Monday, July 31, 2017

A Bittersweet Homecoming

After an amazing three weeks, yesterday it was finally time to head back home. Our flight didn't leave until around 5:00 PM, so we still had some time in Philadelphia on Sunday.

I started off my day bright and early, waking up around 6:00 AM so that I could shower and finish packing. I had to sit on my suitcase, but eventually I was able to close it. It seemed like it had more in it than it had when I left for Tennessee just three weeks ago, but felt lighter at the same time.

After all of my stuff was together, and Maddie and Joceline were ready to go, we headed downstairs to meet Evan and Jennifer for breakfast. We decided to go to our local bagel shop, Spread, again. I had a cup of coffee and a cinnamon raisin bagel with mixed berry cream cheese, it was delicious.
My yummy breakfast

After breakfast it was time to go to the historical district for a tour of independence hall and some other sight seeing. We arrived at the visitor center a little over an hour before our tour was scheduled to start, so we had time to pick up our tickets and check out some of the smaller exhibits within the visitor center. I really enjoyed reading about some of our country's early history and seeing some minor artifacts that were on display. There were also a few costumes that people could try on, it was fun to see Jennifer dressed up as a park ranger.

Independence Hall

Soon enough it was time to head over to Independence Hall as we had to go through security before our tour. The security was really fast and easy, within no time we were waiting in line for our tour to start. The tour itself wasn't very long, as it only included the two downstairs parts of Independence Hall. The first of these was the court room, it was really interesting to see just how similar it was to modern court rooms. It just goes to show how little our trial process has changed in so many years, at least concerning formalities such as the layout of the court room. Next we went across the hall, to the room where the Deceleration of Independence was drafted. There the tour guide gave us a brief explanation of how exactly the Declaration of Independence came into being, it was interesting for me to contrast her explanation with what I've learned in history class. 

The tour was over a lot faster than we had expected it to be, so we decided to go check out the Liberty Bell. This was one of my favorite parts of the day, I really enjoyed the exhibits that sought to explain why the Liberty Bell has so much historical significance. It was also interesting to read about how its famous crack might have come into existence and what attempts were made to repair it.

My delicious lunch
By the time we were finished at the bell everyone was hungry, so we headed over to Reading Terminal Market for lunch. There Jennifer gave us each some money for lunch, and then let us go off in groups of two for an hour to explore the market and get food. Joceline and I spent a while walking around the market and trying to decide what we wanted for lunch. We stumbled across a small gift shop where we each bought some souvenirs for our family and friends back home. I also bought some honey sticks from a small vendor, as I'm an avid tea drinker and also a honey enthusiast. We settled on Thai food for lunch, and each got delicious bowls of pad thai. Before we knew it, our hour was over and it was time to meet up with the rest of the group.

We made our way back to the car, stopping at a few sights along the way. And eventually we were back at the hotel and picking up our bags. We quickly loaded the bags into the car and were off to the airport in no time. 

Upon arriving at the airport we got our boarding passes and checked our bags, then headed to security. Evan and I were TSA Pre, meaning we got to go through a much shorter line and didn’t have to take off our shoes or take our laptops out. This was really nice as I, along with everyone else, really don’t like having to go through airport security. 

An obligatory wing tip picture
We then found our gate at the airport and within what seemed like no time we were boarding the plane and leaving Philadelphia. We had to fly through Chicago, so our first plane ride was relatively short, but the flight from Chicago to San Francisco was pretty long. We had about a 40 minute layover in between flights, which was just enough time to grab some dinner before we had to leave. Joceline, Maddie, and I all got paninis which we ate on the plane. Joceline and I also got some donuts as an after dinner snack, getting those was a great idea in the end. The flight was pretty late so we spent most of it dosing off, in between eating our donuts. We were all exhausted and ready to be back in California soon.

Arriving at SFO felt great, the cool air, the familiar surroundings, and knowing that my family was nearby. We quickly picked up our bags and then boarded the shuttle that would take us back to El Cerrito High School, where we had started our adventure roughly three weeks ago. 

We arrived at the school at around 11 PM, and were greeted by Don taking photos of us getting off the shuttle. My mom and Evan’s dad were waiting for us, both Evan and I ran to give some much needed hugs to our parents. We finished up with some pictures of the whole cohort, and then we were sent home.

I ran to my room as soon as I stepped inside my house, happy to be back and ready to get a nice night’s sleep in my own bed. I'm happy to be home, but also sad that the experience is over as it went by so quickly. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cheese Steaks and Prison

Today was a day of early rising and we walked down the street to the bagel shop across the street first thing in the morning. The bagels were really dense but it was still very good. We had some small talk and it was a very pleasant time being together in the morning for the first time in a while. At one point I just started laughing so hard I probably would have snorted my orange juice if I was drinking it while some of the jokes were being told.

