Alex Archive

Archive: Exchange at Penn: A Glass Half Full

My first Correspondent blog post for Penn Abroad. Original:

Coming back to Penn for my second and final semester was weirder, in some ways, than joining for my first. I was lucky enough to get the chance to go home for Winter Break; after a 24-hour trip through New York, Boston and London, getting back to my parents’ in (Old) York, the familiarity of being back in the UK after having spent four months on this incredible whirlwind journey across the Atlantic was jarring, to say the least. Nonetheless, it was lovely to be home again; after rediscovering both the Tesco meal deal as well as the Nando’s Sunset burger (if you know, you know), taking a trip back to Edinburgh to see my friends, and decking my family out in fresh Penn merch, I felt refreshed and ready to get the most out of the rest of my time here.

As I wrote in my recent article for the Daily Pennsylvanian, though, the cultural reset of returning to the Penn Bubble takes a minute to adjust to. More than anything, a lot of things were set to change in my life here: I had a new room in Gutmann College House and new roommates along with it, new classes to start and clubs to join, as well as having to readjust my social life after a lot of my closest friends either went back home having finished their exchange here, or had left Penn to go on their own adventures abroad.

However, it was super exciting to see the rest of my friends again, and getting back into the exciting business of life here never takes very long: I absolutely adore my roommates, I’ve already made so many new friends, and my schedule new schedule is very solid, though I do seem to spend about half of my time studying with friends in the Williams Café. On catching up with people after a few weeks apart, one question I seem to be asked a lot is how I feel about being halfway through my exchange, with less than a semester to go at Penn. Initially, having been so preoccupied with reorientating myself on coming back, this wasn’t something I’d really given much thought to and so wasn’t really sure how to answer.

At first, the thought of already being halfway through my time here was more than a little terrifying. I’d had the absolute time of my life in my first semester: I’d fallen in love with the enhanced sense campus community, incredible sporting and academic facilities, and much more personal teaching style delivered at Penn. As much as I absolutely adore Edinburgh and couldn’t wait to go home next year, I didn’t want my time here to end. And while that end didn’t feel quite imminent yet, I’d be lying if I claimed that my first reminder of its distant existence didn’t shake me a bit.

Equally, though, the more I’ve thought about it, the more my perspective has changed on the time I have left, limited though it is. Thinking back to all I’ve been through since I arrived last August, I’ve already accomplished and experienced so much: from blaring my pride for my newfound community on Homecoming weekend, to the chaos of running a conference for 500 people in downtown Philadelphia with the International Affairs Association, one of the clubs I’m in here, even down to the times I’ve simply smiled to myself while hurrying to class down Locust Walk, taking a second to marvel at and appreciate that I’d actually managed to make it to this beautiful and exhilarating place.

With all of that context in mind, looking forward to the end of my time here from the midway point suddenly became a lot less daunting. Yes, I do only have a few months left, but if those few were going to be anything like the ones preceding them, then I know I’ll be in for the time of my life. Rather than fearing the end, I’ve determined, I am going to make sure I enjoy and appreciate every second of my Penn journey while it lasts. That, I think, is what an exchange should be all about.


Archive: We are all visitors

My final piece and “Farewell Column” at the DP! Original:

“A year is a long time.”

That’s a phrase that my friends often echo back at me when I bring it up mid-conversation. As my exchange year at Penn comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being here for what is proportionally a very short period, but what to me has simultaneously felt like both a lifetime and an instant. But what I’ve realised is that by the time we reach the end of what is, for everyone, a relatively fleeting visit to Penn, most of us feel the exact same way.

When I was a first-year back in Edinburgh, my friend sent me this article by the late Marina Keegan, which she wrote upon leaving Yale shortly before her tragic death (and which you should absolutely read). She describes the sense of belonging she felt on campus as “the opposite of loneliness”, for lack of a better word. While I thought the article was beautiful and loved the concept, it wasn’t something I quite understood on an emotional level at the time.

Little did I know that that was exactly what I was subconsciously looking for when I applied to attend Penn almost two years ago. I understand now that what always drew me to American college was how the experience is so centred around community. We (or you, I suppose?) have a real pride in our institution, conveyed through school spirit events, excessive merch-wearing, sports fanaticism and more, which doesn’t exist at all in the UK aside from at Oxford or Cambridge. I wanted to feel like I was a part of that: the emphasis of my application essays was on making my mark here just as much as any normal student would.

But what I was worried about was that I would be limited by my temporary status as a “visitor,” and I wouldn’t be able to truly fit in with everyone who goes here full-time. Nonetheless, I soon realised that I needn’t have worried at all: just like all of my first-year and transfer compatriots, the Penn community has accepted me with open arms. The DP, specifically, has been a source of so many incredible memories: from the thrill of seeing my articles in print, to donning a press pass to skip the lines and cover events, to simply debating issues on campus with the incredibly well-informed and diverse group of perspectives in the Opinion department. Between here and all of the friendships, classes and clubs I’ve been lucky to be involved with across campus, I truly feel that I’ve found my place here. All of us have. It’s been everything I’d hoped for.

