Friday, December 27, 1996

Freshmen meet reality


In their first semester at the University of Pennsylvania, the members of the Class of 2000 have taken a course that none of them signed up for. It won't earn them a single credit or show up on their transcripts. It doesn't even have a name.

But if it did, the course might be titled "Reality 101."

Kristen Thomas took it. An honors student back at her Cleveland high school, she learned that life isn't one big A-plus after another. "Calculus," she sighed, clearly pained, "is kicking me in the butt."

Andrew Lurie took Reality 101, too. What he learned is that the world, even the intellectually charged world of the Ivies, isn't the genial melting pot of ideas and colors he'd expected. "There are these big blocs of people who don't intermix," said Lurie, of suburban Chicago. "It's like you've got the corn on one side of the plate and the potatoes on the other side. It's not soupy."

Jo-Ann Chen, of Chattanooga, Tenn., got a lesson in irony: While she can reach around the world with a few taps on her computer, she can't walk the one block to the library after dark by herself. "It's embarrassing that I don't have that freedom," Chen said.

As for Shirley Zilberstein, of Newton, Mass., she discovered that the top is an awfully small place.
In high school, she said, "we all headed every club. Here we're just tiny little specks among thousands. It's very, very humbling."

For Penn's 2,358 freshmen - winnowed from the largest applicant pool in the school's history - the last four months have been a kaleidoscope of rude awakenings, tempered expectations, quickly cobbled friendships and more work than play, more play than sleep. They've suffered the same discomforts as freshmen everywhere: homesickness, roommates who blare bad music, teaching assistants who barely speak English.

They've also grappled with a problem that doesn't reach freshmen at many other schools around the country: city crime.

Their first semester has coincided with a surge in violence on the campus outskirts in West Philadelphia - a rash of armed robberies, a student shot and wounded, a researcher stabbed to death as he walked home Halloween night from a Penn lab.

Then there was the bizarre case of Kathy Change, the campus fixture/protester who set herself afire in a final statement of . . . what?

The highly publicized incidents contributed to a 10 percent drop in early-decision applications for the next crop of freshmen, acknowledged Lee Stetson, Penn's dean of admissions. Early applications from women dropped 17 percent. Meanwhile, at most other elite universities, the numbers of early applicants climbed.

The current crop of Penn freshmen, however, shows little inclination to flee.

In interviews, students repeatedly said they feel safe, as long as they take such common-sense precautions as traveling in groups at night. Andrew Lurie removes his credit and bank cards from his wallet before venturing out.

Some praised the university's response to the crimes; among other things, Penn and city officials are improving lighting in the run-down neighborhoods along the campus periphery.

"I'm very impressed," said Ryan Oakes, of Stamford, Conn. "Last night I walked from 41st to 37th Street along Spruce, at midnight, and saw four cops along the way."

The parents are another story.

Referring to the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper, Jo-Ann Chen said, "My dad reads the DP online every day. He was very scared."

Holly Prescott's parents, who live in Newtown Square, have come close to yanking her out of school. Said her mother, Barbara: "I tell her, 'If anything happens to you, it's my fault for sending you to Penn.' "

But Holly, 18, likes her classes in German, biology and American Indian languages. She likes playing harp in the university orchestra. She likes her new friends. She's staying put.

"I don't feel unsafe, despite what my mother believes," Holly said - and headed off to visit the financial aid office, just in case her mother makes good on a threat to withhold tuition payments.

Shirley Zilberstein put her own spin on Penn's vulnerable setting.

"I liken it to just another challenge," she said. "I like the fact that it's the real world."

There is something that has thrown a fright into many Penn freshmen.

"A 'B' is, like, scary," Kristen Thomas said.

"And a 'C' . . ." She paused, as if struggling to describe some awful alien species. ". . . is a very round letter."

They came to Penn with SAT scores and grade point averages higher than those of any previous freshman class. Among them: 224 valedictorians, 105 salutatorians and 566 who otherwise placed in the top 5 percent of their high school classes.

To find them, the Penn admissions office spent an estimated $3 million and at least 24,000 staff hours recruiting worldwide and rendering judgment on a record 15,861 applications - 5 percent more than the year before, 62 percent more than in 1991.

"I think the students of the last few years are smarter and sharper and more assertive than ever," said Larry Moneta, associate vice provost for university life. "I'm impressed with how articulate they are, how savvy they are in negotiating the campus."

They are a group driven to succeed, busy to the point of being overscheduled. "I haven't met a student yet whose day calendar wasn't the most important thing," Moneta said.

To that standard formula for freshman angst, add an uncertain economy. The members of the Class of 2000 "know they're part of the first generation that won't do as well as their parents," Moneta said. "There's increased fear of the job market and their future quality of life. When there's a modicum of what they see as failure, it causes more turmoil than it should."

For those who had been high school stars - and virtually all had - Moneta says there's another stress-producer: "When you have a class full of leaders, someone is going to have the rude awakening that not everybody can be a leader anymore."

Zilberstein - a teenage turbo who held a national position with the National Organization for Women - welcomes the competition. "It's a chance to experience the real world, with people on your level, like you'll find in a profession where everyone is smart," she said.

But some of her classmates, she added, "are not taking it well, and feeling really depressed." A high school salutatorian she knows frets terribly over "any small thing, any time she feels any rejection - it's really hard for her to deal with it."

