“My experiences at Penn so far have been overwhelming,” writes Karisma Maheshwari in the Daily Pennsylvanian‘s 34th Street. An exchange student from Mumbai, she says,
My idea of time has changed; it turned into little blocks, each with an allotted productive function, with a few stolen gaps to watch BoJack Horseman. The blank wall above my desk turned into a system of aggressive yellow Post–its detailing my to–do list, which ranged from attending resume workshops to buying razors.
Not only is Maheshwari experiencing a new culture in the US, she’s also acclimating to the University of Pennsylvania’s “hyper-productiveness”—and learning to cope by putting on what her fellow students at the Ivy League school call “Penn Face.” Penn Face is the outer look of I’ve-got-it-all-together even though my stomach is in knots. It’s matching the smiles of those around you, regardless of how you feel. It’s . . . well, Penn students can define it better themselves:
Those on the Penn campus aren’t unique in how they handle stress. Students at Stanford have their own version of hiding what’s inside, calling it “Duck Syndrome.” It refers to the image of a duck placidly floating on the surface of the water while underneath its feet are paddling frantically. Tiger Sun writes in The Stanford Daily,
We put on a brave face and a wide smile when we go to our classes and see our friends, but on the inside, the pressure is slowly tearing us apart. During one of my first weeks at Stanford, I had a talk about this with some other kids: It sometimes feels like the Stanford experience is shrouded in a cloud of superficiality. I think it really helped to talk about this, and I encourage others to engage in this kind of discussion. What’s really going on inside everyone’s heads? Are people what they seem?
Chances are you’re not studying at an Ivy League school (or at Stanford), but that doesn’t mean you aren’t familiar with your own type of Penn Face. Maybe you’re part of another group that puts on masks to make a show of strength.
Below is how Lucy Hu, another Penn student, illustrates Penn Face in The Daily Pennsylvanian. As you read it, replace the occurrences of Penn with your job title or the name of the place where you live. Does it describe your version of the face that you put on for others to see?
Last semester, I was depressed. I had separation anxiety. I planned to take a leave of absence. Above all, I was convinced that I wasn’t strong enough to be at Penn. But sitting at Commons one lunch, I laughed along with friends even though I was too anxious to eat. I described how busy my classes were even though I couldn’t swallow my food.
When your mind tells you that you weren’t cut out for Penn, you desperately protect yourself from others finding out. The last thing you would do is reveal that you cannot handle this place and risk being seen as weak. The facade of being OK manifests as a shield for your reputation.
Hu says this type of behavior “is intrinsic to competitive environments.” And Yana Milcheva, an exchange student from Bulgaria, agrees that competition is a factor. “I think that students [at Penn] are more inclined to be competitive rather than collaborative,” she tells Maheshwari. “They would prefer to work on their own and get a better grade, rather than just helping each other out.”
Funny that the students at the University of Pennsylvania feel as if they’re in competition with each other when they’re all part of the same team.
Funny, too, when the rest of us do the same thing.
(Karisma Maheshwari, “Exchange Students Share Their Experiences with Penn Face,” 34th Street, March 16, 2018; Tiger Sun, “Duck Syndrome and a Culture of Misery,” The Stanford Daily, January 30, 2018; Lucy Hu, “Penn Face Is a Part of Who We Are,” The Daily Pennsylvania,” September 26, 2017)
[photo: “Smile in Subway,” by Maxime Guilbot, used under a Creative Commons license]