Evan speaking with Ben Franklin
Then afterwards we went to UPenn to go to the site visit. The admissions officer, Kim, was very nice and engaging. So was Louis, the student taking us around on a tour, but Penn didn't speak to me as much as Vanderbilt honestly. It's just a little too much on the urban side for me. Everyone else seemed to like Penn more than Vandy though.

After a quick lunch near the campus we went to the Eastern State Penitentiary and had a tour with a tour guide named Angelina. She was very nice and knew exactly what she was talking about. Probably the most interesting fact I learned today was that Al Capone was actually held in this prison.

One of the towers at the penitentiary
As we were leaving the penitentiary to go to Spruce Harbor Park, we saw a taxi cab that had the number (215) 666-6666 on the side of it, which we decided to dub "the taxi cab to Hell." It became the running gag for the rest of the day, honestly.

Once we were at Spruce Harbor, we hung around by the water with a snack and just had a conversation about what we did while at VSA as we played games. It was quite interesting hearing about what everyone else had done, because we were all in different classes, groups, and houses. It was especially funny how everyone's group chats from our respective proctor groups were blowing up and giving us more conversation fodder before we went to go to dinner.

Evan and Ms. Hansen playing giant Connect 4.
Dinner was delicious. We had cheese steaks and I was really surprised with how good they were. They were just everything a hot sandwich should be and it was really nice. After dinner we just stopped by the bookstore before heading back to the hotel, and that was the day in summary.

Getting to Know Philadelphia

After arriving in Philadelphia last night, we woke up bright and early in order to tour the University of Pennsylvania. I was really excited to see a school I've heard so much about, and I know the rest of the cohort was looking forward to it too.

My delicious bagel
But, before our tour, we had to stop and get breakfast. We went to a cute bagel shop called Spread, where I got a plain bagel with mixed berry cream cheese. I was pretty excited to try an east coast bagel, as I've been given rave reviews, and they definitely lived up to those expectations. Also, the coffee was really good, much better than Commons coffee. 

Soon enough we were heading to Penn, we arrived at the info session location about 15 minutes before it started. There we were given wristbands, for building access, and ushered into an auditorium where we found our seats for the presentation. As usual, it was an admissions counselor who gave the presentation, Kim outlined three of the most important factors to consider when applying to Penn. Those being academics, social life, and the application process. The academics really stood out to me, at Penn you have such a wide range of options concerning majors, and you can choose to double major in different departments or even do a dual degree. This lenience really appealed to me as I'm not quite sure what I'd like to pursue in college at the moment.

We next went on a tour of campus, this was probably my favorite part of the day. Our tour guide, Luis, was really interesting and was clearly passionate about the school. He shared his personal experiences concerning his academic and social life at Penn, and gave us the other basic tour information. He explained that he came to Penn as a pre-med student, but is now a political science major with a math minor. This only enforced my prior feelings about the flexibility that Penn gives it's students.
Locust walk
The campus itself is beautiful, Penn is one of the oldest universities in the country so most of the buildings are, also, really old. They've preserved most of the buildings, and kept the architectural integrity of the campus by doing so. As an architecture nerd, I loved seeing how the buildings were constructed and what sort of style each one had. One thing that was really apparent was the excess of brick, something that (even though there isn't much around where we live) felt really homey. 

Sadly, our tour came to an end eventually. We had some free time before our next scheduled activity, so we did a quick photo-op with the famous Benjamin Franklin statue and then checked out the bookstore.

After some time perusing the store we had lunch at a comfort food restaurant called Cosi. I had mac and cheese, a meal with never disappoints.
One side of the prison

The next item on our agenda was touring the Eastern State Penitentiary, one of Americas first solitary confinement style prisons. We had a guided tour of the prison, and our tour guide, Angelina, was very knowledgeable about the buildings history. It was built in in 1821, and closed in 1971, only to become reopened to the public as a historical sight in 1996. From 1971 to 1996 it remained vacant and abandoned, which is the main reason it is in such a dilapidated state now. By dilapidated, I mean that many of the walls are incomplete, with chipping paint or gaping holes, broken furniture is littered throughout the buildings, and much more. This only adds to the already spooky vibe the prison has stemming from the medieval and gothic architecture. Though it was a bit intimating to walk around in, the prison was really intriguing. Throughout it there are small exhibits set up, dedicated to specific inmates (such as Al Capone), famous events (such as the escape of five inmates via underground tunnel), or artifacts from the prison (like the mummified animal collection). I loved getting to learn about all these stories and get a glimpse into what life was like at the prison when it was open so long ago. 
The outside of the penitentiary 
After we finished up at the penitentiary we headed to Spruce Harbor Park, a grassy stretch along the water with hammocks, games, and concession stands littered through out it. There I got an iced coffee, the caffeine was much needed, while we sat and enjoyed the scenery for a while. I think we all missed seeing the water while we were in Tennessee, at least I did, so it was nice to just be able to relax and talk about our time at VSA in such a comforting place. 
The view from the park
We were all getting hungry, so we decided to go get dinner at Jim's steaks. Upon arriving at the restaurant we were greeted with a pretty big line, so Joceline, Evan, and I decided to go check out some shops while Maddie and Jennifer waited in the line. We stumbled across a pet store, where we befriended a cat (how exciting!) and went to a small consignment shop which we browsed for a while. Soon enough Maddie and Jennifer called us to let us know it was almost time to order, so we headed back to Jim's.

