybe that’s what this was. Maybe I could have never seen it coming, and maybe I should be less hard on myself (another lesson I grappled with throughout my time at Penn, and one that I think will continue for years). But I leave curious when this shift happened. When did I start to love this place? When did it start to feel like home? (side note: it made me think of that song in Beauty and the Beast where they’re having a snowball fight and they sing “there may be something there that wasn’t there before” because that’s when they noticed they were falling in love and I wish in life things could be as clear as they are in Disney films)
I wrote about this in January, but maybe I just underestimated the extent to which my feelings towards this place were changing:
But I like Philly a bit more now. I like that I’ve had the same apartment for over two years now. I like the way I can tell it has been snowing by the way the tiles in my apartment lobby look. I like how I know whether or not I’ll make the traffic light before I actually get there. I can walk to Van Pelt on autopilot and instinctively know to avoid the steamy pot hole on the way there. The way walking past Starbucks on 39th gives me deep chills because it reminds me of pre-sunrise coffee runs. This didn’t just happen. I earned this. We earn the places we call home.
Anyway. I guess I still have a long way to go with regards to getting better at reflecting, etc. Funnily enough, I recall several remarks being made at commencement this year about how knowing yourself is important. Jennifer Egan, the College of Arts and Science commencement speaker spoke about how writing helped “organise her reality” and urged us to “look inward” and “spend time with ourselves”. I believe in these things to be true in my life as well, but have yet to learn why that’s so because I think in all my time at Penn, I’ve felt that these were not things that were valued as much—they don’t clearly lead to bottom line results. So, I suppose I’m a) grateful that the things I valued in my journey through Penn were validated in these speeches and b) looking forward to seeing how/when it will be important.
On the note of looking ahead, I’ve mentioned before that I am worried about losing my work ethic, no longer being able to read broadly across so many different fields, failing to think critically without the push of a classroom environment. I don’t know where life will take me. It’s so unnerving to lose the reliable structure of neatly compartmentalised time blocks: 4 months in the spring semester, 4 months at home for summer and 4 months in the fall for 4 years, only to walk into a mush of time and uncertainty where I have a lot more free reign over how long I spend where. I worry that without this structure I’ve grown with, I will flail around more than I’d like.
I know I’m making this all seem so terribly depressing, but I think I just have a good memory for a lot of these things so I tend to wallow in all of it and you know, it’s both a blessing and a curse to remember so much. At the end of every semester, people are always quick to quip that time just flies, and I never really relate to that. Shahirah thinks it’s because I retain so much memory that my perception of time is a little different. And as everyone makes those same remarks again at graduation, I genuinely empathise but stop short of saying it felt like it was all just yesterday. I empathise because I realise now I will miss it, and it feels like it might have passed quickly because part of me wants it back. But I refuse to say it was just yesterday because although I cannot name the ways in which I have grown, I also don’t feel like the person I was in 2013. Is that paradoxical? She just seems so distant from who I am today. I don’t dress like that, or listen to the same music anymore. I stop short of saying it feels like just yesterday because it reduces the amount of time and energy that I clearly remember it taking to get here.
I predict that I will look back at this campus like it’s a childhood playground where I had once ran, fell and scraped my knees over and over again; a place both risky and safe all at once. I hope I never forget the late nights spent agonising over one more page of the textbook, the times I sat outside the exam hall trying to flip through my study guides just once more as quickly as possible, the stress of running from meeting to meeting feeling like there is never any time in between for anything else, tripping over the manhole on the way to class, crying on Locust over my first C. I want to remember. I want to remember everything. I want to remember where we kept all the pots and pans and glassware in our apartment, I want to remember the view from my bedroom and lab, I want to remember where the nearest bathroom is from my favourite place in Van Pelt, where the onions are at FroGro, where all my friends used to live (shout out to 4002 Ludlow I love you guys so much), which department belonged in which building, who taught me what and when, what my go-to order is at Sweetgreen I JUST WANT TO REMEMBER IT ALL. Because it was difficult to make a home out of this place and all these little things is what made it happen and I feel like if I forget, it will make everything less real.
