Top 10 Things
When I chose a university for my undergraduate, I was determined to stay away from campus institutions; I wanted to be able to escape the uni bubble easily and not get bored of the same five pubs before the end of my three years. However, Penn has the best of both worlds; the campus is everything Vampire Weekend sung about when I was in my early teens, with ivy clad walls and secluded quadrangles, but it fades out into the city so you never feel claustrophobic. I definitely miss having all of my friends live a maximum of 10 minutes away now that I’m back in London!
I really believe Philly is America’s best kept secret; the city is the perfect size and an amazing blend of arty and historic. I really don’t think it’s possible to run out of things to do, or places to explore there, and the community is really like no other.
Penn’s reputation as a world class university is well-deserved; as well as being academically challenging, their course catalogue is more diverse than I could ever imagine. I studied ‘The American Sitcom’ as a literature module during my semester there! The faculty are also the best that there are – Joe Biden has just been confirmed as a Penn professor.
4) University Pride
There is nothing that can prepare you for the moment you walk into the Penn Bookstore for the first time. Easily twenty times the size of our King’s merch store, Penn has university branded EVERYTHING, from money clips to baby clothes. My personal favourite is the Penn pens. Drastically different to King’s culture, most people at Penn will be wearing at least one item of clothing that celebrates their university or club whilst in classes, and laptops are always full of stickers proclaiming all the different things students are involved with at university. It’s a completely different atmosphere, but lovely to see how proud everyone is of their achievements.
5) West Philadelphia
Famous as the area Will Smith moved from at the beginning of Fresh Prince of Bell Air, West Philly definitely has a gritty reputation. However, I’ve found it to be one of the most beautifully community-focused areas I’ve ever come across, and I’ve spent countless days exploring the area. With so many college campuses all close together in West Philly, there’s a ton of book stores and cafes full of students. I’m obsessed with the big Queen Anne rowhouses Penn students live in just off campus, with their wraparound porches perfect for Spring.
Both Penn and Philadelphia are stepped in historical importance, and you can barely turn a corner without bumping into a tour group photographing a single brick that you didn’t know was somehow fundamental to the founding of America. Sometimes it’s over the top, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
7) Social Culture
Penn students are determined to get the most out of university; from academics, to student groups, to social activities. All that means that you’ll never be without something to do, even for a minute, when you’re at Penn. My semester coincided with the annual ‘Spring Fling’, a weekend where the entire campus is dedicated to blowing off steam.
Philadelphia’s location makes it the perfect starting point for trips along the East Coast, and I spent many an hour on buses across the US on my semester abroad. The overnight bus to Boston was definitely a challenge (6 hours each way) but so worth it!
Everyone knows Philly is famous for its cheese steaks, but there’s also a ton of other food experiences that you can’t miss out on in the city! There are street food trucks based at Penn every day, and I would’ve been more than happy spending a full undergraduate degree making my way through them all!
10) The Weather
Not something anyone usually gets excited about in relation to Philadelphia, but bear with me… Philly is freezing cold in the winter, with temperatures under -10°C and snow storms aplenty, but then gets incredibly hot as soon as summer hits. After two years of middling London seasons, having a real Winter and Summer divide was a real novelty I loved.
Unless you are over 21, Penn requires all exchange students to live on campus in one of the ‘college houses’, and the accommodation is definitely pricey – I paid the same for my single bedroom at Penn as I did for a room three times the size in Camberwell. However, you pay for the benefit of being able to get to class within fifteen minutes of waking up, and for all the free food and social events your college house will put on!
I was heartbroken when it transpired that the picturesque Quad accommodation was only for freshmen, but you’ll find that most exchange students are placed within the High Rises; Harnwell, Harrison and Rodin. These are on the west side of campus, two minutes away from Commons dining hall (with its Starbucks), and about a 10-minute walk away from the English Department building. Most importantly, you’re just 5 minutes away from a Wawa convenience store and Smokey Joe’s, Penn’s university bar.
All High Rises have rooftop lounges with views over campus and the city beyond, and smaller lounges with televisions on each floor. I stayed in Harrison, which has the added benefit of a small gym in the basement. Harnwell seems like the most social of the high rises with lots of House-organised social events. It’s also the closest to classes by about a minute! Rodin is the closest to Chipotle, so they’ve all got their benefits!
The High Rises are set out apartment-style with a living room and kitchenette space, as well as one shared bathroom. They tend to have one less bedroom than the number of people living there, so two people get their own room and the other two share a larger bedroom. If you’re really worried about sharing a room, it’s maybe worth considering living in Gregory – it’s a little bit further out than the high rises, but you’re assured to have your own bedroom. However, looking back, I wish I’d had the chance to live with a roommate! It’s a big part of US college life, and my friends all really loved the experience.