Naturally, we all got cheesesteaks. I was a bit on the fence about them, worried they would be overrated and somewhat disappointing, but in the end I had nothing to be worried about. It was delicious, one of my favorite meals we have had on the trip. And to top it off, I also got a black cherry soda to go with my sandwich, one of my all time favorite drinks. That meal made an already great day so much better, I hope that in the future I'll have the chance to come back to Jim's. 

After such a busy day, all of us were ready to go to bed as we have an early morning tomorrow and a big day ahead of us, I think we're all ready to be home and in our own beds tomorrow night. 

A City Almost as Beautiful as SF

After much anticipation, we had our first full day in the University City of Philadelphia. We began our day by having breakfast across the street from the hotel, at a bagel shop named Spread. I had a very simple whole wheat bagel with peanut butter spread and jam. I accompanied that with an iced coffee that I had really been craving for a while now. Most iced coffees I had been having were sub-par.

Once we were all done with breakfast, we walked over to the Irvine Auditorium, less than a 10-minute walk away from our hotel, for the Penn information session. The auditorium had a very cathedral-like architecture and seemed pretty grand. It differed greatly from the student life center that we had the Vanderbilt information session at. 
The entrance to Irvine Auditorium
The information session began with a video that conveyed what life at Penn was typically life and provided a vast amount of information on the university's history, like the fact that it's the United States' first university. It also pointed out some notable alumni like John Legend and Elon Musk. After the video, the admissions counselor, Kim, began the full information session. I felt like it was different from other information sessions because it didn't have a powerpoint to go along with it. 

Kim addressed several of the most important topics: the four schools at Penn, student life, the admissions process, and financial aid. In the pamphlet and throughout the session, the interdisciplinary way of education at Penn was definitely emphasized. The four schools are the College of Arts and Sceicnes, the Wharton School of Business, Penn Engineering, and the School of Nursing. There are over 50 majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, and last years graduating class of 2400 had 1700 different combinations of majors and minors. That's overall pretty impressive and shows how everyone can really have a broad way of thinking at Penn. Additionally, no matter the school someone is in, they will take classes across the other schools as well to fulfill different requirements and electives. 

Furthermore, we heard a lot about how busy a Penn student usually is since there are so many activities and organizations to be a part of. Additionally, Philadelphia is a great city where there are lots of things to explore. Not to mention, the countless food options to try out. Kim mentioned that there is such a thing called restaurant week at Penn, where some of the best food places have highly discounted prices. It's an event that both faculty and students at Penn look forward to. Housing at Penn also makes it easy to meet new people and try out new things with the different themes the dorms have. There's a dorm that is essential for people who want to explore Philadelphia and really love the city. There is also the women in leadership dorm, among several others that cater to people's interests.

More on student life, there seems to be a great support system for the students at Penn. They have several cultural resource centers, where students of different backgrounds can have a "home away from home" and access to staff members that support them. Unlike other colleges, these resources aren't just online but have physical buildings on campus that students can go to. One of the ones that obviously grabs my attention is La Casa Latina. Being able to find a Latinx community in college is something of great value to me and I feel as though Penn can definitely offer that. 

There is also Penn First, which is a student organization dedicated to providing support for the first generation and low-income students. Our tour guide, Louis Lin, is a rising sophomore at Penn and he shared with me the importance of Penn First to him and how helpful it was for him in terms of getting to Penn. He's also involved with FGLI, a program that facilitates the transition to college for those low-income and first generation students. 

Another big topic was the admissions process and how the admissions counselors review the applications. We didn't talk about this a lot with our tour guide, but Kim did go into some detail about what Penn looks for in its students. There are 5 things to be submitted and then they get sorted into 3 "buckets." There is the one with the transcript, test scores, and teacher recommendations. Those are important, and it's important to have a teacher who can speak really highly of you and not just a teacher who says the student got A's on every single test. That doesn't say much about the student. Then there's the "impact" bucket, which looks at what extracurriculars and other things students are involved in. Kim saying that for students who do sports it's understandable if there are not another 10 things on top of that. Every student is different and some will only be heavily involved in one activity while others will do several.

The most significant thing I got out of the "2nd bucket" bit of the session was that Penn cares that a student is doing something they love. Love seems to be a huge thing in Philadelphia. But, it made me feel a lot better about the extracurriculars I take part in. I personally do value having community involvement and doing team and character building activities, but sometimes I worry I'm not doing enough. Today I sort of realized that there isn't really such thing as "enough" but whether or not I love what I do, and I do love it. I love my busy and slightly overwhelming schedule. 

