I am a computer science student, but I have always loved the humanities, particularly art and literature. I knew coming into Penn that I wouldn’t just be taking engineering classes – I wanted to experience all that Penn had to offer.
I have taken my fair share of electives over the years, including Chinese, digital art and design, and creative writing for children and young adults (my favorite class yet!), but this semester, with fewer computer science requirements to take, I decided to truly dive in and take a couple of classes I’d been wanting to take since freshmen year. I enrolled in Introduction to Painting and Introduction to Creative Non-fiction – both small classes of around twelve people that were definitely outside of my academic comfort zones. I did a lot of art in high school, but I wasn’t sure what to expect in this class – would it be all art majors? And I have always loved writing, but I haven’t often written about myself in a creative essay or tried writing non-fiction, let alone shared personal essays with other students I barely knew.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that in both classes, there was a wide range of ages, majors, and experiences. A few people took the class to fulfill requirements, but many others were just truly interested in the areas; some had deep experience in the subjects, while others had never tried painting or creative writing before. There were even a couple of Penn faculty members in my art class! I didn’t feel out of place at all.
I knew these classes would be structured differently than my engineering courses, but I didn’t know just how different. In STEM classes, it often feels like we have to move at a fast, diligent pace to cover all the necessary material, with little time to stop and reflect on it. In my painting class, however, we move slowly and deliberately. My professor constantly encourages us to slow down, to step back and pause to reflect on our work, something I’m not used to doing. However, we still have plenty of painting assigned to do for homework, and it can be both refreshing and frustrating to work hard to perfect something that has no clear answer and can be rendered in a thousand different ways. I actually wrote my common application to college on how art forced me to let go of control and learn to adapt to the unexpected, and this class has been a necessary reminder to learn to let go sometimes and go with the flow.
My writing class is less structured. On the first day, the professor, who has been teaching for over forty years, told us what our assignments for the entire semester would be: four essays. He passed around a piece of paper to have us sign up for dates we wanted to turn them in. I immediately raised my hand to ask about any guidelines for these essays – what should we write them on? Did he have prompts for us to answer? How long should they be?
“No guidelines,” he answered. “Whatever you want. Just write.” Some of the students looked around at each other in wonder. We were used to having detailed instructions for assignments, rules we had to adhere to, guidelines we had to meet. The idea of no structure at all unnerved me a little, but I was willing to try. When I sat down to write the first assignment, I quickly realized that the hardest part was going to be deciding what to write about. For my first essay, I probably started six different essays and abandoned them a couple paragraphs in – nothing felt right. I finally decided to pick one and stick with it and just write through my writer’s block. I wasn’t totally satisfied, but I gave it a day or two and then came back to it to edit it. I realized that because there aren’t any rules or structure, I might never feel completely done with this type of assignment. Instead, I try to spend a reasonable amount of time on it, and then turn it in for feedback from my classmates. It is still difficult to think of something to write about, but I’ve learned to push through it and be patient with myself. It’s important to write poorly in order to learn to write better, and writing poorly is better than writing nothing.
It is a few months into the class, and the three-hour period once a week has become one of my favorite parts of the week. Our class meets in a small room on the second floor of the Kelly Writer’s House, the writing and English hub on campus that really feels like a house, and we all sit around a circular table and discuss each other’s essays. We’ve developed a trust in each other, since many of the essays are very personal, and there is a warmth and comfort to the room that I haven’t experienced in a class before. We are critical of each other’s writing, but also kind and supportive, and I definitely feel like I’ve grown as a writer.
I love and am still very interested in my computer science and engineering classes, but these creative courses that take me outside my comfort zone, are what make my Penn experience so special and what make me value my academic experience so much. When else in my life am I going to have the opportunity for instruction in things like painting and writing about myself? It is easy to say that I could do these things on my own, but having professors who really invest in you and having a set time to set aside for these areas is key to growing in them. My creative, non-major classes have been some of the ones that I stand out to me the most throughout my Penn experience and that have pushed me to grow not just academically, but personally.