Now, less than a year later, I get to experience the flipside to joining with the new students: wrapping up and preparing to leave alongside the graduating seniors. It’s a deeply bittersweet experience: final GBMs, new execs and senior send-offs, outgoing parties. Your final lecture. Your final paper or exam. Your last stroll down Locust Walk.

More than reflecting on my final interactions with what I’ve spent months or years taking for granted, I’ve found the oddest experience to be Quaker Days. Watching the fresh-faced class of 2027 come in and gaze in wonder at our campus, many of them for the first time, served as a stark reminder that my Penn experience is ending just as theirs begins, and that our paths here will never really cross. 

Leaving Penn is equal parts daunting and exhilarating. But having spent so much time and effort cementing my place here, it’s disconcerting to me that come August, it’s simply going to move on without me. Nothing has ever made me feel more like a visitor than that.

Coming to terms with that process, though, has reminded me of just how much this place means to me. I wish I could argue to Marina Keegan now that to me, there is a word for the opposite of loneliness: connectedness. That’s what I’ve found, what we all find, at Penn. And no, I don’t just mean connections on LinkedIn: I mean that community which stretches far beyond our physical and temporal presence on campus (even if I don’t get to officially become an alumnus). It’ll be there every time we put on our P-sweaters or our Penn caps, every time we return for homecoming or with our families, every time we reminisce with our former peers, and every time we cheer when Princeton loses. It’s a tattoo on my heart that I will wear with pride wherever I go.

Everyone’s time to leave Penn eventually arrives, whether it’s after one year or four. But what’s truly important is that Penn doesn’t leave us: though our names may become forgotten on campus after a while, the memories that we forge, that feeling of connectedness that we find, persists forever. Though my year here has been more like an instant in the grand scheme, it’s the impact it’s had on me that will be sure to last a lifetime. 

To the class of 2023, my class of 2024, and all those who come after: cherish your, our, connectedness. It will be the greatest and most enduring part of your visit here. 

Thank you for sharing it with me.


Archive: Students First, Adults Second: the difficulties of outgrowing the Penn bubble

My most successful piece at the DP! Original:

As an exchange student here at Penn, I’m often asked by people here and at home about the differences between the UK and the US. While I could get into a million minute details, my prime example is the so-called “bubble” which arches over Dunning-Cohen Champions’ Field at Penn Park, where I train with the Ultimate club twice a week. Penn’s capacity to put up such a structure for its students demonstrates the incredible calibre of the facilities here, the likes of which we simply don’t have in the UK. When I sent my family videos of the inside, they were astounded.

That aside, one question I’ve never been able to answer properly is what I think about living in Philadelphia. The reality, I have to tell people, is that I live at Penn, not in the city. Like the one above Dunning-Cohen, there is a similar, societal bubble which arches over Locust, cutting us off, to an extent, from the outside community. While the extent to which we’re catered for here massively simplifies our lives, the consequences of that treatment at Penn and beyond may be more far-reaching than we realise.

Coming from Edinburgh, specifically, this concept of an entirely centralised campus area was a very new one to me. My university at home is spread throughout the entire city, with four campuses and classrooms, sports facilities, libraries and more dotted around in-between: while you could get across the entirety of Penn’s campus in a 15-minute stroll across the length of Locust Walk, getting from one end of Edinburgh’s to the other takes about 20 minutes in a car, or 40 on the bus (which, at least, are free for students). We don’t have a university-owned housing requirement. Instead, students live in apartments alongside Edinburgh’s other residents, dotted all around the city. I never even took out a dining plan, though my cooking abilities remain questionable.

As a friend here put it to me lately, the result of this style of living, which is far more decoupled from one’s university, means that people attending university in Edinburgh and across Europe are “adults first, and students second.” Here, it feels like the reverse is true. While it exists through no fault of our own, the Penn bubble doesn’t just separate us from the outer community—it stops us from having to exist as functioning adults, too. When you think about it, all of us live within a roughly 10-block space where everything is catered for: gyms and sports facilities, supermarkets, dining halls and restaurants, bars and even a brand-new Target on the way. And besides, if we can’t find something within those few blocks, we can always order it to the Amazon lockers by the next day.

While the convenience allows me to get so much more work done at Penn, I ultimately have to do very little for myself. I feel like a high schooler again: able to be busy all day between classes and clubs and coffee chats, yet never having any sort of need to leave the University City area and integrate into Philadelphia itself. I enjoy the comfort of campus life, but being thrust into reality (while more than slightly underprepared) in my freshman year at Edinburgh taught me so many valuable lessons about motivation and independence. Whether it was learning to fix all sorts of household items when they break since I didn’t have maintenance to complain to, balancing my class schedule with a grocery run 20 minutes from home, or getting a bar job, not to bolster my LinkedIn, but because I had bills to pay. Learning how to handle yourself as an adult is a key part of the college transition, and of our personal development, that the Penn bubble effectively stifles.