Kim touched very briefly on financial aid. The pamphlet also provided a breakdown of the cost of attendance for the class of 2019, which looks pretty good for family incomes of less than $100,000 a year, where they only have to pay about 85% of the tuition. Also, Penn's financial aid packages do not include loans and several students are able to graduate without debt. For someone of the community I come from, being able to afford college tends to be a difficult thing so when schools like Penn have strong financial aid, it makes things a lot less stressful. 

If it wasn't evident in these past paragraphs, the site visit at Penn was extremely successful and I retained a lot of good information from both the tour and information session. The campus was also one of my favorite's, being in the middle of a city and still feeling slightly urban but not so sprawled. Louis mentioned that almost all the buildings are about a 10-minute walk from each other, and the city itself is rather bikeable.

After what felt like a pretty quick tour, we decided to grab something to eat near the bookstore. The nearest thing was a sort of grab and go type of restaurant named Cosi. I personally liked it because the options were on the healthier side. I got a smart fit Chicken Noodle soup bowl. Usually, I'm skeptical about the vegetables in Chicken Noodle soups, but these were very edible and delicious.

Once we were all fed, we made our way to the Eastern State Penitentiary. I was a little baffled by the fact that the once-prison was right in the middle of a busy part of town. It also almost really seemed like a castle, we later found out the architect had planned it that way. The penitentiary was Benjamin Franklin's (and some other fellows) attempt to reform the prison system, so the architect made it seem very ominous with the very high walls to deter people from committing crimes. It also was designed to be a solitary confinement prison, in order to make the prisoners think about the crimes they had committed. 
The castle like penitentiary
We learned quite a bit about how the system at Eastern State was planned out and how it actually worked out. What I found the most interesting, though, was that they had this big 3-d chart of the incarceration rates in the US throughout the decades. They also broke down the prison population by demographic. On another side of the graph, it compared the incarceration rates across different countries and listed the ones that had the death penalty. It led to some discussion about why the rates were as such and whether or not the US prison system focused enough on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. 

After learning a lot at the penitentiary, we decided to relax a bit and visit the Spruce Street Harbor Park. Unfortunately, it seems like it is best to arrive early to the park because all of the hammocks were taken up. It's important to note that there were a number of hammocks to choose from too, so it's a very busy park. Despite the lack of hammock time, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the park because seeing the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River reminded me of being in Sausalito overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate. It's rather "insignificant" things like that that can draw a person like me to a college so far away from home. We got some snacks at the park and hung around the huge connect 4, Jenga, chess, and lego blocks. 
The cotton candy sky over the Ben Franklin Bridge
Eventually, hunger got to us and we walked a few blocks to Jim's Steaks. The walk over there allowed to see a more historic part of Philadelphia, although the whole city is pretty historic itself. What was so nice about it that specific area was that most of the road was cobble stone and the architecture of the houses exclaimed 18th century to me. We couldn't help but take photos of the streets and even in front of one of the houses we really liked.

Something about these houses is so
attractive to me
The area where Jim's Steaks is at is also a very eccentric area that I strongly recommend being checked out. Again, it reminded me of back home, like Telegraph Ave in Berkeley. There was a lot of traffic but everyone still got around walking and it was just a busy street with several quirky shops. They even had a greeting card and gift shop like the store Greetings on Solano Ave, but we couldn't go inside because they were closed for the weekend.

We explored that block for a bit until we were able to get inside of Jim's Steaks, the Philly Cheesesteak joint that so many people speak highly about. We all came to a consensus of ordering original Philly Cheesesteaks with Provolone cheese. Just being in line made my mouth water, it smelled so good inside. I didn't' feel like that line was too long and soon enough we had our trays with sandwiches ready to go enjoy them on the upper level. 

I don't usually like onions on my food, but there was no way I was saying no to some grilled onions on my first Cheesesteak sandwich. It was significantly juicy and the bread was perfectly soft. I'd give that sandwich a solid 11/10, just like all the famous people that had dined there before. 

Once again, very full and satisfied, we made our way back to Spruce Street to get the car and drive back to the hotel. Once we were back, we crossed the street to the Penn bookstore to pick up the oh-so necessary Penn gear. It always intrigues me how some college bookstores will have apparel that is cheaper than others, for no apparent reason. 

That was essentially the end of our full day in lovely Philadelphia, and I can certainly say that it is a city that is very easy to love. 

Philadelphia in the Day Time

I Woke up about 7:30 AM, and we all went down at 8:00 to Spread Bagelry, where we had bagel sandwiches (I had the egg white, with a whole wheat everything bagel.) It was pretty different from commons food, for sure. Commons food wasn't too bad, but having the same selection day in and day out started to get a little old. I'm sure during the school year they have more options though.

After eating, we walked back to the hotel to brush teeth and get whatever we needed. I was surprised at how different the weather was from Nashville - I might actually be able to wear a jacket outside here!

Turns out I was able to, because it started raining on the way over to UPenn and stayed grey the rest of the day.

