Chardonnay Needler, ’19, attends the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia. She plans to major in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) with a minor in Cognitive Science and possibly Chinese.
Q: What draws you to PPE?
A: There’s a lot of interdisciplinary support among different departments for this major. It also has a lot of very flexible ways to get your course credits in.
They have a concentration called globalization. It’s really good for pre-law or grad school. I’m interested in looking at how the modern world affects not only international politics, but also decision-making and the international economy. Looking at linguistics and econ as ways to view globalization and the polarization of politics, of the way that we speak, the rise of populism — all that’s really, really fun. It’s very interesting to have this multidisciplinary major. I love PPE because it’s stretching my mind to think about human behavior in such fun new ways.
Also (for Cognitive Science), I knew that I couldn’t just keep on tagging more minors, so I’m like, “OK, I know what I enjoy, but I also know that I want something that will make me readily employable right after college.” I don’t know exactly what I want to do, and I don’t want to get a degree that kind of makes me go down a narrow path.
Q: Why did you choose Penn?
A: I’d say financial (reasons) were the biggest thing because Penn gave me the greatest amount of financial aid of any of the schools that I had gotten into.
I also really wanted (an) urban (environment). I’m so glad I’m here because if I were going to a rural school, I would go insane. Once a week at least, I and some of my friends go down to center city to go to the book shops, walk around and go to the markets. Being in a big city is just so great because there are all these people from all over the world.
Other reasons I chose Penn: I mean, it’s Penn. Penn was the only Ivy (League school) that I applied to because it doesn’t have that Ivy reputation. (When I visited), it felt intellectual, but it didn’t feel snobby. And I was like, “I’m down with this vibe.”
There’s a healthy balance that needs to be achieved between “Oh, I love studying things” and “I love studying this, and I’m going to make a contribution to the world — a physical, tangible contribution.” And a lot of people here have that same sentiment, where they want to make tangible change through the amazing information they’re learning.
Q: Has Penn lived up to your expectations so far?
A: Yes and no. Ease of opportunity is really great here. The school facilitates opportunities really well. Things just kind of fall into my lap, so in that way it has.
The professors are such big shots. In a class last semester, the book we were reading for the class was the official book on all things related to Chinese politics in the modern day. Three of the authors were Penn professors.
Because of (the) Wharton (business school), Penn really emphasizes connection-making, something that I’ve become uncomfortably accustomed to. Penn has this thing where you can take your professors out to lunch for free at the university club. It’s just amazing to be able to forge these (relationships). In a way, Penn can be like Country Day; the professors can know your names. You have to put in a little bit of effort, but you get tons of results.
But I was expecting everyone here to be really intellectual and love learning just as much as I do. No, they don’t. There’s so many grinders here. They’re here to study, get the degree and make the money. They don’t want to talk about political philosophy, ancient religions or foreign language. They can if they need to, but they don’t want to. But then you get a lot of people that are here to really expand their horizons and have new experiences.
And the party culture here is pretty big.
Q: How did Penn handle the effects of the pandemic?
A: Penn didn’t do a great job. I was very proactive because I’d been tracing COVID-19 for PPCG (Penn Policy Consulting Group) for a couple weeks in Korea and Singapore, so I canceled my spring break travel plans early and already began making arrangements in case we were going to get kicked out (which we were). So I lived with a friend in New Jersey for a bit and transferred all my dorm stuff there so it wasn’t lost at Penn.
I’m very glad I did because I have tons of international student friends that Penn was not kind to.
While Cornell and other schools gave over a week’s notice, Penn was constantly trying to pretend as though things were going to be fine and then gave only four days to move out, but then on the eve of the last day decided that they’d give another day. It was chaotic. I have friends who had to basically find an apartment in only three days, and they couldn’t go back home.
Q: What do you love about Penn?
A: I’d say the location and connections. There’s just so much intellectualism at my disposal. And there’s also so much room for having a fun time. “Work hard, play hard” is very true. I love the opportunities here, and I love that you can be in a club that translates poems or consults for the UN, but then you can also have parties and stuff like that.
Q: What do you dislike about Penn?
A: People here can be fake. Also, wealth is a big thing here at Penn. Sometimes it can even impede on your social life. I’ve been better about it this semester, but people go out to eat. And like — these are real people here at Penn in my class — their mom and dad are the CEO of Chinese Google, Baidu, or the global CFO of Santander or are oil barons in insert country here. Some people’s concept of money is insane. Like they’re Ubering everywhere and never take public transit. They’re going out to eat all the time.