Beyond the fact that I just think it’s a shame, the fear I have is that this same sheltering persists beyond our time here. When we choose careers with companies that similarly cater for our transport, meals, and even gym and spa memberships, we carry along that fundamental disconnect from the common experience that we have on campus. And when I see my classmates, as I’m sure I will, in positions of power and influence some 30 years from now, I worry that the decisions they make will be formed from a superficial, rather than a truly experiential, understanding of how our neighbours from West Philadelphia and beyond live. That sense of empathy for those around us will make us better leaders and should, ideally, be instilled in us through our time living here in the city. Penn’s isolation from the outside, though, renders that much less likely to happen. That sets a worrying precedent, and one that all of us need to contend with.The Dunning-Cohen bubble supports itself due to the air pressure within being markedly higher than the outside. This makes entering and exiting through the airlocks a relatively jarring experience—every time, my ears pop. I’ll never get used to it. This, too, is how it sometimes feels entering Penn’s societal bubble: a weird, pressurised space, totally sheltered from the winds outside. While being inside is easier—throwing a “flying disc” in a winter storm is ill-advised, after all—I always feel relieved when I step out into the crisp, evening air after practice, ear popping aside. Though I adore living here, I’m glad to be cognizant of just how strange and unlike the adult world it is. While the bubble’s all-encompassing nature makes it hard to burst while we’re in it, it’s that awareness that is the first step to outgrowing it.


Archive: Patagonia Privilege: The On-Campus Housing Rip-off


The day I was accepted into Penn remains one of the most exciting days of my life: the culmination of years of work aimed at getting an exchange offer at one of the best schools in the United States and, indeed, the world. But while the thrill of coming here was incredible, the sobering financial reality of studying here quickly began to set in. I was soon having to explain to my parents that unlike my friends going to other US schools, who could live in private accommodation, I had no choice but to pay almost $12,000 (about $1300 a month) for Penn housing. The average rent at home sits at less than half of that. And what was worse, there was a chance I’d have to share a bedroom, something that students rarely have to do in the UK.

Penn’s housing system requires that all first-year, sophomore, transfer, and exchange students live on campus, while other students are given the option to stay or leave. While Penn’s website suggests an open choice of college house, the reality is that rooms are allocated via a lottery in which students are randomly given a time slot to choose rooms. The living situation of literally thousands of students is left up to pure chance, leaving many of them dissatisfied and miserable. Now, were all of Penn’s living locations of roughly equal quality, this system could at least be argued to be equitable. The reality, though, is that some lucky students live in luxurious, brand-new housing while others live in buildings which are frankly run-down and outdated. 

As for me, my chances at this lottery turned out to be even worse than I’d imagined. Exchange students don’t even get to apply for rooms until June, many months after full-time students choose theirs. The result was that we were left with the rooms that nobody else wanted. So though I had obviously put the then-called New College House West as my top choice in the hopes of getting my own bedroom, I ended up in a tiny, two-person, shared-bedroom apartment in Rodin

While Rodin was average but tolerable, it wasn’t until I visited some of my friends’ apartments in the newly-named Gutmann that I truly understood the extent to which I was being ripped off. They were living in a beautiful, brand-new building with single bedrooms, spacious living areas, study rooms, and an exercise suite to boot; meanwhile, my shared room barely had space to breathe in, never mind any semblance of privacy, and my shower took about a minute to heat up every morning. 

My experience, though, was far from unique and certainly not the worst: recent deteriorations in Penn housing have only served to demonstrate and exacerbate how great its inequalities are. In just the past few weeks, there have been reports of a huge increase of rodent sightings in KCECH and of several residents of Harrison having to vacate their rooms entirely due to extensive flooding; the Quad, meanwhile, has long been infested with mould. In the same time period, Gutmann had a lavish official opening ceremony attended by its ex-President namesake, in which she announced that every single resident of the new house would be gifted a free sweater—from Patagonia, no less—with the building’s name embroidered on the sleeve. Residents of other college houses are rewarded for their perseverance in seriously adverse conditions with printed t-shirts as house merch. The staggering contrast would be hilarious if it weren’t so unjust.

The worst part of all of this, though, is that those living outside of Gutmann, most of whom are given no alternative to living on campus and got their rooms through a random lottery, have to pay the exact same rent price for what is an unequivocally far worse experience. While I’ve been lucky enough to move to Gutmann this semester, I’ve seen the same bewilderment I once felt on the faces of incoming exchange students when they walked into my room for the first time, questioning how on earth I’d managed to score a place there. After all, if Penn could afford to give me such luxury, why weren’t they receiving the same treatment for the same price?

