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A Reflection on my First Year at Penn
Olivia O'Dwyer | May 17, 2018

“How’s Penn? How’s your first year going?”

During any of the many times people have asked me these questions over the last year, I always hesitate for a moment; not because it hasn’t been good, but because it is impossible to sum it up in the quick answer that the question usually calls for.

Good? Yes. But also filled with many, many ups and downs, lessons learned, failures, realizations, problem sets, papers, and long days.

When I compare this year to my senior year, I’ll be honest – my senior year was definitely more enjoyable on the surface. It was my last year at a small school with my best friends, a year filled with memories we’d been looking forward to for years, celebrations of everything we’d accomplished, and all the comfort and satisfaction that comes with finding your place after four years at the same school.

Being thrown into a school of ten thousand extremely high achieving students isn’t just jarring; it can also leave you questioning whether you belong here, questioning whether you are the hardworking, intelligent student you’ve been told you are your whole life, questioning what your place is in all this. But somehow, in this sometimes overwhelming, messy chaos, you slowly discover some things about yourself that you didn’t know.

You learn that you don’t adjust to change as easily as you thought you did, that it takes you maybe more time than it takes other people, but that that’s okay, to give yourself the time you need. You learn that you need to surround yourself with people who don’t take themselves to seriously, who take the time to see the best in a situation rather than complaining. You learn to never schedule seven hours of class in a row on Tuesdays again, because five hours in, it’s pretty much a lost cause. You learn that leaving home will never get any easier, but realize that it’s because you’re so lucky to have the people you come home to. You learn to give yourself time to relax after trying to work for six hours in a row (unsuccessfully).

Maybe most importantly, you learn to prioritize, to sort out what is most important to you. You learn that you need a decent amount of sleep to function and learn to choose sleep over that extra hour of studying that won’t do you any good anyway. When you lose a loved one, you learn to hold the people who you love close and take advantage of all the time you’ve got, to call home a little more often. You learn to forgive yourself for the mistakes and pick yourself back up.

This doesn’t even begin to cover the wide array of opportunities that I’ve been exposed to, the chance to talk to so many inspiring individuals, to learn from leaders in their field, to connect with so many different students who are interested in so many different things. I’ve been brought into so many communities I never expected to be a part of. I’ve learned to learn quickly, to troubleshoot and problem solve and Google until I figure something out, to ask for help. I’ve learned to write hundreds of Chinese characters, built a working Stirling engine, and gained confidence doing things I didn’t have a clue about nine months ago.

This year has not been simple or easy, but I am endlessly grateful to be here. I know that I am stronger and hopefully a bit wiser after this year, and I know how much I have been pushed and stretched and grown. There have absolutely been moments of stress and loneliness, but there have also been moments of joy, discovery, and community. I am looking forward to summer and giving myself a bit of a break, but looking ahead, I’m also so excited to continue my Penn journey and see where it takes me.

– Olivia, almost a sophomore

About the author
Olivia O'Dwyer

I am a freshman from Wilmington, Delaware, thinking of majoring in Mechanical Engineering. On campus, I’m involved in Access Engineering, a group that teaches engineering classes to local Philly high school students, I am playing Ultimate Frisbee for the first time, and I write for the Sign.al (http://thesign.al/). In my free time, I love to paint, write, and listen to music. Join me on my quest to find the best running trails and coffee shops around Penn’s campus and in Philly. I’m looking forward to journeying through my freshmen year with all of you!

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