It can be overwhelming at times to feel like, “Oh, my God, how can I even compare to these people? Because not only are they rich, but they’re smart and attractive.” And it’s like, “Whoa, I’m just a girl from Sacramento.” Sometimes it can get like that here. That’s the only thing I dislike about Penn: It shows you how competitive the real world is. That’s a good and a bad thing.
Q: How do you like the pre-professional atmosphere?
A: I like it. There’s lots of people here at Penn, professors included, who are very intellectual and want to find out the deeper inclinations of humanity for its betterment, or at least for their own personal benefit. But I need a bit of professionalism so I don’t just get lost in pursuing things that don’t open up my mind to new ways of thinking.
It’s a big culture, especially when people go to the interviews for clubs. Clubs, by the way, feel like jobs. People dress up in suits for the interviews. Everyone’s talking about finance all the time.
But that’s a good thing because sooner or later, we’re all going to have to encounter this in our lives. Might as well encounter it in college as opposed to when you’re in the workforce. I don’t think pre-professionalism is much better or worse than just competition. The pre-professionalism is what you make of it. I enjoy career fairs. I’ve been to three or four. I just want to open myself up to what I could be doing in the future.
I enjoy how pre-professionalism has made me think about what I’m doing here at college. Without pre-professionalism, you can just get caught up in “Here are what my passions are,” and not “How can I make a long-lasting societal impact because of what I’m interested in?”
Q: What classes are you taking?
A: This semester, I’m taking a political science class called Socialism. It’s really good. The information is very interesting, looking at how globalization affects government type, as well as looking at trends in welfare systems and seeing how they will impact the world in the future.
I’m taking a class called Poverty and Inequality, which is a freshman seminar, and a class called the French in the World, which is dealing with sociolinguistic variation of the French language in the Francophone world. For me, specifically, I’m looking at it inside of West Africa.
Also, Introduction to Textual Data Analysis. It’s a Python-based class on natural language processing and interpreting textual data. And Intro to Microeconomics.
Last semester I took Media Chinese. I liked the content of my political science class last semester — it was called Contemporary Chinese Politics — but I hated the way that our exams were. In-class essays suck, and I don’t think it’s good to be tested solely via in-class essays at the collegiate level. I could have written so much more and talked so much more about those concepts.
I also took Introduction to Linguistics and a writing seminar on childhood language acquisition last semester.
Q: What was the transition to online classes like?
A: I don’t vibe with online classes, to be honest. My professors are, for the most part, very good at uploading content. Three of them — French, Poverty and Equality, and Data Analysis — hold classes via Zoom or Bluejeans, but then others like my econ professor were just lazy and uploaded last year’s pre-recorded lectures.
I think Penn did all they could do, but it just isn’t the same as in person, and that’s not their fault.
Q: What is your favorite class?
A: Socialism was my favorite this semester because it was just so useful. I learned a lot about different tax schemes, how governments craft public policy, Australia’s method of collecting student loan debt (and more). It was both theory and practice as well as a bit of history to understand how the systems arose.
It introduced me to a practical way of examining domestic political economies and showed me that there are way better ways to do things.
The professor was really chill, too. He gave us his number on the first day and was just like, “Text whenever.” He also always opened things up to questions and answers every class period. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much practical politics in one class.
Also, I made some great friends in that class. We had a WeChat group chat called “socialist squad” and memed the class. Most Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d go to the dining hall, debate what we’d learned in class and talk about the Nordic and Chinese implications of those ideas.
Last semester, Media Chinese was an amazingly small seminar: 10 people. The assignments, essays, projects and presentations gave a lot of freedom of topic — I did the most exciting research I’ve done the whole year: analyzing translation differences between various Chinese-language news media to track bias during the (Houston) Rockets issues back in October, looking at views of anti-Semitism following a marketing snafu and comparing Chinese and U.S. think tanks.
Also, the professor, Mien-Hwa Chiang, is just the sweetest old Taiwanese grandmother I never had. She really is constructive. Tests were difficult, but I felt as though I really got the information.
Q: Least favorite class?
A: Intro to Linguistics was my least favorite class. The professor wasn’t dynamic. I stopped going to lecture after the first three weeks of that class because the professor would just read aloud at his website, and the website was accessible for us. The course was really easy. I don’t like it when I don’t learn anything from a course.
Q: How big are your classes?
A: My biggest class is econ. I don’t know how many people are in econ, probably about 110. It’s a lecture hall. I never went to lectures; the professor put the lectures online. I slept. But recitation is like 25 people, and you have to go to recitation. I like my recitation leader. He’s chill.
My smallest classes this semester are Poverty and Inequality or French in the World, which are both 17 people.