It is clear that there is a serious inequity here that results in many students feeling rightfully screwed over. The prognosis is simple: Penn cannot continue to force their students to pay extremely high rent prices for clearly inadequate facilities without any sort of opportunity to move off-campus. Either lower the rent for those in the clearly worse accommodations–and no, that doesn’t mean raising prices by 20% for nicer accommodations, as they did with the Radian (see here)–or allow students to move off-campus. 

Failing to do either is a blatant abuse of monopoly power which demonstrates both greed and a serious disregard for their students’ wellbeing. For one of the world’s best economics and business schools, which claims to be a place which cares about its community, you’d think they’d be above such inconsiderate inefficiency. So while I love my new fleece, putting it on only serves as a reminder of the undeserved privilege I receive for winning Penn’s housing lottery, and the unfair treatment the “losers” have to face.


Archive: Subversive Transparence: Why Ben Shapiro is wrong about “Glass Onion”


One of my favorite introductions to a film is that of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (which, if you haven’t seen, you should go and watch immediately before I explain its plot). In it, a Nazi Colonel (Christoph Waltz) visits a French farmer’s (Denis Ménochet) house, responding to rumors that someone in the area is clandestinely sheltering a Jewish family from the Holocaust. The first ten minutes play out, slowly building tension as the audience attempts to piece together which character knows something that the other does not. Then, as the farmer details the ages and features of the family’s children, the camera slowly pans down to reveal them quietly hiding beneath the floorboards.

This is utterly brilliant, and will forever go down as one of the greatest opening scenes in cinematic history. Tarantino masterfully uses the tool of information limitation to lead the audience exactly where he wants them to go: once the presence of the targeted characters literally inches away is laid bare, our perspective on the previous ten minutes as well as the excruciating remaining nine transforms from one of confused curiosity to soul-gripping panic as we watch the dreaded inevitable slowly turn into reality.

Another film that, as the name suggests, similarly aims to manipulate its audience is Rian Johnson’s second murder mystery, Glass Onion. While less of a smash hit than its predecessor, Knives Out, Glass Onion received positive reviews and decent commercial success. However, the film was not without its critics; among them, the one who caused the greatest stir was none other than extreme neo-right political commentator Ben Shapiro (who, funnily enough, doesn’t like Tarantino much, either).

Shapiro took to twitter to launch a multifaceted attack on the movie’s plot, which he called “actively bad” for a variety of reasons. While both the views/likes ratio as well as mocking responses to his tweets emphatically demonstrated that his views were far from widely-held, it’s important to deconstruct his attacks on Johnson’s writing to reveal the misunderstandings behind them.

Most of Shapiro’s lambasting of the plot of Glass Onion has been ripped from this review by Chris Lambert (which, to be fair to Shapiro, he does credit, and to be fair to Lambert, you should read, as he makes some interesting points). They both call out the first hour or so of the film for containing flawed and fundamentally lazy writing. During this section, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), world-class detective and our main protagonist, appears at billionaire Miles Bron’s (Ed Norton) mid–Covid Greek island getaway under mysterious pretenses. Subsequently, an odd series of events leads up to multiple deaths including  “Andi” (Janelle Monae), Bron’s business partner turned bitter rival who inexplicably accepts his vacation invitation, being shot on the mansion’s steps.

The criticism, though, comes due to the start of the second act, where we are presented with a twist that flips these events entirely on their heads. It is revealed that Andi’s sister, Helen, had actually come to Blanc days before and requested his help in investigating her mysterious and sudden death. As a result, they hatch a plan in which Helen impersonates her dead sister and takes her invite to Bron’s island, Blanc turns up feigning innocence, and they secretly solve the murder together while pretending to be strangers. What’s more, Helen’s dramatic shooting at the climax of the first act is revealed to be non-fatal, another ruse designed to buy her time to hunt clues.

The presentation of events in the first act, then, is completely overturned immediately after its conclusion. This misdirection sends Shapiro into a fury, leading him to call it “an hour of wasted time.” However, his assessment that this represents laziness within the story shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a great screenplay. In reality, just like the opening of Inglourious Basterds, the first act of Glass Onion is a masterclass in how the presentation of scenes can entirely change an audience’s perspective on them.

What comes next is a recontextualization of everything we have just seen, but this time with much better knowledge of why they are occurring. Many of the oddities from the plot’s first section are answered: Blanc’s unexpected appearance, the mysterious behavior of him and “Andi” throughout and even her apparent death. Yes, this makes the first act an exercise in deception, but the complete flipping of the audience’s interpretation of events using old clues and newfound information is part of what makes whodunnits entertaining, not “lazy.”

