When I committed to Penn, I was excited about the intellectual possibilities within my reach. I kept repeating that Penn was “like an all-you-can-eat buffet of knowledge that I couldn’t wait to enjoy.” However, as someone committed to his views and planning to study philosophy, politics and economics, this excitement was met with a lot of warnings from my friends and family.
His fears of the echo chamber I would be walking into altered my hopes for the potential life that Penn had to offer me. I was told not to speak my mind in class for fear of academic repercussions, not to join campus political groups that could isolate me from making friends with different viewpoints, and most importantly, reminded me repeatedly that my views would not be welcomed by the Penn community.
As someone active in my high school’s political science club and a writer for my school’s newspaper, this was disheartening. In high school I had been open with all my opinions and it had only enriched my experience; why should college be any different? In fact, it shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t have to be.
One of the main causes of the lack of diversity of thought on college campuses is student self-censorship. As I cited in my column on the subject, 80% of students report holding back their speech for fear of academic or social repercussions. I’ve encountered many of these types of students at Penn, and they regularly complain that they’re afraid to stand out because few of their peers seem to share their views.
By choosing not to speak your mind in the classroom or in extracurricular settings, opinions contrary to doctrinal opinion seem rare and thus make it seem less socially acceptable to voice your thoughts in the first place. Just one instance of self-censorship creates a negative feedback loop that makes a campus community less and less tolerant over time.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen the impacts my small contributions to campus dialogue have had on the comfort level of my peers. My friends, classmates and acquaintances have thanked me for being so open with my opinions, saying that it has given them the confidence to do the same. Whether it’s a “I loved your last column, I completely agree” comment at a party or a “he made an interesting point at the conference, I don’t share your opinion, but it was nice to see someone challenge the class.” feeling is the same. Being politically active can foster ideological diversity without causing division.
The same can be said about my individual experiences with my teachers and friends. Some of my favorite professors at Penn have been the ones who have read a column of mine, disagreed with a point I made, and forced me to not only defend my views, but expand my intellectual horizons in the process. Being constantly (sometimes too often) eager to chat about the latest issues facing our world has allowed me to fully enjoy Penn’s diverse student body, sparking some of the most satisfying and often surprising conversations of the my life I have friends who are supportive, kind, smart, and often don’t align with me politically (although I’ll regularly try to get them to see things from my point of view), but respect my passion.
It would be false to say that the warnings I received from my friends and family were not carried out in any case. I’ve had my share of negative comments from teaching assistants grading papers, misguided comments about the content of my columns, and no doubt members of the Penn community have labeled me based on my opinions. There have been times when Penn has felt like the echo chamber I was told it would be, and where I felt the campus culture was not aligned with my values. These experiences, however, are in the minority compared to the ways in which I have grown as a student, as a citizen, and as a person because of my political engagement on campus.
If you are considering political involvement at Penn, I encourage you to come to our political club information sessions on September 1st at 5pm at Cafe 58 in Irvine Auditorium. Representatives from all of Penn’s political organizations will be there, and instead of the close-knit activists I expected them to be when I first arrived at Penn, you’ll meet a collection of people ready to make a difference.
Joining the Penn Government and Politics Association and the Penn College Republicans were two of the best decisions I’ve made since arriving in Philly. I encourage every first-year politician to find the club that best suits you!
Even if campus activism isn’t for you, my advice to each of our new Quakers is to speak your mind and be proud of what you believe. Take time at Penn to develop, refine, and strengthen your opinions. If you are unapologetic about your values but are willing to listen to others, people will respect you whether they agree or not. You have an incredible intellectual opportunity ahead of you—don’t stifle it with preconceived notions of college politics. Go forth and change hearts and minds!
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a senior studying philosophy, politics and economics in Stamford, Connecticut. She is the president of Penn College Republicans and the Penn Political Union. Your email is firstname.lastname@example.org.