On college campuses, the competitive nature to strive to be the best outweighs the reality that, quite frankly, we can’t all be the best at everything.
The college application process itself comes with rejection: According to a 2016 article from The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania accepted only 9.4 percent of applicants for the class of 2020, the lowest percentage in the university’s history.
But one Penn student is trying to soften the blow of rejection and debunk the stigma surrounding it.
Enter — er, roll — the Wall of Rejection.
Rebecca Brown, a Penn senior, created the Wall of Rejection, a whiteboard on wheels that illustrates all types of students’ rejections they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome and succeeded afterward.
The idea for the wall started while she was studying abroad in London in the fall of 2015.
She and a friend were talking about “Penn Face,” the idea that Penn students put on “a face to seem very confident and happy when things aren’t always perfect” — which could easily apply to any competitive school.
They talked about this concept further.
“We were saying how people really don’t discuss their rejections even though everything at Penn is an application — you literally need to fill out an application to graduate,” the 21-year-old said.
Another friend told her that her high school had a wall of rejection for college rejection letters. From there, Brown concluded that idea also would work at Penn.
“It is such a topic that really isn’t discussed but something that everyone experiences,” she noted.
The board shows Polaroid photos of the rejection author next to his or her neon notecard submission handwritten in Sharpie.
“It’s just to put a face to the notecard because one of the important things about the project is that of course you can do it anonymously, but by people choosing to not do it anonymously, it really helps for underclassmen to see upperclassmen owning their rejection and not seeing it as something to be ashamed of but rather something that happens to everyone,” she said.
Many rejection letters were basic admittances of not getting jobs or into graduate schools post-college, or others like “I auditioned for every dance group at Penn and didn’t get into any of them, but that leaves my schedule [open] so I could pursue music instead.”
“Everyone kind of interpreted the project a different way, which is one of the things that makes it really nice,” Brown said. “A lot of people did things where their rejections led to other things.”
Other letters were a bit more humorous.
“One girl was like, ‘I’m going to quote my Torah portion here: This too shall pass,’” Brown recalled.
But many of the letters broke through the negative stigma with a blunt, inspirational edge.
Brown, a double major in sociology and communications, wrote her own letter last year on the first Wall of Rejection, which was temporarily presented in Van Pelt Library during finals week in the spring of 2016.
She wrote about a pre-orientation leadership program she wanted to join her freshman year but was not accepted into.
There were many organizations and clubs to choose from, but she didn’t realize that most required an interview, audition or screening process.
“You didn’t feel like you could just walk into any community,” she remembered.
One of her friends was rejected from several clubs her first year, too, some of which were a bit silly to be rejected from at all, like the executive board of Students Against Sex Trafficking.
“Things where you’re like, ‘People can get rejected from that?’” Brown laughed. Her friend listed all these organizations on her notecard, but added that she has now found her community at Penn and found success elsewhere.
The current mobile Wall of Rejection makes it easy to display at different locations on campus.
“It reaches more of the student population because people tend to just go in the same building day after day,” she said.
Another more permanent installation is in the works for the Counseling and Psychological Services office waiting room at Penn.
The wall will slide over to Penn Hillel in April. Brown is an active participant there, as well as a member of the Jewish Renaissance Project and a former member of Penn’s Jewish a cappella group the Shabbatones.
Before the wall was made, Brown, a Pittsburgh native, reached out to people through multiple student listservs, asking for volunteers to participate.
It later spread more through word of mouth and social media, and the wall now has more than 300 submissions.
“One goal that we have for the future is to get more colleges to have walls like this,” she said. “It’s actually become kind of a trend in the corporate world for companies to have failure walls, and we would love to see other colleges doing this because we’re sure that this isn’t something that’s just unique to Penn.
“[The wall] touches on something really important that no one else is talking about at Penn, which is that in a competitive atmosphere, no one is succeeding everywhere,” she continued.
“Though it might feel that way sometimes, it’s really important for us to acknowledge that that’s not the reality and even if we are in a competitive atmosphere, we can still talk about it and share in that as a community.”
Rachel Kurland is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.