op-ed piece by Ariel Horn commending
the prematriculants' electronic seminar

Daily Pennsylvanian
p. 6
Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Extend Penn's virtual welcome far more often

Ariel Horn

A month after I had received my early acceptance letter to Penn, the excitement began to die down. The bounce in my step dwindled, the twinkle in my eye faded and my meaningful December relationship with my mailman came to an abrupt halt. Slowly but surely as January pressed on, I changed from a neurotic first semester senior into a sluggish second semester vegetable.

For someone as neurotic as me, January was a tremendous letdown. All the energy that had fueled the first months of senior year spent waiting for "The Letter," and all the nights spent secretly plotting the ruin of other students in my high school who had applied early to Penn were gone. I began to grow sick of high school. Mocking the kid who had bought out the Harvard store upon his acceptance just lost the thrill it had had on December 16th; stealing his monogrammed pencils, socks and erasers and watching him squeal like a frantic pig when he couldn't find them had lost its kick.

Driving home from school one day in my 1986 station wagon, I flipped on the radio and heard "Snow," the Canadian rapper, and didn't change the station. All was lost. Until I checked my e-mail that day. I had received a letter from Al Filreis, an English professor at Penn. He was writing to invite me -- and a group of other incoming freshmen -- to join his "experimental online class for incoming University freshmen of the Class of 2002." The class would discuss some poems and books give students a taste for what academic life at Penn would be like. I shrugged my shoulders and thought, "Why the hell not?"

Not a week had passed when I came home from school one day and found 35 e-mails in my mailbox, each written in answer to the first assignment posted to the listserv: "Describe yourself as if you were another person or thing and why you share those attributes."

And suddenly I found myself in a virtual classroom with Jane Goodall, Gustave Mahler's seventh symphony, Gandhi, Winnie the Pooh, Montgomery Burns, Rosa Parks and even a self-described hybrid between Seinfeld, Mother Teresa and Captain Ahab. As I sorted through all these e-mails, I knew that the asparagus state of senior year had met its match.

I was dumbfounded by how smart my virtual classmates were. This is what I had wanted when I applied to Penn -- people who would actually challenge what I had to say, who would disagree with me, who would move me to justify everything I said. What I wanted to find at Penn academically I found online before I ever set foot on Penn's campus. Shortly after the first e-mail, I regained the bounce in my step that I had lost when the excitement of the acceptance letter died down.

Every day until I arrived at Penn the next fall, I received -- at the very least -- 15 e-mails a day on topics ranging from a book we had been "assigned" to read in the class, to students' questions about what to bring to school, to panic attacks about starting at Penn and roommate dilemmas.

Before I had even set foot onto Penn's campus my freshman year, I was already here. Minus the ginkgo trees and muggings, I felt like I was in Philly.

Before I knew it, I had become the very person whom I would otherwise mock: An e-mail junkie obsessed with her e-mail Batcave, "friends" with people she didn't even know. Even more embarrassing, I'm still good friends with some of these people.

As the best orientation program for incoming freshmen I could possibly imagine, everyone should at least have the opportunity to join in on this experience. Not everyone had this experience. In fact, very few people have. This past year the program expanded tremendously for the Class of 2003 and more "classes" began online. But Penn should go further. As the best orientation program for incoming freshmen I could possibly imagine, everyone should at least have the opportunity to join in on this experience.

With the help of professors who are willing to volunteer to participate in this program and students as enthusiastic as the ones in my class, this can happen. And the rewards for participating will be invaluable: Allowing students to meet professors on a daily, personal level, allowing students to meet other students who will be arriving at Penn with them and fostering an academic community before students meet in person.

Penn is not just about meeting new people, but being challenged by them. Penn's intellectual community sometimes needs a virtual kick in the pants to get going. What better way to start that than with the Internet?

Ariel Horn is a sophomore English major from Short Hills, N.J. Candy from a Stranger appears on Wednesdays.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/ariel.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 17-Nov-1999 22:23:41 EST