College, often heralded as the best four years of your life, can be a challenging time.
“Dear Penn Freshmen,” a new project created by University of Pennsylvania students, aims to make that process a little easier by encouraging upperclassmen to write letters to their younger selves.
In her hip University City apartment, Penn senior Lauren McCann reads her letter out loud, over a cup of tea.
“Hi there, little one! Welcome, welcome! You are about to embark on one of the most challenging, confusing, erratic, yet somehow meaningful adventures of your short life,” she says. “Do not let the weight of that wash over you lightly.”
McCann and some other students came up with the idea for the project at a class on organizational behavior. The goal? To change the culture at Penn, which McCann says has some great aspects, and some not-so-great aspects.
“They have this phenomenon at Penn they call ‘Penn Face,’ she explained. “Which is like this idea that people sort of put on this mask, that everything is super easy breezy for them. They know exactly what they’re gonna do for the next four years and the next 50 years.”
But the letters show the cracks in that “Penn Face” facade. When McCann started getting submissions, a few addressed hard topics, such as getting rejected from every club or being cheated on by a first love.
“We are hoping, everyone needs to make their own mistakes, but hopefully by reading our advice, they’d be able to have a better, happier time here at Penn,” she said.
A step toward a more secure environment
Those acts of self-disclosure can go a long way toward changing an environment, said John DiMino, the director of counseling services at Temple University.
“People feel less alone when they hear the stories, and they can see themselves in others’ stories and experiences,” he said, adding that self-disclosure often creates an environment where people feel more safe and able to open up.
That advice isn’t coming from professors or mentors, but students themselves,” he said, and that’s novel.
“I think young people, college students, definitely tend to look to peers for information and advice,” he added.
Penn senior Bobby Lundquist submitted a letter for the project because, during his early college years, he was fixated on become a better person. He even earned the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Bodhisattva Bobby” from a professor.
He aimed to give as much as he could to others, but he judged himself when he thought he came up short.
“Over the time I’ve had at Penn,” he said, “I’ve definitely found that it’s been difficult to practice self-compassion.”
His letter has a whole section called, “Commit to what you care about.” He warns his younger self not to take on too much. “Do more by doing less,” he wrote.
Now, instead of trying to be perfect, he sees the limitations of his old mindset.
“The way I like to think about it, it’s like a bathtub, with the water is running full speed, but the drain is also open,” he said.
Lundquist said he found fellowship in other people’s letters.
And now the project is getting attention beyond Penn.
‘Be confident in your uncertainty’
Lauren McCann has been contacted by other universities about starting their own versions of the letters, and she’s working with fine-arts students to take the concept off the internet and organize a show.
For now, she reads the end of her letter.
“Number nine, let go of any preconceived notions of just how your life will pan out … just trust you’ll wind up exactly where you’re supposed to be. Being able to be confident in your uncertainty is the bravest thing you could possibly do.”