I am now a final-semester Senior.
Some of my Penn friends have already graduated, and have begun full-time grown-up jobs. Others, like me, are preparing to say goodbye to four years of life defined by the huge array of academic and social opportunities available to Penn students.
Yet, unlike past graduating classes at Penn, we have had a singular experience marked by the university’s physical campus being closed for half of our final year. This has made our senior year vastly different from those of the graduating classes we looked up to, and has come with many challenges and bittersweet goodbyes.
It has, though, also made us ever-more appreciative of our years as students based in West Philly, and placed special significance on the final months we have on campus until graduation in May. I, for example, spent the first semester of my senior year taking classes online from my home country, South Africa. Though I reveled in the beautiful, year-round weather and the time I was able to spend with family and friends at home, I felt a strong pull to return to campus for my final semester, despite the restrictions on Penn student life that the pandemic continues to necessitate.
Being back in Philly (after nearly a year in South Africa, after I returned home in March 2020 owing to the pandemic) has felt, in many ways, like returning home. I landed in this city, in August 2017, as a terrified, bright-eyed international student, with just suitcases stuffed full of clothes. My room in the Quad felt cavernously empty, even once I’d unpacked my clothes, and a trip to Target to buy furniture felt daunting.
More than three years later, I returned to Philly with friends and roommates to welcome me back, an off-campus apartment already filled with furniture and a deep sense of familiarity that has replaced the nervousness and anticipation of my pre-Penn self.
Yet, I haven’t totally lost the sense of wonderment and excitement I felt as I arrived at Penn. In fact, as I write this blog, the trusty lamp I bought at Target during my first week in Philly in August 2017 sits on my desk. Printed photos of the many wonderful memories I’ve made here are scattered across my walls, but there’s still room for more.
Last week, I pinned up a print of a Henri-Edmond Cross painting after a trip to the Barnes Foundation with a dear friend. Yesterday, my walk into Center City with another friend (the sun was out, in late February!) brought with it baked goods and flowers from the farmer’s market to sit on my windowsill. My pile of treasured books -- both those from my Penn classes, and those chosen from bookstores all over Philly -- continues to grow, and will certainly be challenging to pack up at the end of this semester.
Life at Penn may not, entirely, be back to normal, but returning to campus has allowed me to say a meaningful goodbye to four, truly transformative years in Philly.