First impression of UPenn.
The walk over for our tour was pretty quick, and we arrived with some time to spare. I was struck immediately by the brick architecture and detailed stonework. I could pretty easily tell it was an Ivy League school.

We first had a presentation from an admissions officer named Kim. It was in Irvine auditorium - an impressive, grand place that reminded me of the inside of a church. According to the pamphlet we got, it houses an 11,000 pipe organ, and a bunch of shows and performances are shown there. It looked like a good place for it.

Our tour guide's name was Louis Lin, and eh was from Merrick, New York. He's a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences studying political science and health in the community. He was a nice guy, and pretty helpful too. He wasn't able to answer my question on whether Penn had a mountain bike team, but he was able to answer everything else for me. I was really interested in the engineering/business school dual major, and it turns out Elon Musk actually graduated from that program! That was a cool thing to learn, as Elon Musk is someone I personally respect.
Plenty of trees here.

The tour took us around campus, as tours often do, and Penn's campus was really nice. It wasn't a national arboretum like Vanderbilt, but it had plenty of trees anyways. The brick buildings and walkways were also cool to see, because a lot of the time on the West Coast there just isn't that amount of red brick anywhere. I liked the feel of it. I don't know if I'll be applying to UPenn, but I have another year to decide that.

After the tour, we went to bookstore and looked around. We didn't buy anything, but we found some stuff that we might want to buy later. We then went next door to lunch at a restaurant called Cosí. The portion sizes were a little weird (their mac & cheese was smaller than their salad) and everything came in to go containers no matter what, but it was still pretty good food anyways.

We then had a quick jaunt over to the hotel, and I got to read the WSJ a little bit in the lobby before we headed over to the Eastern State Penitentiary.

The Eastern State Penitentiary looked like a castle. High stone walls, towers on every corner and a massive imposing gate all added to the effect. It was pretty cool. It closed in 1970, but reopened as a museum in 1994.
Just another college tour, but I'm thinking of applying here now.
Inside the penitentiary

Inside, it was a little less castle-like and more like a prison. Our tour guide's name was Angelina, and she was pretty good in showing us around. We got to see cell blocks, learn about the prison's history, and we even visited Al Capone's cell during his brief stay there. It turns out it was a pretty nice cell. Not sure I would want to stay there, per se, but it's better than a regular prison cell for sure.

After touring around the penitentiary for two and a half hours, we went to Spruce Street Harbor park, and walked around a little bit. We got some food in my case but coffee and ice cream in everyone else's case. While we ate and drank, we sat down on a barge that was tied to the shore that acted as an extension of the park, which was pretty cool. When we decided to move on, we found a big connect-4 board and I challenged Maddie and Ms. Hansen to a few games. That was a lot of fun, as I grew up playing connect-4 with my dad.

RIP My Philly cheese steak, with a life span of about 5 minutes.
Oh yeah, baby.
When we had finished with a few games, we headed over to Jim's Steaks, an authentic Philly cheese steak place. It was really good. I wasn't sure about Philly cheese steaks going in because I hadn't had one before, but it was super good. I highly recommend it.

On our slow walk back to our car, we passed through some very classic, older looking neighborhoods that I really liked the look of. I think as a city, Philadelphia feels more like San Francisco than Nashville did (although they're all quite different). I really am enjoying the cooler weather here too, let me tell you.

After we had made it back to the car, we drove back to the hotel, parked the car, and walked a couple of blocks to the Penn bookstore to pick up a few souvenirs. I got a running t-shirt, and everyone else got some Penn gear too.
Hey look! They have bridges here too!
Beautiful sunset.
We wrapped up the day at the hotel, and tomorrow we go home! It was a great three weeks, but I think I'm pretty much ready to be back now. Still, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell tomorrow should be great.

Friday, July 28, 2017

This Isn't Goodbye, it's See You Later

My lab partner Bernice and I
The last few days of VSA were a blur, that’s for certain. Wednesday was all putting together research papers based on the data that we had found with our research in the laboratory, which unfortunately wasn’t as much as we had hoped for. I wholeheartedly wish we would have had even just a week’s more time for this program just so we could gather more data and have a more solid idea of what exactly happened with our experiments. There were so many questions left unanswered that we never got time to figure out due to the time crunch. It makes me a little bit bummed out and frustrated honestly (side note: when I told Dr. Sutton this she just smiled and told me I ‘caught the science bug’) We also had our last SOFT night on Wednesday, but frankly I spent it doing laundry and hanging around Hank with a few of my new friends.

Thursday morning was prep for the oral presentations and my class spent about half of it goofing around together in the computer lab in all honestly. We didn’t need long to put together the reports and once they were finished and we had prepared with our groups for the oral presentation we were free to do what we wanted to. Meanwhile, Dr. Sutton called us to speak with her one on one. She told me I did a pretty great job in the class for not having taken chemistry beforehand. That really made me feel really glad because honestly at the beginning I was struggling so much to keep up with everyone else before I got my head down and did some research of my own on the topic in order to at least get up to everyone else’s level.

