Academic Reflections from a First-year Master's Student at UPenn

By Tianyang Zheng

Little did you and I know… two school semesters have gone and passed… and so has my first year as a grad student at Penn GSE! Time really flies. I still remember my first time stepping foot onto Locust Walk and admiring the architecture of the campus buildings. Fascinated by the big, half-split button right by Van Pelt Library and the bench where Ben sits reading his newspaper, I remember taking endless photos on my phone, trying to capture it all. Last August feels so far away now. In the past 10 months, I laughed, teared up, and learned a lot. I want to share with you some of the things I have learned in my first year as a Penn grad student. 

  • It is okay to not know
    When you enter a new environment (e.g. a new school), you will meet new people, visit new places, take new classes, etc. It is okay to take your time to figure out the class schedule, the classrooms you will be taking courses in, the different campus buildings you will spend time in, etc. It is all a process, and it takes time. I learned a lot while trying to find a study room in the Van Pelt Library with a friend, which we booked in advance. Once we arrived at the library, we walked back and forth on one of the floors, trying really hard to find the room number of the study room. Then, when we were unable to, we asked the person at the front desk of the floor for help. A kind woman told us that we had to go down the hall, where we had just come from. We were both confused and went back to try to find the study room again. We learned that the study “room” we booked was not an actual room, but rather a booth located in an open space. We both chuckled about our different understandings of the study “room”. We are all learning and growing along the way. And now, not only do we have a funny story to tell, but we will also be able to find our study booth. I would like to think that this was a win-win situation! 
  • It is okay to ask for help
    Reach out to your professors, TAs, classmates, friends, and faculty members for support when necessary. Whether you need emotional, academic, or financial support, there are many resources available for you here at Penn as well as outside of Penn. When you are entering a new environment, you will often need to familiarize yourself with the system and customs of that place. This definitely takes time. It is okay to ask for help if you are unsure about something. Here are some online resources that you may access if you need support.
  • It is okay to try things you have never done before
    Don't be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, to try new things (e.g. go to different places, events, etc). New experiences can help you grow as I learned working at the Netter Center to help high school students with mentoring in my Spring semester. I worked as a Silverman fellow at a local high school in Philly, where I provided support to students on their class projects and assignments. I experienced what it was like to be in a local high school in Philly, right alongside the students. Connecting with local high school students taught me that we all have different life experiences that shape who we are and how we view our world. As much as I was helping the students, I felt like the students were helping me. Even though it was in different ways, the life lessons these students taught me were equally important. Sitting either in the classroom or the assembly hall made me reminisce about my time in high school, too. Being in a new environment and getting to see and do things first-hand showed me a lot about different real-life contexts and how to understand them in ways I didn’t before (e.g. through a theoretical vs. practical sense). 
  • It is okay to not be okay
    It is okay to struggle. Please know that you are not alone in what you are going through. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need to. Support is here when you need it. At times, I had to email one of my professors to ask for extensions during my first semester of grad school, and I was able to receive the academic support I needed at that time. I remember working on one of my assignments for a difficult course, and I still had an overwhelming amount of stuff to get done before the deadline. I sent an email to the professor asking for an extension since I was struggling with the assignment. The professor was very kind and agreed to provide me with a brief (but life-saving) extension! While it is very important to stay on track with your schoolwork,  unexpected life circumstances happen, and they can affect your academic process. It is more than okay to ask for help and find the time you need to perform at your best! I know it may seem scary at first, to ask for help, but I can assure you that it is really not as scary as it seems. I did it and so can you!
  • It is okay to change
    As you begin a new semester here at Penn, you are entering a new school environment and meeting new classmates, friends, professors, and faculty members. You are not only encountering change, but you yourself are also changing along the way, and that is more than okay! Change allows us to become better versions of ourselves. One of the biggest changes I believe I have encountered so far is learning to adjust to new academic expectations. I was a bit new to certain course materials related to education specifically. It was challenging for me to understand some of the content material at first (e.g. learning how to develop learning objectives and create assessments for students from the perspective of a future educator). However, I believe that these challenges allowed me to change and adapt accordingly. I know that even when I may not be certain about some of the course content, I will move forward with courage (e.g. asking the professor for clarification, having in-class discussions with classmates, etc). I now know that even if I may not know everything, I can learn and grow with experience and time. 
  • It is okay
    That is it. It is okay. Whatever you are going through… whatever you are feeling at this current moment, it is okay. Did something change in your life? It is okay. Did something make you want to change your career path? It is okay. Did you wish you had done this or that (more)? It is okay. Whatever you are thinking about, whatever you are hoping for, it is okay. We are all human. Let’s learn together!

My experiences may not be exactly the same as yours, and that is okay. Our unique experiences help shape who we are, not only as students but also as students of life (cheesy but true). I hope that these reflections can give you some perspective on what it is like to study at Penn as a grad student. Stay tuned for my reflections as a second-year grad student next year!