Q: What’s the workload of your classes?
A: It’s a lot. The thing with college is that it sneaks up on you. So there’ll be weeks where I don’t have any work, except for econ; there’s econ work every week. And then all of a sudden, they’ll be two econ problem sets, two midterms, a final paper and a Python project.
Three of my classes this semester consistently have work every week. But for two of them, it’s just readings, and the readings are for the midterms. If you didn’t do them that much before, then it’s a lot to play the catch-up game.
And then also clubs. Clubs give me so much work. The amount of work that I have every week for DoubleSpeak and for my UN club is manageable but a lot. It’s fun, though, so it doesn’t feel like work.
Q: What clubs are you in?
A: I’m in PennYo. It’s the nation’s first collegiate Chinese a cappella group. We’ve been around for almost 20 years. I love that.
I’m also in PPR, the Penn Political Review. I’m on the interview team for that, so I interview guest speakers that come and speak at the Perry World House. Basically, it’s doing Q&A’s for the political magazine with real figures, sometimes podcasts. It’s pretty fun.
I am in PPCG, Penn Policy Consulting Group. We do case studies and reports, like recommendations reports for different branches of the UN. We were going to present a couple cases on our yearly UN trip on March 27 in NYC, but it was canceled. We didn’t have a call with the council members because we weren’t top priority. Digital literacy isn’t that important when faced with this pandemic.
It’s a really fun group. We do a lot of crafting policy reports for international bodies. We have a lot of collaboration with the South Korean ambassadors and embassy.
Also — I love this one — I’m in this translation literary magazine called DoubleSpeak. It’s not just for people at Penn. We get a lot of stuff from translators, poets and authors. The goal of the magazine is the translation of poetry, so all the poems were originally in a different language. It’s really fun. I’m an editor for it as well as on the copyright management stuff.
Q: What is the club culture like?
A: They’re competitive as f—. There was one club a friend applied to this semester where like 500 people applied, and 15 people got accepted. For clubs, it’s not just like, “Oh, yeah, I’m interested in this thing. I’m going to sign up!” You have to fill out a questionnaire that has essay questions. When it is club application season, it is the same work as college apps. And then you have interviews. I probably put in more work during club application season this semester than I did when I was applying for my summer internships.
Q: What traditions have you participated in?
A: There’s a Penn tradition of going to the Penn Museum in togas. I did that. It was fun.
When you get initiated into an a cappella group, there’s always a hazing ritual. For PennYo, we had karaoke for initiation, and it was so much fun. And during karaoke, they take you in, and you have to do shots of Coke. And then they put soy sauce inside of some of the shots. It’s not even a shot — it’s like an entire glass. You have to chug these glasses, so I chugged down two glasses of half Coke, half soy sauce. They turn the lights off and mix them, so you don’t know what you’re getting. Everyone got at least one (soy sauce drink). I got two. Some people got three; that was really bad.
A big tradition for Penn people: Wawa. It’s the 24/7 convenience store, so a Penn tradition is going to Wawa at like 2 or 3 a.m. I have done that plenty of times.
Q: What was your housing like?
A: I was in Hill, which is considered to be the house everyone wants to live in because it was renovated a couple years ago. It used to suck. It’s really small, though. I was in a double in Hill, and it’s small.
But Hill has its own dining hall, its own study room, four TVs on every floor, fun private lounges, a club lounge with a pool table and a ping pong table, a gym, kitchens and a computer lab.
I had a roommate who lives in Philadelphia, so she wasn’t here sometimes during the weekends, so that was fun. She’s super chill. I’m not best friends with her. We just have very different social circles. We get along well but have things we do that irritate each other.
I wasn’t really in my room a lot, partially because it was so small. Also, I just don’t like being in a room with someone else.
Q: What’s the social scene like?
A: There are all different sorts of people. There are (2,400) people in my freshman class, yet the same names get tossed around. You’d think that anonymity would be a thing here. Not really.
There are just some really great people here. It’s fun to meet them, talk and bounce ideas off of each other. It feels like those 17th-century salons except with fun jokes. We’re all young. We’re all ambitious. We’re all here to have a fun time, too.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is a bit of a thing, especially if you’re not involved in Greek life, but I have established a vibrant social life with enough tea. It’s definitely possible to have a thriving social life and not be involved with Greek life, or clubs even. I met one of my best friends randomly during NSO (New Student Orientation) in a hallway.
The social life is what you make of it. I don’t have any qualms with the social life here. I think it’s an amazing social scene because that’s what I’m making of it.
Q: How was the transition from Country Day to Penn?