In the afternoon, we had our presentations and I think everyone did a very good job on their presentations, accounting for our holes and whatnot that couldn’t be filled. Then we had to go to the closing ceremonies, which was honestly one of the hardest moments of this whole program. But my house, A House, won the house cup just like Lizzy really wanted, so that was really great.
Throw back to some pre-class shenanigans ft. Josh and Audrey.

That night there was a party and it was honestly so hard towards the end because it would be the last time we’d all really be together having fun. Afterwards we had the last proctor group meeting and stayed up laughing till midnight and it was really hard to say goodnight. I knew about a third of us would be gone earlier in the morning to catch flights and I sort of was not ready to face that this morning.

This morning was all tears and the afternoon was flying to Chicago and then to Philadelphia. Everything was such a blur after Thursday night honestly. It probably should not have been, but it was.

I'll Miss You, VSA

On Wednesday it finally started to set in that my time at Vanderbilt was, unfortunately, almost over.
We went out to breakfast Wednesday morning

Leah and I spent the beginning of class rewiring Titus’s car, again. We had made a slight mistake when originally wiring the buttons, we hadn't taken into account the specifics of the parent controls. Because of this we had to rewire our acceleration button and add another switch to the system, this switch now serves at the primary on and off switch. We then made sure everything else was working correctly concerning our car. It all looked good, so we finished up in the classroom and headed to the computer lab. 

There we each started working on posters which would show the process we went through making the cars. Unfortunately we weren't able to finish these posters, but just starting them was nice as it gave us time to reflect on the class as a whole. It was also interesting to see what everyone else went through making their own cars.

After class we had some free time, I decided to just hang out with some girls from my floor for this. 
We had our last SOFT time that night, I went to the bookstore and Ben and Jerry’s. I had a really fun time with the three girls I was with, and as always the ice cream was delicious. 
We weaved a "friendship web" during our nightly meeting
Thursday was fun filled, exciting, and emotional.

Titus's finished car
In the morning our class delivered our cars to the kids we were working with. It was a bit nerve-wracking, considering we had spent three weeks working up to that moment. We ended up having to do a few modifications after putting Titus in the car, adding a bit more padding and adjusting the straps for more trunk support. After lots of careful adjustments, it was finally time for Titus to try to drive his car. He was able to make it go a bit, but found everything quite overwhelming, so we decided it would be best to give it a break and send him home with his car. Titus’s mom was really exited about the car, and she promised to send us updates on his usage of it. I’m really excited to see how Titus does with the car, and I hope that the mobility it provides will benefit his development. 

After finishing up with the car delivery we did our final concept map and took a survey about our VSA experience, these were fun activities as they made us reflect on what we have learned in and outside of class during VSA.

We had some time left over, so our class decided to fill up the white board with some of our favorite memories of our time together. I enjoyed reliving the past three weeks though this and also seeing what moments stood out to others in the class.
Our memory filled whiteboard 
Next, we had Closing Ceremony, where we listened to a few brief speeches and watched a slideshow. It was a bit emotional, there were many laughs, smiles, and even some tears. 

Later on we had our last dance, this as also pretty emotional as it was our last activity with all of VSA. I spent most of the night playing board games, as I’m not much of a dancer.

We had our last proctor group meeting, again, it was emotional. Some tears were shed. Actually, many tears were shed. We talked about our favorite memories at VSA, I relived some fun moments that I had forgotten about. Our meeting lasted much longer than it was supposed to, but I was happy about this, I was happy that I got to spend more time with the girls that have become my family during these past three weeks. It was hard to think about leaving, but I'm so thankful for the time I've gotten to spend at VSA. 

Friday morning went by entirely too fast.
Bye Vandy

I woke up around 6:30 AM in order to finish up packing before breakfast. I struggled to get my comforter cover and sheets into a space bag, one of my friends kindly offered to ship it back to me from her house in Dickson (so I have more suitcase space!). And then I headed downstairs for my last breakfast at VSA.

At breakfast I sat with some girls form my proctor group, it’s really crazy that just three weeks ago they were strangers to me and now they're some of my best friends. 

After breakfast we had about five minutes to say our final goodbyes to anyone that wasn't living on our floors, all of us ran around trying to hug as many people as possible in the final few minutes.

Me and some of the girls from my floor with Livvy's new puppy, Fredrick
Before I knew it, Jennifer was picking us up, and all of our luggage was loaded into a bright pink cab. I looked back at Hank as we departed for the airport, sad to leave but happy with the memories I’ll come home with.

Soon enough we were at the airport and checking our bags. A few of ours were slightly overweight, but with some quick shuffling of items we were able to sort it out and go through security. We eventually made it to our gate, on the way there we even ran into some of our fellow VSAers who were also flying out of Tennessee, one of them even ended up being on our plane.  

I couldn't resist taking this picture
We arrived in Chicago only to find that our flight had been delayed for about an hour, making our layover now two hours long. We took this extra time to have lunch and find outlets to charge our phones before boarding our next plane to Philadelphia. 

