It worked

Coming to terms with a strange graduation


May 30, 2020 · 7 min read

Me and my friends Alice and Dom (two of my quarantine compatriots) atop the beloved love statue

About two weeks ago I (virtually) graduated from Penn. The past four years were capped by an odd 3 months of pseudo-quarantine from my house near 42nd and Spruce—about 3 blocks from the campus where I had spent the past 3.75 years working, growing, and having a really good time. My classmates and I were effectively weaned off of college and it's made things seem almost a little...fake? Definitely not as sappy as I'd expected.

In context of the global pandemic and, more recently, the extreme unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, and the fact that on graduation day Penn's fight song streamed in over Zoom instead of from a set up trumpets blaring on Locust Walk, I've found it effectively impossible to wallow in nostalgia.

Nonetheless, the past three months was a transformative ending to my time at Penn spent with friends both at home and virtually, some new habits, and my last set of classes. I will never forget this time and, juding by the tenuous recovery we are staging from COVID-19 and national reckoning we are having with pervasive racial biases in the systems of all and the hearts of some, it seems like the world won't either.

Anyhoo...I wanted to take a step away from the news and reflect a little...

How I'm feeling

You know that feeling when you refresh the browser and the error no longer flashes up in the Chrome Dev Tools? You finally figured out why the Redux action wasn't being fired? Dope stuff. Or maybe when you finally cracked the memory leak that kept showing up when you made several files in your CIS 380 PennOS file system? Or when you navigated your way through your four years at Penn and walk away with some degrees? Nice stuff.

You always knew you'd eventually fix that Redux problem en route to this app with a feature set you knew you'd eventually be able to deliver on. So why do it? Well, you get better and better every time. You test your productivity. Maybe you work with a new package. You (hopefully) make end users happier. You build stronger bonds with your collaborators. There are a bunch of side effects in getting from point A (no app) to point B (an app) even if you knew you'd always get there. I don't see graduating from Penn much differently.

A product of the system

So not everyone has these experiences, but a lot of people I associate with do. Not everyone has used Redux. Not everyone studies CS or has gone through the Penn CS curriculum. Regardless, a lot of us (perhaps all of us) do things with really low technical risk.

Not everyone walked away from Penn (or their own college, high school, entry level job, ...) in what I would call an "expected" state. Penn is a system. It takes students in, let's them eat up some education, and then plops them out. There are some great things to this system. Great people, engaging content, an exploratory and relatively unrestricted lifestyle, etc.

For me, the Penn system just kinda worked. Yeah I had to refresh the page a few times and fight some bugs and allocation issues, and by no means was it easy, but I made it through without triggering any serious failure modes. For a lot of my friends, the system didn't work quite as smoothly. Also for a lot of my friends, going to Penn presented huge technical risk. Some of my peers took leaves of absence necessitated by mental health emergencies, some were (and still are) strattled by almost incomprehensible levels of debt, some were disillusioned by the educative structures and struggled to find motivation to push on, others weren't quite able to figure out what professors want. There are a whole score of failure modes at Penn and across higher education which many suffer from. The stories of these students illustrate that the system often does not do a good job of helping them out when things do go wrong. These problems certainly need to be fixed. I just happened to not really run into them. I'm lucky and privileged.

I was fortunate to grow up in a really nice town (s/o Wellesley, MA). I went to a pair of really nice high schools. I happened to develop a set of habits which transitioned well to the demands of Penn. I knew what to expect from myself and from a system like Penn. Effectively, I could put my head down, trust the process, and do pretty well.

Why Penn?

If you were to jump back 8 years to when I started high school and tried to forecast to today, there'd be very little uncertainty that I would reach a place much like the one I happen to find myself in today. To the extent that life is about challenging yourself on the path to helping others, why waste the time doing something you (and the people around you) always knew you could do? That's a helluva question and I hope I can come up with a good answer.

I want the answer to be better than "this is what you have to do to get a good job to have a good family to have a good life." I think it's hard to argue that the path I took optimized for growth or impact in the short term. Coming out of these four years I'm in a place where I'm more confident in myself, my habits, and the support systems around me than ever before.

What's cool about a system like Penn (and the education which prefaced it) is maybe you know how it'll help shuttle you from point A to point B but you don't really know what you'll pick up along the way. Sure, I expected to be a part of some extracurriculars, but I couldn't have envisioned building essential software for students at Penn with the most driven, diverse, fun, and inquisitive group of studs that is Penn Labs. I expected to be a part of a unique, storied environment of learning, but I couldn't have foreseen learning about alternative ownership structures or mechanisms for improving cities from instructors who have practiced such teachings their whole careers. I expected to hone my presentation skills, but didn't foresee I'd teach fellow students about JavaScript alongside one of my best friends. There are countless microcommunities and lessons from the past four years that I've been a part of which are pure blessings. This is the stuff you look back on and just feel warm. College is unique. For those who take a pretty straight path through Penn as I did, at the margins we carve out a unique path from being a freshman to being a graduate. So yeah it was a clear path, but, man, was it a good one.

Hopefully I'm a little more well rounded and open to the complexity and diversity of the world in addition to knowing how to write some code and better manage a group of people.

Some lovely housemates

Personality pic of my housemates minus Adam and Kenny 🥺

It continues

People are most productive when they're in systems that fit them. A large point of college is to "test the waters" and get an inkling for what industries, modes of thinking, and types of work make you tick and don't burn you out. Ideally you also get an inkling for what beyond work makes you happy, confident, and at peace with your decisions. Not developing this second set of competencies can make Penn really tough and can make life after it even tougher.

Professor Andrew Lamas, instructor of some of the lessons I mentioned above, encouraged us (his students) to find and follow our own unique "intellectual agenda" which is at the intersection of:

  1. What we like
  2. What we are good at
  3. What the world needs

This seems to be a pretty true statement on a few fronts:

  1. A purposeful life is one of continued learning. I hope to never stop yearning for information, context, and growth post-college.
  2. Life's short. Who know's what's real or what happens when the consciousness is no longer in our heads. We should enjoy the trip.
  3. Contribute back to the world. Keep the ball rolling. Leave a mark. There are people and groups worse off than yourself.

Our intellectual agenda plays out in the systems we find ourselves in. There's a symbiotic relationship here where these two concepts shape each other (Penn is not the same without students and Penn shapes its student , companies are not the same without employees but companies inform what employees work on, ...).

Going back to the whole "it worked" thing, the world certainly didn't need me to get a Penn education. At least, definitely not from a first-order, shorter-term thinking point of view. We put ourselves in the Penn system to optimize for building a strong basis for our respective intellectual agendas and effectively take out a loan on doing work that actually, truly matters. Sure I interspersed my studies with some freelance work, internships, relationship building, and the like, but it's hard to stage any argument much beyond that the last four years were first and foremost for myself. There's probably no greater privilege a 17-22 year old can be given.

I can't wait to build on this foundation and start producing and finding systems with a powerful symbiosis of growth and impact. I can't wait for what's next. I can't wait to find more things that work for me and which, just like Penn, at the margins make life so rewarding.

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