I attended the University of Pennsylvania from 2013-17.
The Ivy League schools have particular programs for community college transfers, or “working professionals” as they like to call them. UPenn is the only one that gives the same degree to their token poor… I mean, working professionals… That the traditional students get. Let me back up a bit to explain how I got there.
I grew up in a deep red area of central Pennsylvania that was somehow both conservative and elitist. In the early 90s when I moved there at the age of six, there was testing for autism, but nothing like it is now, or I may have gotten the help I needed at the time.
I was bored within a few weeks of first grade, and because of this, the teacher put me on independent assignments that let me not participate in most of the classes. This continued through fifth grade, so I spent five formative years basically working independently and doing whatever I wanted.
This didn’t turn out so well when I hit junior high, both socially and academically. I never learned study skills, how to be a part of a class, or that I had to participate with everyone else. To make an extremely long story short, I was politely asked to leave high school after my tenth grade year when I had long since checked out of caring about anything.
I got my GED at 16 by going to Florida where my grandmother lived, because unlike in Pennsylvania, you could take it at that age instead of having to wait until your class graduated like in Pennsylvania. I aced it, which surprised people, considering my track record in school. Therefore, the idea was to try to go to community college where my mom worked. This didn’t go well. I was 17, and struggled even more with classes that seemed like they were optional to attend. I tried again at 20, and I just wasn’t fit for it at the time.
After spending eight years scraping by and working retail, I decided to give it another shot. This time, at age 26, I went back to school and started getting A’s in everything. The years of working and the age difference had given me a greater appreciation for education, and even though I had the same struggles I did the first time around (sitting still, focusing, being distracted by sounds), I excelled. After three semesters, I was offered a membership into Phi Theta Kappa, the community college equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa, and the offers for four-year transfers started rolling in.
Penn, being accessible from where I lived near Harrisburg by Turnpike and Amtrak, was the only one I applied to, and I got in almost immediately. I’ll save the story for that four-year, 100-mile daily commute for another time, this isn’t about that.
I got to be immersed in a completely different world for four years, where students with relatives like Trump and Biden had been preparing for their Ivy League admission their entire lives. Here I was, still working as an assistant manager at a retail store, and to say I felt some economic disparity would be an understatement. However, that was mostly with other students.
I had some of the most amazing professors and grad student mentors I could’ve ever wished for. I didn’t start getting treated for autism and other issues until my junior year, which made such a world of difference that I only wish I’d known about it sooner, but even before that, I was pulling honors grades.
Since I don’t really celebrate anything involving holidays, reflecting on three professors who made a difference in my life seemed appropriate. If you’re ever fortunate enough to attend Penn, the traditional method or the lucky alternate way into the school like I did, regardless of your major, I highly recommend taking a class from these three amazing women.
Professor Meta Mazaj
One of my majors was cinema and media studies. While I started off being interested in screenwriting, which I’ll get to with the next professor, what ended up drawing my greatest passion was theory. Film theory, media theory, analysis of such, and philosophical implication. Some of this had been started through the journalism major I was attending community college through, but it really stepped up here.
Professor Mazaj was the biggest reason I dove so deep into these ideas.
I took five classes from Professor Mazaj over a few years, including Film Theory, History in Film, and World Cinema. While I didn’t end up pursuing film, the practice of analyzing film from a theoretical and cultural perspective taught me so much about modern media and interpretation thereof.
Professor Mazaj was an absolute delight, never making anyone feel unwelcome or out of their league. Her lectures were always engrossing and entertaining, and the papers she assigned always brought out the best in me. I’d still be grateful for taking her classes if I never saw another movie in my life.
Professor Kathy Van Cleve
As I mentioned before, I initially wanted to go into screenwriting. These skills came in handy after graduation when I started writing skits for podcasts, and eventually two full-length radio plays. However, it isn’t just film that I learned from Professor Van Cleve. Story structure, being relatable, writing characters that have clear motivations, stories that make sense and appeal to more than just my own ideas, Professor Van Cleve’s workshop-style class taught me more than I’d ever learned before.
I took three classes with Professor Van Cleve, including one with her partner, Professor Emory Van Cleve which was called the Art and Business of Cinema. These classes were so unique and innovative that they broke the mold for what I thought creative classes could be in multiple aspects.
