By: Elizabeth K.
At Penn, it felt like everyone knew exactly what they wanted to do when they graduated, from the minute hellos were said to new roommates freshman year. Especially the Wharton students, who not only knew what they wanted to do but also wanted to go into fields I’d never even heard of! For instance, consulting. When someone told me she wanted to do that I thought , “So is that like when a friend tells me about a problem with a boy and I tell her what she should do?” Thank god I never verbalized my confusion, although honestly I still have no idea what consultants actually do and why they get paid so much for doing it. Anyway, everyone I knew had their career, in some cases ones I didn’t even know existed, planned out. In the meantime, I was completely undecided when it came to my major and my life.
At Penn, it was socially acceptable to say you were doing certain things after graduation. Something Wharton-y like banking, something engineering-y (I’m not even going to pretend to know what their fields are), nursing and if you were in the College you went to either law school or med school. Anything else and you felt terrified that you were inadequate and doomed for a life of failure. So, when I found myself undecided I knew I needed to remedy that, and fast.
When I started at Penn I signed up for four classes – Calculus, Biology, The Symphony and Spanish 4. I signed up for them to fill requirements and because I liked them. Yes – I liked Calculus and Biology! I started these classes freshman year and realized almost every single person in my Calc and Bio classes was pre-med. So, I became friends with the pre-meds and learned about all of the classes I needed to take for medical school. Before I knew it, I decided to be pre-med too! It felt awesome to have a life direction! Now I was part of all of those, “What will you do when you graduate?” conversations!
Everything was going fine until junior year hit. I was sitting in Organic Chemistry, listening to the professor drone on, pretty positive that I would never understand what he was talking about, and I had this little thought, “Elizabeth. Being a doctor isn’t worth a year of this class.” A couple days later, my then-boyfriend, who was also pre-med (and today is a wonderful oncologist!), said to me, “You should really volunteer at HUP with me. I play bingo with cancer patients and it’s great. Plus, it will look really good on your med school applications.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice but no thanks. I don’t really like being around sick people.”
YEAH. I KNOW.
It dawned on me. I didn’t actually want to be a doctor. I just wanted so badly to know what I was going to do with the rest of my life and be a part of the Penn pre-professional culture, that for two years I was pretending I had found my life calling.
I wish I could say it was smooth sailing from there, but it wasn’t. Since I wasn’t going to be pre-med, I HAD to do something or end up at the dreaded “I don’t know where I’ll be after I graduate” bar during senior week. Since I was a successful student in the college, I did what any sane undecided junior would do – I became pre-law! Only this time I actually followed through, took the LSATs, went to law school (which I loved) and practiced law for a couple of years. Needless to say it wasn’t for me. And, after some soul searching and being really honest with myself about what I wanted in a career, I wound up back where I started, at Penn. I feel very lucky that I can say I truly like my job and while my path to working in Higher Education Administration was roundabout, I know I ended up in the right place for me.
I loved my time at Penn, but looking back I wish I had enjoyed my academic ride a little bit more. I should have enjoyed learning just for the sake of learning, and shouldn’t have wasted so much time and stress concerned with what would happen after I got my diploma. So, to all the Penn undergrads reading this (soapbox alert!) – enjoy your four years of college! This is such a special time in your lives. And, if you are in the dreaded “undecided” category, you’ll figure it out along the way, I promise. Even if your path isn’t obvious or prescribed, you’ll find your way to happiness.