The first thing I knew about the University of Pennsylvania was that it was an ‘Ivy League’ school – I was prepared for rigorous academics. However, I think the biggest difference between Penn and King’s is the volume, rather than the difficulty. You’ll have three hours of contact time per week for each module rather than the standard two at King’s, and there’s a lot more regular assessment. Two of my classes required me to submit small informal papers every week on the assigned reading, in addition to the normal Midterms and Finals. In addition, your class participation usually counts towards your grade so you’ll miss out on key marks by not turning up to class or not contributing to the discussion. However, I found that they were more forgiving in their marking; it’s easier to get an A at Penn than it is to get a First at King’s! Your professors are also usually more willing to informally move around deadlines for you if there’s a clash with another class or commitment. There’s also no 40% cap if you’re a second past deadline – your professor will design the penalty for late submission but it’s usually based on a gradient. The challenge really comes in juggling all the different assignments and mountains of reading rather than the content itself.
Having said this, Penn really encourages you to think about your discipline in different ways, and so you’ll be ranging around other fields of study in a way you perhaps haven’t by your second year at King’s. Plus, you’ll be expected to contribute to the university beyond academics. Because of this, the library is busy at all times in its open 24/7 schedule. Penn students are committed to achieving in all areas of college life.
In a radical departure to King’s mythical timetabling system, you can see when classes are scheduled to take place before you choose your module and so can design your schedule to have a long weekend, or a second weekend in the middle of your week! However, this means that you’re in charge of making sure you get into the modules you want rather than having someone in the administrative office sort it out for you, and also making sure that you’re taking a normal course load. Penn Course Review is your best friend for this – make sure that your average course difficulty isn’t much more than 3.0, otherwise you’ll be in for a tough semester. If you find the classes you want are full, sign up to Penn Course Notify, and you’ll get an email as soon as someone drops the course so that you can jump into their space.
University City is just a stroll away from Philly’s Center City (although you’ll probably end up Uber or Lyft-ing more times than you’re proud of). Explore Old City, America’s most historic square mile, with its hip coffee shops and independent stores mixed in with Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell. South Street is one of my favourite parts of Philly, with the “magic gardens” mosaic art installation stretching across the East side of the city. At some point in your time there, you have to make like Rocky and run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, even if you don’t make it inside, and put in some serious time trying the different cheese steak options so you can find your favourite.
Although our West Philadelphia location may be most famous as the inner city haunt of Will Smith at the beginning of the Fresh Prince of Bell Air, there’s plenty of nature to be found within a half an hour journey. The Wissahickon Gorge is my favourite place to hike close to the city, and a relatively easy option if you’re new to outdoor pursuits. The Circuit Trails are one of the largest trail networks in the USA; 300 miles of connected paths perfect for exploring Philadelphia, and the Schuylkill River Trail offers a perfect 30 mile stretch for cycling or jogging alongside the water. I’d recommend heading north on the trail towards the boathouses one morning to watch the university’s rowing clubs take to the river.
Philadelphia’s location also makes it the perfect base for weekend trips across the East Coast: just 2 hours on a bus to NYC, 3 hours to DC and 6 hours to Boston.
As cliché as it sounds, my semester at the University of Pennsylvania has been the best six months of my life. I would count studying abroad as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and choosing Penn is something I’m grateful for every day!
The Penn experience is unique as ‘The Social Ivy’; there is the prestige and academic rigour of an Ivy League institution but also the focus on an extensive social life. During the week, it’s not unheard of for study groups to start their meetings past midnight but, from Thursday night to Sunday morning, everyone clears their schedules for red solo cups and frat houses. The motto ‘work hard, play hard’ was pretty much defined by Penn students! It’s definitely demanding at times to keep up (both academically and socially) but it’s so worth it. My time at Penn pushed me to my limits at times, but it’s meant that I can redefine where my boundaries are; I’m capable of a lot more than I previously gave myself credit for.
Penn has a claim to be the oldest university in the country and a president currently in office; I was expecting an uncompromising focus on the traditional. What I found was a subversive and progressive curriculum. A lot of my classes were cross-department listed so I’ve returned to King’s a lot more willing to take out-of-department modules and I’ve begun working with my professors to make my essays range across time periods and academic disciplines. More than anything, my time at Penn has confirmed to me that I want my future to be in academia, and that I want to go back to the US to pursue that goal.
I’ve always been an independent person, but I think that sometimes comes as a detriment to my academics; at Penn, I was graded on class participation which forced me to start vocalising the questions I had. I’ve gone from being a silent member of a seminar group to actively leading discussion. This has translated into my personal life too as my time abroad has helped my confidence immeasurably. I’ve gone from being anxious over making phone calls to presenting papers at academic conferences and travelling alone. This love of travel is also something that I’ve rediscovered through my time abroad; there’s so much of even Philadelphia that I didn’t get to see after half a year there, and I’m eager to see as much of the world as possible. This was partly inspired by the friends I made at Penn, friends I still speak to every day, and whom I’ve travelled to see since. Having another set of friends spread across the globe is definitely handy in saving AirBnB money, but having another perspective outside of the King’s bubble is invaluable in reminding me there’s life beyond my dissertation!