The other grand reveal that Glass Onion pulls off is by far its boldest (though, unsurprisingly, Shapiro hates it too). It takes the form of the story’s main conclusion: that it is not some elaborate mystery, but instead that that every plot point has the most mind-numbingly obvious explanation possible. The series of murders in the film were not carried out by some master criminal outwitting our protagonists, but actually by Bron himself, the clear main suspect, killing in cold blood and desperation. As Blanc states in the movie, it’s all dumb: all of us expected some Poirot-style mystery, but the truth was right in front of everyone the entire time.

The concept is almost as brazen as Bron’s killing spree, and would be every bit as ineffectual as Shapiro alleges if this obvious ending didn’t work to entirely subvert the audience’s expectations. Just like its title, the whole film is a “glass onion”: the audience is tricked into peeling back its layers in search of some complex and satisfying solution, but the answer to the mystery is actually utterly transparent. Not even the landmark political mind that is Benjamin Aaron Shapiro (absolutely no sarcasm intended), never mind the rest of us, could or does claim to have anticipated the reveal, obvious though it is. Though that may feel like an insult to the “intelligence” of those with desperately fragile egos, pulling off such a bold trick requires not boring laziness, but genius screenwriting. Ironically, though Shapiro seems to think the plot’s commentary is targeted specifically at Elon Musk, his out-of-touch rant demonstrates that it’s just as much about him: the image and ego of a so-called “genius” being shattered (literally, in the case of Miles Bron’s mansion) by their actual stupidity. And as Johnson himself tacitly suggested on twitter, it’s clear that the joke isn’t lost on him, either.

Design Credit: Lilian Liu,


Archive: Style versus substance: Finding identity at Penn and beyond


As an exchange student from the UK, something that American students often mention to me, especially those who have visited Europe, is how impressed they are with our (or their, post-Brexit?) sense of style. We dress so much more fashionably, I’m told, with such a stronger sense of individuality—though they never say this about my style, which I’m attempting not to take personally. This wasn’t something I instantly noticed upon coming here: Europeans hardly dress for the runway, but we don’t exactly turn up to lectures in our pyjamas either. An interesting difference that I have picked up on, though, is that European students wear far less university, club, and employer merch. That small distinction is representative of a significant cultural gap.

One of the key features I’ve found of the Penn experience is how deeply it’s centred around finding a sense of belonging. Much of our identity is founded upon the things we’re a part of: Greek life, clubs such as the DP, down even to the sense of pride we have in being at Penn in itself. I have been absolutely swept up in it. Half of my wardrobe is now branded merch, and I will unashamedly admit to having bought P-sweaters in both colourways. Walking down Locust on any given day, a significant portion of the outfits you come across are emblazoned with university, sports team, social organisation and college house logos. We aim to convey who we are through our outfits and, by extension, our social circles and the list of commitments displayed on our LinkedIn profiles.

I’m not meaning to criticise anyone for this—we have every right to take pride in the groups we choose to invest our time in. The more engaged and better-funded nature of clubs at Penn means that they are, generally, a bigger part of our lives compared to ones in Europe. But this feeling of belonging is also partly manufactured by the validation and exclusivity of the cutthroat recruitment process, which was initially very blindsiding to me: at home, you just turn up to a GBM and you’re in. The culture that creates for both our relationships with our peers and our personal perceptions can turn worryingly toxic.

Meeting people socially here is often prefaced by a list of the things they’re involved in. There’s an instinctive desire, conscious or not, to judge people’s social standing based on this: how “cool” their frat or sorority is considered to be, the “clout” their clubs have, and so on and so forth. This factors into our future careers, too: I’ve seen the demeanour of people entirely change mid-conversation when a friend casually drops in their job offer at some big-shot investment bank or consulting firm (you know exactly which ones I mean). 

What this generates is a culture of extremely superficial and transactional views of who people are. Students here, it seems to me, can tend to care more about an acquaintance as a networking opportunity or an “in” to a party than someone whose wellbeing they are genuinely interested in. Maybe I’m not being cynical enough and being too critical of Penn in believing that classmate and colleague relationships are ever built around more than that—though the phenomenon is stronger here, it exists at home, too. Nonetheless, I’ve never felt that sense of objectification more than since coming here.

This also translates into our senses of selves and how we display them. The obsession with getting into these in-groups can mean that we don’t spend enough time forging an identity outside of them. Coming into the latter stages of junior year, I’ve found several friends going through an identity crisis of sorts: though they’re constantly busy with academia and extracurriculars, they don’t feel like they have any unique hobbies beyond campus and pre-professional life. While those things are important, forging who we are wholly based on others’ validation is an extremely unhealthy way to live. Our personal style has become a display of commitments that others care about, rather than interests that we value. Maybe Europeans’ decreased emphasis on that is what makes their fashion sense seem so much more defined and individual.

