When I first arrived at Penn, I was struck by how many different things the people around me were good at. Coming from Johannesburg, South Africa, I had never visited Penn’s campus before arriving as a freshman in August of 2017. As much as I had trawled through websites listing Penn’s strengths, I had no real conception of what the interests of my fellow students might be. Of course, I had read about Penn being known for its interdisciplinary research. I knew, for instance, that more than half of Penn’s research programs were placed in the top 5 in the US. Yet, I couldn’t have imagined the diversity of ideas and interests I discovered among the friends I made in my first few weeks of freshman year.
My hallmates on the third floor of Riepe were from all over the world and were studying a variety of courses in all of Penn’s schools. I was amazed by their capacity to juggle all of Penn’s offerings: from high-level computer science classes to design projects, club meetings and dance performances. In fact, I never felt as though my interests aligned perfectly with anyone I met, and it was wonderful. I might, for example, have a shared interest in studying law with one of my hallmates, but they would have entirely different reasons for pursuing that track, and might never take any of the same classes as me.
As a student in an interdisciplinary program in the College of Arts and Sciences - the Integrated Studies program or “ISP” - the diversity of student interests at Penn became even more clear to me. ISP is an interdisciplinary honors program available for all College students to apply to. I had applied on a whim, but soon realized that the program was one of the most interesting of its kind at Penn. ISP students take two semesters of courses that integrate two distinct disciplines into one, cohesive way of thinking. In my first semester, for instance, we studied cognitive neuroscience in conjunction with philosophy. While I struggled with the objective, passive voice required in our ISP cognitive neuroscience assignments, some of my classmates breezed through them. By the same vein, I found the humanities courses within ISP to be much more manageable than many of my peers did. Ultimately, what we all had in common was the pursuit of knowledge outside of our immediate comfort zone in order to extend our capacities as learners and thinkers.
Some of my freshman hallmates became my best friends, and moved into an apartment with me this year. Even today, I am in awe of how they are skilled in such varying ways. As I write this blog, my best friend and roommate is moving from an analysis of bands’ live performances to thinking about the best way to solve the algebraic problems of her advanced CIS class. Indeed, just by being in proximity to people with capacities enormously different from mine, I feel challenged and excited much more than I would if all those around me shared my interest and views.
As a sophomore majoring in an interdisciplinary degree (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), I firmly believe that Penn is innovative because of its intellectual diversity. Students here are always encouraged to try new things, particularly those outside of our immediate interests and skills. When students’ specific interests are combined with Penn’s emphasis on drawing from multiple disciplines, real innovation and imaginative thought takes place. You are important, at Penn, not because you fit into some kind of mold for what the perfect student ought to be, but because of your unique interests and the way they intersect with those of others.