It was real. It was real when Ken, Hui Jie and I took a spontaneous trip to Chinatown for bubble tea, when May May spent the afternoon assembling furniture with me and Shahirah, when Sha and I seemed to dress the exact same way for a whole year, when Jamie used to come down to my room just to taste some of my food, when Busra let me use her single room in Rodin as refuge because I needed a place to be alone, when Sofia drew cartoons of dogs on the blackboard when we were supposed to be solving math equations, when Cristina helped me move out of the Quad, when Rashad saw me crying on Walnut that one crappy day and walked me home, when Hanna made me pesto sandwiches, when Peter first told me the story of how he used to work at Pandora, when Clare and I watched documentaries on Bill Cunningham and Banksy like the nerds we are, when Julia and I dressed to the nines to go to Trader Joe’s during fling, when Selina got really tipsy and started walking down Locust with locked knees, when Claire and I pulled an all nighter to the soundtrack of Frozen, when Zohair, Keyan and I sang Taylor Swift tunes at the corner of the street while waiting for Penn Ride to pick us up for ice skating, when Adel finished that crossword puzzle with me, when I walked out of Rodin at 7 am to go home to sleep and Irtiqa was walking in to Rodin to go home to sleep and we laughed about it together, when Iman called the dentist demanding on my behalf that I get some pain killers after my tooth surgery, when Adam gave me crap for not following him back on Instagram, when Fayaaz took me to South Street for the first time, when Habeeb, Doc, Yusra and I were on MSA Social Committee together, when Ahsen presented me with a tiara for my birthday, when Ahmed and I Uber-ed back from our night class at the museum, when Petra took me out to lunch as a lost little freshman, when my freshman year RA Cat gave me advice about making friends. It was all real. And I want to remember it all.
Really, it has been my friends. My friends were the ones who made this all bearable, who made this all worth it. I was talking to Professor Pollack last week, who told me about how he felt that he “had found his people” when he went to Harvard for grad school. Though I did not love the school per se, I had that same sneaking suspicion about my new friends when I came to Penn. In October, Shahirah, May May and I had a spontaneous sleepover and in the morning, decided to go to King of Prussia to shop. On the bus to the mall, I was stuck with the My Little Pony song, Friendship Is Magic and they were probably like what is wrong with this girl, but I don’t think I told them that the reason I even thought of that song in the first place was the line “I used to wonder what friendship would be, until you all shared its magic with me.” To all my friends at Penn (and I’m sorry if I didn’t mention your name here, it was inevitable that I’d miss someone), I knew when I met each one of you that I had been waiting my whole life to meet you. I think that’s the kind of feeling people describe when they talk about meeting their soulmates, so how lucky was I to have felt that with so many of you? I respect you all so much, and I will look up to you for the rest of my life. I am grateful to have met you and I will miss you all. I am 100% the type of person who gets random flashbacks of memories all the time and usually when I do, I make a mental note to mention it the next time I see that person but because I don’t know when I will see most of you next, be totally prepared for me to text you all random “omg do you remember that time when…” texts, just because that’s the kind of thing I do. And I hope to see you again soon.
So I guess, this is it. It’s over. I don’t really know what else to say, I didn’t have a nice sweet ending planned with a bow on top or whatever. But thank you, I guess. I think I will spend years of my life belatedly uncovering the gems Penn has given me that I currently don’t yet see. But for now, I will try to let it sink in that this was all once a dream, and despite everything I’ve gone through here, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else. Penn and everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting here, you are now the people and place that makes me, me.
P.S. For the few months leading up to graduation, I interviewed some of my friends about our plans or lack thereof and recorded all of those conversations. I then transcribed them and edited them into a little audio thing, and if you’re curious, have 40 minutes to spare or would just like to hear my rambly voice, you can listen to it here.