Our clubs and future careers may make us interesting to others, but they’re very unlikely to make us unique. I’m not saying that Europeans are free from falling into that trap: I have plenty of friends at home who have high positions in similar clubs and graduate jobs at the exact same firms. But unlike here, that isn’t the first thing you notice upon meeting them; if their outfits are anything to go by, anyway, they may be closer to moving beyond it. Our personal and social identities should not be founded on a generic laundry list of commitments. We are all genuine, individual personalities. Instead, that is what we should aim to express.

Image Credit:


Archive: The Queen’s death is cause for Penn to consider its own troubled past

My first ever piece for the DP! Original:

When the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death broke I, along with Brits everywhere and seemingly half of the rest of the world, was rendered suddenly and surprisingly silent. The pre-planned obituaries and messages rolled out, sure, but in the moment most of us were left stumped as we considered for the last time what our Queen really meant to us. The truth is, she represented so much more than a face on a throne. Present on everyone’s TVs in her annual Christmas day speech all the way down to the few pound coins I still carry around in my pocket (just in case I’ll need them — you never know), she was an untouchable leader and global icon.

But while the Queen is someone that I was proud to have representing me, her death has once again led me to reconsider my feelings on the royals as a whole. Unfortunately, while they’re the cultural and diplomatic faces of the country, our ruling family is ultimately a deeply problematic institution that continues to represent the UK’s past of abuse of power both domestically and abroad. There are, of course, the scandals, which are far too pervasive to ignore: There’s Prince Philip (the Queen’s late husband)’s well-documented racist and sexist remarks, or Prince Andrew (her son)’s all-but-admitted grooming of seventeen-year-old girls (did I mention one of his best friends being a certain Jeffery Epstein?), and of course Princess Diana, a woman who was manipulated into falling in love with the whole family before being tossed aside with no remark on her convenient death once she’d produced an heir – even after she had become more adored than the rest of them put together.

But while what they do can be a serious issue, it’s more what they represent that’s the problem. They were, after all, once called the “Imperial Family” — their continued rule over much of the Commonwealth serves less as a signal of friendship and more as a reminder of who used to be the colonisers versus the colonised. The worldwide power and renown they’ve gained is far from a product of Elizabeth’s good grace and manners; rather, it is a legacy of an empire which brutally oppressed millions over hundreds of years (many Irish and fellow Scots would argue that that continues to this day, but I digress). That past is something that we have to atone for, but that the Windsors’ dominion only serves to perpetuate. The protests surrounding Will and Kate’s recent visit to Jamaica showed that their so-called “subjects” are growing less and less patient with their presence. With Elizabeth’s death bringing her less-than-popular son Charles to the throne, I think that it’s time our country had a serious reckoning with who we want to be and how we want to present ourselves to the world. 

These reflections aren’t unique to the UK, however; I knew I’d be encountering a similar sense of a problematic institutional past long before I actually got to Penn. A few months after I got my place here, a good friend of mine sent me an Instagram page called @segregation_by_design (which you should absolutely check out if you’re interested). They were doing a series on the forced upheaval of Black Bottom, the thriving 78% Black neighbourhood which Penn worked with the authorities to label as a “slum” and clear out to make space for University City — our campus stands on the ruins of that 10,000-strong community

The legacy of this societal damage sadly continues today with the UC townhomes, one of the last remnants of Black Bottom, as residents are once again being forced out of their homes with little notice and nowhere else to go. The University, meanwhile, which has billions of dollars in wealth and continues to benefit from that community’s dismantling, is silently sitting and watching. Penn has been given the chance to come to terms with and begin to fix the historic wrongs on which it was established by stepping in and saving the townhomes, stopping the past from repeating itself; unlike my Royal Family, who I know full well to be incapable of such fundamental change, I hope the choice that our university makes is the right one.

Just as the UK owes atonement to the rest of the Commonwealth, Penn owes the UC townhomes to its community in West Philadelphia. We both have an opportunity to choose the type of institutions we want to be: ones that ignore and in so doing perpetuate the sins of our past, or ones that work with those we’ve wronged to build a better future. Though I loved Elizabeth in many ways, I doubt the latter is what she would have wanted, but I know that it is what Diana would have. I’m sure you can guess who the Queen of my heart truly was.

Cover Image by Samuel Regan-Asante


Archive: Penn’s Accountability Deficit Needs Addressing

Op-ed from the Daily Pennsylvanian. Original:

In January this year, M. Liz Magill was unanimously selected to be the President of Penn by the board of trustees. In her acceptance message, she talked about building on a legacy of “making a difference” through “pragmatism, creativity, and humanity” and expressed her desire to work with the whole Penn community to achieve that. The issue is, though, that that community isn’t who she answers to — instead, the only ones with any power over her are the board themselves, a detached group of alumni and bureaucrats who most of us will never get to see or meet.

The President functions much like a politician: She makes decisions about what goes on in the University and represents us to the outside world. The key thing about (democratic) politicians, though, is that we can hold them accountable — when they let us down, we don’t vote for them, and they lose their jobs. The issue with the Penn administration is that they don’t grant us that mechanism. Sure, there’s the Undergraduate Assembly, which does some great work to improve our campus, but even that can only make recommendations to the administration. They have no reason to take those recommendations on board and no reason to engage with any other student bodies. So, they don’t. 