Our plane ride to Philadelphia was really fast, but a but bumpy at times as we were going through some bad weather.

Upon arriving in Philadelphia we quickly got our bags and picked up our rental car. From there we drove to the Sheraton Hotel.

The hotel is really nice, it’s a tall building with a very modern design inside and out. Our room has a very comforting feel to it, and I think the mattress is a bit better than those at VSA (not that I didn’t love my bed there). I’m happy that we get to stay in such a nice hotel for our time here in Philadelphia. 

After settling in we headed to Disterito, a modern Mexican restaurant. The restaurant had a very fun atmosphere, with the pink walls, silly signs, and swings that were scattered through out. After mulling over the menu for a while (everything looked so good) I decided to get a quesadilla with carnitas, a meal which was delicious. Joceline and I also each got horchata, they were really good, not too sweet but still sweet enough. We finished up dinner and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for a nice night’s sleep, one that is long overdue for me.
My amazing dinner
Looking back, the last three days, and three weeks, have gone by so quickly. They've been full of new experiences, new ideas, and new memories, and I'm excited to continue our trip and make new memories in Philadelphia with a tour of U Penn and some sight seeing tomorrow. 

Saying Hello to Pennsylvania

I awoke this morning from the sleepover I had with Kiara and Juliana last night. It was more of me just knocking out as they continued to chat, though. After just sitting in bed for a few minutes, I got up to get ready for the final breakfast with VSA. It still didn't feel real. I couldn't believe I was leaving some of the best people I'd met.

Breakfast was significantly less crowded than it tended to be, mostly because of several students leaving for the airport very early in the morning. Just like on the first day, I had breakfast with my proctor group or who was still around from my proctor group that morning. I went around and had a couple more people sign my term book as I finished my final Vanderbilt Commons Oatmeal. Breakfast was cut short so that people could start checking out at 9, and we were given 5 minutes to say goodbyes before we all were restricted to our floors. 

I got very emotional when my classmate Darren said, "Every time you hear your teachers laugh just pretend it's Dawson laughing." That for some reason really got me, because Dawson (as most Math teachers are or should be) was very passionate about teaching young people about problem-solving and Math in general. It then hit me that I probably won't have a class with people as invested in the topic like this for a while. 

Had to take a photo with my roomie
After the final goodbyes, I went back up to my floor and basically just waited. As girls from my proctor group left one by one I hugged them with teary eyes. I genuinely believe my proctor group was full of brilliant and caring girls. Proctor Group Meetings were all very honest and thoughtful and I never felt judged by any of these girls, despite our different backgrounds. I think VSA does a very good job at picking its students and creating positive environments for us to be in.

Around 10 AM or so, Kiara and I both received text messages that we were heading out. Kiara started crying pretty hard, which in turn made me cry. Kiara is easily one of the sweetest people I've ever met and I'm going to miss her Minnesota accent so much. 

Before finally checking out, I stopped by Rosie's office to hug her good bye as well. She was incredibly supportive at the panel and throughout the program itself, from start to finish, so of course, I had to thank her for everything. I also ended up getting a mint-colored VSA Staff t-shirt. 

We then all got our stuff into the shuttle and headed for the airport. I was a bit anxious about the time because I thought the Nashville International Airport was far, but it was about a 12-minute drive. The whole airport process was pretty quick, even for Ms. Hansen who wasn't TSA Pre-Checked. 

Ran into Madeleine (left) and Shayna

At the airport, I actually ran into some friends so I got to say goodbye one final time to some people. Our gate was also really easy to find and we boarded almost right after arriving. The plane ride was about less than 2 hours, and flying Southwest, again, we got to pick our seats so I sat with Cammie and Evan. We talked a bit about how departure was for us and some other VSA topics. 

When we arrived at the Chicago Midway airport, we found out that our flight to Philadelphia was delayed. That turned a 1-hour layover into a little over 2-hour layover. We walked around the concourse for a bit, looking for something to eat. To my dismay, there were no Starbucks in sight, meaning no "You Were Here" collection bottle. 

We decided to get some burgers, mostly because we were craving french fries. Although, the burger place didn't even have french fries and we got them separately at a Greek food stand named Pegasus On The Fly. It was relatively good food but even after sitting in the food court for a while, we still had time to kill before it was boarding time. So, we were productive and charged our cell phones.

The flight to Philadelphia was also surprisingly short, and the plane itself wasn't full. I noticed several empty spots around, which was a first. There wasn't much talking, partially due to the fact that we were already missing the friends who had become family. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the Philadelphia Airport. 

A shuttle from AVIS came to pick us up then we got the rental car so we could be on our way to the hotel. The drive to the hotel, which is right by UPenn, already gave us a glimpse of how different Philadelphia is from Nashville. There are several more skyscrapers, but at the same time, the University City has a very old town vibe. 