The objective of the Advanced Screenwriting class I took with Professor Van Cleve twice was probably pretty obvious: write a screenplay. While that may not sound like the most appealing idea to many, it was the method by which we learned and feedback was achieved that made this class legendary.
By certain deadlines, we needed to have at least 30 pages of a draft ready to go. Three people would be workshopped in the three hour class period. The writer of the draft would then pick all the characters in the work and assign roles to the rest of the class, who would be reading along. Professor Van Cleve would narrate all the direction and action, while the rest of the class read the pieces out loud. Given the creative types that took classes like this, I had the privilege of being in classes with people who are now working in Hollywood. I even interviewed one of them on my former podcast.
Nick Marini, a class act and a really talented actor, was the one who always got the best roles in reading, and who can blame them? When you write a piece to be performed, you want the best voices to bring your characters to life, for better or worse. Hearing people read what you’ve written gives you an idea of how your words sound outside your head, but instead of reading them out loud yourself, which has its own merit, a class full of contemporaries reading your work and then offering extensive feedback was extremely useful.
Professor Van Cleve made learning about writing and story structure not only accessible, but the class format was interactive, unique, and worth every second of attending every class. The Art and Business of Cinema class was almost like a semester-long roleplay, in which through groups, you would imitate the process of making a movie, from pitching the idea to selecting roles, and by the end, one scene would be acted out and submitted for a semester-end Oscar ceremony. There was nothing like it I’d ever seen, and I learned so much about the business aspect of cinema, which is what conversely made me not want to go into it. No regrets, however. I learned a lot, and drew the inspiration for my first novel in the process. That project showed me that I preferred to write in that form rather than screenplay.
Professor Marion Kant
I owe Professor Marion Kant a dinner every week for several years for how much she taught me in one critical semester of travel writing. The class just so happened to be in the midst of the 2016 election, and that made writing in context significantly higher in the stakes than it might’ve normally been.
For an autistic person, I cannot stress enough how knowing exactly what someone wants from you can make us thrive. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but I’ve never been good at navigating the language of “what shouldn’t need saying” or “this isn’t what I want, but you figure out what it is I want.” Professor Kant had no issue telling you exactly what she wanted, and what she thought of it when you gave it to her.
First, we picked a location in Philadelphia that we would be able to travel to frequently. In my case, I chose Franklin Field, the football stadium, since I was working for the football team at the time. Every week, we would read assignments that fit within some aspect of travel writing, whether it be sound, silence, history, danger, and many others, and then write a piece fitting within that idea.
Every essay would be exactly 500 words; no more, no less. Given the brevity of these pieces, all of them would be read and commented on in the class, and since there were only nine total students, this was not difficult to do. I’d never even considered creative travel writing until this class unlocked that within me, and with the therapy I’d been getting with learning how to be a human again through understanding autism, my writing powers were unleashed. I ended up writing an entire book during this class, in addition to my scheduled classwork.
Furthermore, the style and ideas implemented in this class provided a basis for my future in writing. Not only did what I learned in her class help me decide how I was going to write and what I was going to write, but the methods through which I tapped inspiration in order to write and why I needed to. Granted, the circumstances were unusual, given one of our more infamous alum at UPenn was elected President that semester, but I’d like to think Professor Kant’s class would’ve unlocked this regardless.
My master’s thesis at this point is a huge homage to this class and what it meant to me, as I now write 500-word travel essays and categorize them within some of the ideas from that class. That has been the project I’ve devoted the most amount of time to by far, and I think it’s fair to say that I may not be who I am today if it wasn’t for her and that class. She inspired me in a way that I can’t even explain to this day, but the limitations and expectations of that class made writing simple and explosive in a way that I’d never known before, and haven’t stopped using since.
I’m sure all of you have had teachers or professors who have affected your lives. I encourage you to reach out to them and let them know that. You never want to wait too long to tell someone you’re grateful. Two different teachers visited me at the store I was working at when I was still in Pennsylvania, and I was able to thank them for reaching me at one of the most difficult times in my life. Unfortunately, within a year, both of them had passed away. While I’m sure I’m just a blip on the radar in comparison to years of teaching and thousands of students, being able to thank someone for positively influencing your life is never time that is wasted.