For instance, they’ve been threatening and intimidating the Fossil Free Penn encampment on College Green since its inception but have yet to be reported as meeting with them about their demands. So much for working with “faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members” as Magill pledged to do when she got the job.

I’m sure that you can see what I’m getting at — there is a serious accountability deficit here. On one hand, it makes sense — it’s not like we can realistically threaten Penn with dropping out en masse if they ignore our demands. But when the University repeatedly avoids talking to student advocacy groups and takes eight months to respond to issues such as the UC Townhomes sale (which also has widespread faculty support), they’re demonstrating a blatant and deliberate disregard for anything the Penn community cares about that might be inconvenient for them. 

And while we can’t threaten any staff’s positions directly, I find their cavalier attitude to be unwise: For an institution that relies on alumni donations, they’re doing an awfully bad job at making current students want to give back. Regardless of what the reality is, we’re meant to be members of a community, not customers of a business — we deserve a legitimate voice.

Now, Penn’s administration doesn’t have to enact every last desire of its students, no matter how socially prescient — if it did, I doubt an endowment even as big as the one it has would last very long. While I absolutely believe that the University should divest from fossil fuels (a move made by most other Ivies thus far), help the townhomes, and make its vast wealth work to benefit the West Philadelphia community which it has so damaged, I don’t believe that I should be able to force it to. 

What we should expect, though, is for our opinions to at least be respected — students shouldn’t have to interrupt convocation, stage protests, or occupy the field outside Magill’s office in order to open any sort of dialogue with her (in terms of pragmatism and creativity, at least, they’re definitely winning). 

But they’re left without much choice. When they try through official means, they get sidelined and palmed off. Can you really blame the activists for taking over College Green? Our President may try to avoid it, but she can hear their voice loud and clear — what she doesn’t seem to understand is that the more that she ignores it, the louder it will get. If she wants to represent this community in the way that she claims she does, she should listen to it. We are Penn — the students, the faculty, the staff, and the West Philadelphia community, too. The board of trustees is not.

We choose to attend institutions like Penn, I hope, because we believe that we will be well represented by the values that they stand for, both in our time here and in our future lives. But it’s equally important that those values grow and change to represent us, too. It’s time that those who claim to lead the Penn community respect the fact that they answer to more than a board of invisible bureaucrats. They can’t ignore us forever; in the meantime, I’m sure, our friends over on College Green won’t be going anywhere.

Cover Image By Teutonia25 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Archive Politics

Archive: Why a Universal Basic Income is a Good Idea

This is part of a debate series over at 1828, the IEA’s online magazine. You can see the original article here:

One of my favourite quotes on UBI is the Rutger Bregman slogan: “Poverty isn’t a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash”.

Our current benefits system seems to believe the opposite—it blames the poor for their position, forcing them to cut through countless lines of red tape just to get the cash they need to survive. But this constant state nannying is far from fixing the problem—most sources show relatively constant poverty rates of an insane 20%. Wasting all of your energy proving your poverty to the state is both humiliating and directly counterintuitive to what our benefits system should be aimed at doing: getting people out of poverty.

Enter UBI, a policy that aims to tackle this issue from a practical and an ideological standpoint. As a form of welfare, UBI is the purest form of individualistic libertarianism: rather than micromanaging, compartmentalising and dictating the path out of poverty, it puts the cash in the hands of the people that need it and lets them do it themselves. The upcoming trials in Wales will speak for themselves, but studies from Scandinavia to the infamous Speenhamland demonstrate that this simplification and liberalization is far more efficient and effective than standard welfare—some studies have shown that basic income schemes can even save tax money. Suggesting that the poor will waste away this vital stipend rather than investing it in themselves is both deeply derogatory to their character as well as being a plain misunderstanding of the data.

From an ideological standpoint, giving this money to everyone establishes it as a basic right. Yes, many of us are fortunate enough not to need the extra cash, but the fact that we all get it makes UBI a privilege that absolutely does not discriminate; one that we can rely on should we need it, without having to report when and how we use it to a state who has no business knowing. As citizens of our society, then, UBI guarantees everyone a minimum standard of living—no questions asked. Is that not something we should have been aiming for all along?

Photo credit:  Nick Pampoukidis on Unsplash.


Archive: Revisiting ‘Avatar’ 13 years on: does the modern classic still hold up?

My first film review for 34th Street. Original:

Avatar is, by most accounts, a modern classic: a technological masterpiece and the arguable founder of Hollywood’s current CGI era, all while consistently defending its spot as the highest–grossing film of all time. And yet, before last week, I had never seen it. Remaining an Avatar virgin, so to speak, wasn’t a deliberate move; I just happened to miss it when it came out and never felt very compelled to catch up on it. There isn’t exactly a lack of graphics–heavy Disney content these days after all, and there is much more media touting that the movie’s plot is mostly forgettable than singing its praises.

