On paper, Penn wasn’t the best school for me.
There is no journalism major, which was a big factor in deciding where I would go to in second year. (I had an epiphany three days after being a physics student at my first college and wanted to pursue my dream of being a photojournalist.) Her reputation as a “Social Ivy” was never something I cared about. identified, and its culture of pre-professionalism still makes me shudder.
These thoughts were ubiquitous in my mind throughout my time at Penn, prompting the dreaded thought that I wasted my first and second chances at college. I chose Penn because I wanted to experience academic challenges for the first time in my life and be around like-minded peers. But had I reduced my chances of becoming a photojournalist in favor of rigorous training and prestige?
Looking back, I think coming to Penn was the best decision I could have made. Despite having no formal training in photojournalism, I had opportunities at Penn and Philadelphia that I don’t think I could have had at any other university.
First of all, I want to acknowledge that it was a relatively difficult trip. There was no network of former photojournalists I could look up to, there were no opportunities offered by the University that matched my interests, and only one other student shared my desire to pursue the field professionally. Structurally, there was no support; what I learned, I learned for the most part on my own.
But there was one place I could turn to as a starting point and home base: The Daily Pennsylvanian. It was through DP that I first experienced the pure adrenaline rush that accompanies news photography. In November 2019, I photographed the Fossil Free Penn protest at a board meeting. I knew from the moment I met them at the Button, where they had organized themselves before the meeting, that I was covering something that had stakes. The adrenaline only increased during the meeting as they drowned out the speakers with chants and songs and ultimately ended the meeting.
When the pandemic hit in the middle of my second semester, I was back to square one. I had commuted to my first university, which made me feel like I had taken two steps back in my academic journey. But a global pandemic had shut down much of the world, and I felt responsible for documenting its effects on my small part of the world.
Even though the campus was closed, I had to be in Philadelphia; I hadn’t done all the work to transfer to Penn just to stay home. I was lucky enough to be able to return to Philadelphia on May 31 – a day after protests erupted in the city over the murder of George Floyd.
Less than 24 hours after moving in, I was photographing protesters marching downtown, following them on Interstate 676, then getting gassed by police. It was very welcome in Philadelphia and the tough photojournalism that I had missed so much, to say the least.
As we all know, the year continued with the presidential election. I had the opportunity to photograph the Donald Trump rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and be front row at the Count Every Vote protests outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the votes that ultimately propelled Joe Biden in the presidency were counted. There is no doubt that being in Philadelphia and working for the DP allowed me to experience these major moments in United States history.
The wild events of 2020 were offset by stories closer to home but equally important that I have been able to document since. My time as a Penn Sustainability photographer introduced me to the worlds of food and environmental activism, which I don’t think I would have had the chance to explore so deeply otherwise.
Contrary to the “Social Ivy” mindset, I have always felt a desire to go to school events with a camera in hand rather than as an attendee, and have come to accept that it doesn’t matter.
The people I met and the events I witnessed in my three – albeit unconventional – years of being a Penn student gave me more real-life experiences than I knew. I would have gleaned from a classroom. Studying something at Penn that isn’t financial or academic isn’t impossible. I have come to truly understand that there are stories to be told no matter where you are, as long as there is a passion and a curiosity to seek them out.
And that’s one of the best lessons I’ve learned as a photojournalist.
KYLIE COOPER graduated from Upper College in Westport, Massachusetts, studying communications and journalistic writing. She served as photo editor at the 137th Editorial and Management Board. Previously, she was 2020 News Photo Editor and Summer Multimedia Editor.