Can you recall that very first day of classes in your first year at Penn? The double-, triple-, quadruple-checking of your schedule, then of Google Maps (or maybe an actual map) to identify where exactly Steinberg-Dietrich Hall or the DRL was located. The uneasiness you felt arriving to your lecture and scanning the room for a familiar face — maybe one you vaguely remembered from an NSO event, your hall, a dining hall, anywhere. In August 2016, I didn’t have these feelings — not because I was immune to freshmen nerves, but because I had already gone through these emotions when I’d arrived on campus about six weeks earlier. Before that first day of classes, I had participated in three pre-freshmen programs — the Africana Summer Institute, the Penn College Achievement Program (PennCAP), and the launch of Wharton’s Successful Transition & Empowerment Program (STEP). I didn’t realize it then, but these experiences would resonate with me across all four years at Penn and ultimately inspire me to impact others before I left the university.
After graduating from Philadelphia’s Central High School, I couldn’t wait to start the next chapter of my academic journey. So when I received an email from the Penn Center for Africana Studies inviting me to attend the Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen, I jumped at the opportunity. The program description detailed a week-long intensive curriculum focused on 19th-, 20th-, and 21stcentury African Diaspora experiences. Perusing the course offerings, I was particularly drawn to professor Camille Charles’s Young, Gifted, and Black: Understanding the Experiences of Black Students at Elite Colleges and Universities. I thought to myself, Bingo! This was a way to meet fellow black and brown folk while studying the culture and preparing for what was in store for me — all before the semester started. I arrived on campus in July, and Africana pushed me to my perceived limits. The course was designed to mimic the atmosphere of midterms season — I had readings, analyses, reflections, and a few long essays to write and revise in one short week.
During Africana, I received an email about another program that was starting on the day that Africana concluded. In the four-week PennCAP program, I met students across many disciplines — nursing, business, engineering, the sciences, and premed — and took a math course with an unmatched professor, Nakia Rimmer. His class instilled in me the confidence that I could do the work required for Math 104, lifting an anxiety from my shoulders thanks to the patience and dedication he expressed to his students.
Also in July, I received an invitation to apply for the inaugural class of Wharton’s STEP. This four-day program designed for historically underrepresented students was unique in that it addressed my identity as a Wharton student. I met other soon-to-be freshmen, learned about resources at my disposal, and unpacked common psychological barriers that could affect achievement, all while building a sense of community with my peers. A major takeaway I remember was our discussion of imposter syndrome — the strong feeling of not belonging or deserving that could hinder performance. This conversation was impactful because after my initial acceptance to Penn, I found myself questioning my capabilities. I wondered: Would I be “enough”? Had I made the right decision to attend such a prestigious university, where I imagined many of my peers came from private schools and were well-versed in topics like economics or accounting? I realized that these questions weren’t uncommon but involved fallacies that we needed to tackle head-on to refute.
These pre-NSO programs continued to have a lasting impression on my undergraduate experience. My Africana family, consisting of our grad-student mentor and six undergraduates, remains in touch. We are truly a family — we cook together, eat together, engage in discussions of our dreams and hopes, our pain points and challenges. Our topics of conversation are limitless, and we provide each other with a great sense of motivation and consolation.
PennCAP, with its eclectic mix of students, brought an opportunity to celebrate the unique interests and many talents of my peers. I developed relationships with a diverse set of students who expanded my view of campus life. As a Penn cheerleader for my first two years, I attended almost every basketball and football game, but it was through PennCAP that I found myself at events I might not otherwise have considered, like Onda Latina’s fall dance shows or the Inspiration’s spring concerts. Check-ins with my PennCAP academic advisor, Matt Armes, always serve as a moment of reflection on how I have developed each year.
In that first STEP class, the initial dinners were small, but each year, they’ve grown considerably. The meetings are a way to reconnect while catching up on valuable lessons, eating great food, and exchanging advice for navigating Penn — like which are the must-take classes with the most exceptional professors. Aside from these scheduled reunions, I often receive emails from administrative coordinator Bernadette Butler — or, as we call her, Ms. B — noting interesting opportunities or prodding us to form study groups, which we learned are beneficial and great predictors of success in a course.
In the latter half of my undergraduate career, I became more of a resource for my fellow STEP scholars. I started to realize just how much information I had gathered over the years that my younger peers craved. I remember a student stressing about the Math 104 textbook he needed for class; without skipping a beat, I sent him to the Greenfield Intercultural Center donated textbook library — the same place where I had borrowed and returned my Math 104 book. It feels great to share the knowledge that I’ve acquired and to assist those whose shoes I was in not too long ago.
Africana was reassuring. PennCAP was experience-building. Wharton’s STEP established a great support system. Taken together, these pre-freshmen programs showed me the impact of community on multiple facets of self. Now, in my final year, I’m working with a few friends and fellow STEP participants to create a new initiative, FGLI Fridays, to celebrate the experiences and successes of Wharton’s first-generation low-income students. FGLI Fridays is a series of weekly events in February that includes a kickoff social; an MBA panel; brunch with Vice Dean Diana Robertson; dinner with GIC director Val De Cruz and the executive director of Penn First Plus, Marc Lo; and a closing lunch debrief. As a proud member of the first graduating STEP class, I’m confident we can leave a lasting legacy for future FGLI students craving the support these affinity groups offer.
Kwynasia Young W20 is from South Philadelphia, concentrating in Management with a specialization in Organizational Effectiveness at Wharton. She loves to visit art galleries, watch indie films, and bake cookies.
Published as “First Steps to Success” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.