However, with the 13–year–wait for the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, almost over and the original film back in cinemas in a remastered, 4K version, I decided to pop my Avatar cherry to see how the film, which was the CGI movie of 2009, holds up in today’s oversaturated climate. 

First and foremost, Avatar simply has to be seen in a cinema—this movie was intended to be viewed in 3D on the big screen, and its graphics absolutely deliver. Before our protagonist even starts talking, the stunning visuals come in: sweeping space vistas as his spaceship comes in to land on the harsh, concrete human military base, surrounded by the rich and vibrant Pandoran jungle and the breath–taking cliffs of the Hallelujah mountains. The Na’vi also look far better than most MCU computer animation released today (look no further than She–Hulk). The initially awkward lankiness of the Na’vi, too, is quickly forgotten as their beautifully animated features blend into the spectacular landscapes. Even though Avatar came out in 2009, it doesn’t look dated at all. In fact, it looks a lot more polished than some movies this year; although to be fair, this version is remastered from the original. Between the stunning visuals and the rich lore of this alien moon (which avoids too many obtuse exposition dumps), the world of Pandora is incredibly immersive. Unlike the relentless business model of the average Disney franchise, this truly feels like a passion project 50 years in the making. It makes complete sense why Avatar so enamored audiences 13 years ago; however, even though she was lovely, the woman who turned up to my screening in a full Na’vi costume may have been a bit over the top.

While the visuals are stunning, the reasons why nobody seems to remember the plot are obvious. In particular, the character development is severely lacking. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a disabled ex–marine who takes the six–year flight to Pandora after his brother, the scientist intended to go on the trip, unexplainedly dies. This concept of a stoic yet uneducated everyman heading into a complex alien world occupied by scientists makes for a compelling audience surrogate. But the execution lacks any emotional resonance, as his brother’s tragic death isn’t touched on or even mentioned after about 30 minutes in, and Sully himself has about as much personality as a wet blanket. Sully has little to no agency throughout the film, essentially being dragged around and told what to do by other characters up until the finale. While his transition from order–following corporal to heroic rebel leader by the end is again good on paper, he didn’t grow much at all during the film. Zoe Saldana is fine as Neytiri, Sully’s Na’vi teacher and eventual lover (which is quite predictable), but their romance overall lacked chemistry. Their relationship seemed to exist more because the plot needed it than due to a real connection. 

The supporting cast also consists of mostly one–dimensional caricatures. Avatar’s main villains, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribsi) and Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), feel like cheap space copies of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from The Wolf of Wall Street and Nathan Jessop (Jack Nicholson) from A Few Good Men. Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) almost has an interesting betrayal arc after his years of preparation for the Avatar program are quickly overshadowed by Jake’s Mary–Sue natural ability; however, he quickly joins our heroes again and proceeds to contribute next to nothing to the rest of the story. 

Michelle Rodriguez’s badass helicopter pilot is well–acted, but her characters lack any originality and could’ve come from literally any action flick; meanwhile most of the Na’vi, the truly unique part of this movie, barely get any screen time. Of all the characters, Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine stole the show: her frustration over her scientific research being repeatedly disregarded by greedy corporatists hellbent on destroying the beautiful world of Pandora was deeply compelling.

This leads into what is Avatar’s greatest triumph, aside from its visuals: its thematic cohesiveness. The concept of colonization is far from new in the science–fiction genre, but Avatar really nails the narrative here: the perfectly happy native people continually being called “savages” in need of “development,” the forced removal justified by talks of “humaneness,” and the general destruction of nature and culture as the unfair negotiation fails. The story serves as a really effective recontextualization and reminder of the sins of the world’s own history with colonization. Despite all the issues with the characters, the plot absolutely delivers when taking revenge against being colonized: fewer deaths are more satisfying as when Quaritch (who simply refuses to die) finally bites the dust.

Overall, Avatar definitely holds up today as a cinematic icon, and the spectacle of the visuals and themes far outweigh most of the issues with the plot. As for round two, which comes out this November, there was a post–credit teaser at the end of the screening featuring Jake and Neytiri’s Na’vi family. Anticipations for the release are mixed, though: while the visuals are sure to be stunning, the reintroduction of Quaritch as an antagonist and the more–than–likely return of humans to Pandora invites worries that the major plot themes that were so well explored during the original are simply doomed to be disappointingly rehashed in another shallow Disney cash–grab. But with James Cameron back at the helm with years to work on it, Avatar: The Way of Water is a film I want to believe in. Its opening is sure to be a spectacle: seeing it in theaters come November—in 3D, of course—will be mandatory.

Image from the official Avatar Flickr page.