At the end of a rocky semester, Thomas conceded, "It's a lot more stressful than I thought it would be."

But like many of her peers, she didn't make things any easier on herself.

Around the Ivies, Penn students are generally known as the type to get involved. A campus saying goes: If you can't find a club to your liking, start your own.

"I got here, and I felt, like, this awe about it," Thomas said. "People were saying, 'Challenge yourself.' I got all pumped up, like, 'Yeah, I can do it, I'm in the college spirit.' "

Early in the year, she joined the Triathalon Club - meaning she starts her mornings with a run, swims before dinner and goes cycling at night, alone or with partners she contacts via the Internet.

Her course load, besides the dread calculus, includes chemistry (with a weekly three-hour lab), Spanish, and a writing course on Shakespeare. Her day starts at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and doesn't end until 1:30 the next morning. "Everybody does that here," she said. "It's normal."

Keeping all her enthusiasms in balance can be a problem. "I'll be sitting down to do my homework, and a friend will say, 'I'm going to Tae Kwon Do,' and I'll think that sounds like fun.
Someone else will say, 'Hey, let's go to the mountain-climbing club,' and I'll go, 'yeah, that sounds good.' Rush [sororities]? 'OK, sure, that sounds like fun.'

"There's just so many things to do."

For a few in the Class of 2000, the road to self-discovery seems to be heading right out of town.
Transfers in and out of Ivy League schools like Penn are much less common than at most of the nation's colleges. As a rule, less than 10 percent of Penn freshmen finish elsewhere, Stetson said.

David Goldman could end up among them.

Penn, he says, is a great place. But not for him.

He is "straight-edge" - he dresses punk, plays rock guitar and sings, and spurns drugs, alcohol and meat. At Penn, he has found only one like-minded student. "I thought in a school of 10,000, I'd find more drug-free kids than there are," he said.

"I think most kids are enjoying themselves. Penn has a really good social life - lots of fraternities and bars . . . pounds and pounds of marijuana on the Quad."

The bleach-blond Goldman is planning to transfer to Harvard, if he can get in. That would put him closer to old music-playing buddies and his Trumbull, Conn., home.

Jody Vranek isn't so sure about Penn, either. "One day, I think I've got to transfer. The next day, it's not that bad."

Raised an Air Force brat in San Antonio and Brazil, among other places, Vranek can't get used to the big bad Northeast. "Everything's really fast-paced," said Vranek, who longs for the presumed languor of the University of Virginia or Texas. "When I walk downtown, people come off as rude."

Stephen Pei, a Californian, has sensed the same coldness in the Quaker City. "I'd say 'Hi' to someone, and they'd react like, 'What do you want from me?' "

Black students - who make up 5 percent of the freshman class - say they have felt sharper stings.

"I thought that by coming to Penn I'd be finding a dialogue on race relations - but no," said
Melanie Redmond, a graduate of Philadelphia's elite magnet school, Masterman.

Redmond lives at the W.E.B. DuBois House, a mostly black dormitory that has been a lightning rod for campus controversy over ethnic and racial separation. "I feel like I'm accepted here like I'm accepted at home," she said of the dorm. "I can be unhappy about something and just be unhappy, not have it misinterpreted as 'Angry Black Person.' "

Several white student columnists, writing in the Daily Pennsylvanian, have taken stabs at DuBois House. Redmond said it hurt to read the pieces, written by "immature" people who she believes have never stepped inside DuBois. "But once I realized that negative comments were just words, and those people had no power over me, I began having fun."

Three years ago, black students at Penn, angered by what they perceived as racism in the DP, swiped thousands of copies of the student paper. Redmond, who writes a youth-oriented weekly column in the Philadelphia Daily News, hopes to spark conversation among students of different races. She urges whites to visit DuBois.

"Instead of name-calling back and forth," she said, "I want to change perceptions by the year 2000."

In their introduction to college life, most freshmen pulled at least an S - Survived.
Emily Robin recovered from the horror of seeing the course load demanded by the Wharton School, one of the nation's top business schools. Now, instead of business, she's happily contemplating a career in the preservation of Cajun culture.

Stephen Pei rebounded from his initial, late-summer stroll around West Philly. Pei's idea of a campus was Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA: open and sunny, with palm trees, Spanish red-tile roofs and buff bods on Rollerblades.

By the time the stroll reached 34th Street, Pei said, "I looked ready to cry. I said, 'Where's the rest of it?' "

Pei didn't want to waste a year by transferring, and so hung in. Now he is settled into a demanding dual program involving a Wharton business degree and international studies, focusing on Mandarin Chinese. He's rushing a fraternity. He's met a few other Ultimate Frisbee freaks.

Kristen Thomas has hailed a taxi for the first time and, on weekends, cooked dinner (Ramen noodles). She has learned to do laundry the collegiate way: $2 per overstuffed load, whites and darks mixed together. "Mom gives you an iron, you use it once or twice - but after that it's a wrinkled shirt and a big sweater," she said.

Melanie Redmond has gone ice skating, taken in hockey and football games, and painted her fingernails the school colors, red and blue. Never did any of that before.

"I just wanted to try something new," she said. "You know, I'll never have the chance to go through Penn for the first time again."

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