A: Socially, I transitioned really well. Anyone transitioning from high school to college is making a place in a new world. Keeping a balance between who you were in high school and who you now are in college (is important). Don’t ever lose sense of yourself.
I would say, though, don’t date your first semester at college. I think a lot of people, myself included, hear stories, and you go to college with this expectation, consciously or not, that your roommate’s going to become your best friend forever, and you’re going to find the man of your dreams all in like the same week. Like, no.
For me, the academic transition was easy. I feel like I have both more and less work here than I did at Country Day. The work here is more thought-intensive; you’re not just regurgitating information. You’re really thinking deeply about a lot of these things, which is fun.
Procrastination is a bit different in college than it is in high school. It’s a lot harder in high school; you have more frequent examinations. In college, you’ve got like three tests.
Q: How was the transition from Sacramento to Philadelphia?
A: I’ve never been a big fan of West Coast culture; it’s a little faker, not as fast-paced and a little more laid back. I’ve always been one more for the East Coast lifestyle.
However, one thing that really got to me within the first couple days is that you look at the legacy of racial tensions in this country in a new, more obvious, more unsettling light.
All of our workers — the janitors, the people who serve food at the dining halls — are African-American. And if there’s one white person working there, it’s like the head chef who’s bossing them around. It’s very unsettling to see that in the modern day and then to see people being rude to people working these minimum wage, “lower-class” jobs.
I felt very uncomfortable seeing that dynamic over and over and over again. It made me frustrated that this country is not the country that I thought it was back in California, which is at least trying to make progress in equality.
The weather in Philly is great. I’ve always enjoyed wearing big coats, scarves, pants, trenches and peacoats. I can be outside when it’s like 20 degrees. I was walking in the snow one time with some friends at like 2:30 a.m. just vibing. Also, this year was a really weak winter. I wish we had more snow days because the snow was really pretty.
Q: Have you made any freshman mistakes?
A: I’ve locked myself out of my dorm a couple times. At some point, everyone does that, though.
In college, you have these cards that swipe you into the dining halls, your dorms — the card is you. I am not Chardonnay Needler. I am 313*****. But then I lost my card after lecture. I had to go to the Penn bookstore and get a replacement card, and that was $25. And this was three weeks into the school year. That was pretty bad.
I’ve been pretty good. I didn’t sit on the piss bench. There’s a bench with Benjamin Franklin right near frat row, and apparently it’s a tradition that people piss on it. You know who’s a tourist when you see a family with a little kid sitting on the Ben Franklin piss bench. And you’re like, “Oh, that kid’s sitting in piss. Dried piss, but piss nonetheless.”
Apparently, if you step on the Penn crest within the first week or whatever, you’ll fail your midterms. I stepped on it. I didn’t fail my midterms.
Q: Any advice for the class of 2020?
A: Know how to time-manage. You’re in school all the time, so don’t lock yourself up in your room, but also save time for yourself. I didn’t save enough time for myself last semester. You should really consider not only taking time for your academic needs and your social life needs, but also take time for yourself and to deeply reflect on your experiences, goals and ambitions.
Keep doing that thing that is your meditation exercise. For some people, it’s keeping a journal. For me, it’s jotting down interesting thoughts I have about society as well as music and song composition.
Remember that your intelligence is not attached to a number, whether it be GPA, SAT, etc. Also know that in the modern world, pure intelligence is not the only thing that’s necessary for succeeding. A lot of what makes someone successful is unquantifiable characteristics related to that person.
Take that fact and turn it into confidence. Because confidence is invaluable to all aspects of life — socially, academically, in the workplace, in the dating pool, etc.
Learn for the sake of learning. You can be very knowledgeable about something and not necessarily have the best grade in the class. You have to stop defining yourself in very easily quantifiable units.
Also, just have fun. Get a summer job doing s— that you don’t want to do. It’ll give you new experiences. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to do something that you don’t want to do because sometimes it’s the stuff that you don’t want to do that you end up liking the most.
Even experiences that don’t work out in the end still give very valuable lessons. Since we’re at a point in our lives when we’re very young, don’t do anything crazy, but don’t be afraid to not be a stickler.
When people ask me, “Chardonnay, don’t you have homework due? You’re fine just talking about quantum computing at 1 a.m.?” F— yeah! I don’t know the next time I’ll have this opportunity. Conversations like these are invaluable. The test will always be there; I can always make time to study for that test.
You will always have another test, another homework assignment, another project, another essay, but you won’t always have every opportunity that you have with a human being. And it is really the experiences you get outside of studying for a test that prove to be so much more valuable and much more long-lasting.