The Sheraton hotel was also very different from the Hampton Inn just from the very entrance. Everything at the Sheraton seems a little more extravagant. The Hampton had a very friendly and hospitable atmosphere, but the Sheraton's lobby seems far more accessorized and modernly decorated. It also is connected to a restaurant & bar that has Dim Sum on the weekends and is a noodle house throughout the week and evenings. It also has several more floors.

I'm sure the college students love it here
Despite the general atmosphere difference, the rooms that we stayed in are essentially the same in size and content. The only different is that it doesn't have a fridge, a bit of a bummer, and the bathroom is a few square feet smaller. Also, rather than having a view with a lot of green, we get a lovely view of nearby tall buildings.

After dropping off our baggage, we headed over to Distrito for some dinner. I knew it was Mexican food but my expectations for the restaurant itself weren't high, which tends to work out for me. To my surprise, it was actually a very cute and lively establishment. It was full of colors and authentic Mexican decorations, like the rice paper cutouts and some wrestling masks. As for the food, I got a Huarache, which was like a flatbread. Usually, the Huaraches I eat at home are less like flatbreads and more like huge tacos, but it was still very delicious. Overall, I wasn't disappointed with dining at Distrito.

I'm definitely looking forward to exploring Philadelphia and getting a tour of UPenn, which really seems to just sell itself right off the bat. 

The End of VSA

Today was the last day of VSA, and it was a jam-packed one.

In the morning I finished up packing all the rest of my stuff, just barely fitting everything in my bag (it always seems like it's harder to pack back up when leaving, doesn't it?) We then all went to breakfast, marking the last time we would eat together in the dining hall. By that time, however, some people had already left for early flights so it wasn't everyone. Term books were signed during breakfast as well since we hadn't had much time yesterday to do it. It was sad, but after breakfast were the final goodbyes.

Our last group photo.
We were given a few minutes to hug everyone and say goodbye out on the patio in front of the dining hall, but were then dismissed back to our floors to wait until our parents or otherwise came to get us. That was about 9 AM, so our cohort had some time before Ms. Hansen came in the shuttle. On my floor, we said goodbye to our proctor group members one-by-one until it was only Michael, Navarrone, and I left. When Ms. Hansen arrived around 10:30, it was my turn to say goodbye to them. I then walked out of the Hank Ingram house for the last time.

Although it was sad, it was made a little better by the bright pink shuttle we took to the airport. It really stood out.

At the airport we saw a couple of people from VSA, but I only knew one - and she was on the same flight as us! Unfortunately we were on opposite sides of the plane, but it was still nice to see another VSA-er after we had left.

The flight was mostly uneventful to Chicago, but our layover was extended by 50 minutes because of the weather in Philadelphia. We had a couple of hours in the airport, so we all walked to get some food in the food court. We had Greek food from a place called Pegasus, which was pretty good. I like Greek food - I'm actually half Greek myself. After we had eaten, we headed back over to the gate to wait.
Chicago, as viewed from my seat.

We boarded our flight and took off for Philadelphia a short time after that. We got a great view of Chicago as we were heading out, but after that it became Ohio and I decided to get some sleep.
I took a great nap, but the last half out of the flight was a little bumpy. It wasn't too bad though, and we landed safely.

Our shuttle driver, Dianne, both welcomed us to Philadelphia and told us happy weekend. I don't think I've seen a happier shuttle driver, so I think that counts as an auspicious beginning to our trip to Philadelphia.

We picked up the rental car without much problem, but as always, it took a little while. Still, we managed to leave in a nice, pretty close to new, Chrysler Minivan. I don't like Chryslers, but I don't think Avis had any Model X's for us to rent.

We drove straight to the hotel after picking up the car, going through what looked like an industrial area, then into Philadelphia itself.

A very futuristic lobby.
It was dark when we arrived at the hotel, but it looked pretty nice from the outside. I was surprised at how urban it was, since the outside of it was flush with the surrounding buildings. I'm used to hotels that are free standing buildings. The weirdest part though, was the parking garage above the bottom floor of the hotel. The actual hotel rooms are set back from the street, and look out over the top of the parking garage. That's something else I haven't seen before, which was cool. Further things about the hotel was the modern-looking lobby, and the Sangkee Noodle House that was directly connected to the lobby.

Hey look! Another view of a parking garage. Imagine that.
When we got our rooms, I was surprised to learn that everyone but I was on the seventh floor. I got a room to myself on the tenth floor. I'll be honest, being the only guy in our cohort does have some perks.

By the time we had all checked in and headed to dinner, it was getting pretty late. We walked over to a place called Distritos, a Mexican food place that was pretty good. I got a plate of chicken enchiladas that at first I thought were a little small, but ended up filling me up pretty well. We had a very relaxed first dinner in Philadelphia, and walked back to the hotel afterward.

I personally like the feel of Philadelphia so far, it's not only a bit cooler than Nashville but it also feels closer to San Francisco in some ways as well.

Back at the hotel, we settled in to go to sleep, as we'll need to get some rest before our full day in Philadelphia!