A Class like no other

As three fourth-year students look forward to Commencement, a look back at their Penn journey, which started during a global pandemic.

The Class of 2024 first moved onto campus in January of 2021, their arrival delayed by the pandemic. Three of those now-fourth-year students who are looking forward to Commencement are (from left) Carmen Harrison Montoya, Babatomiwa Sofela, and Max Cass, all in the College of Arts and Sciences.

It was a Move-In like no other: first-years arriving at their College Houses for the first time during the early days of January 2021. Wearing masks and following pandemic protocols, they pushed their carts to their single rooms to start their college experience. Those first-years are now fourth-years at the end of their final undergraduate semester, heading toward Commencement.

Moving in that January were Max Cass from Haddonfield, New Jersey; Carmen Harrison Montoya from Houston; and Babatomiwa Sofela from Lagos, Nigeria, all three in the College of Arts and Sciences. They were among 400 moving in that Sunday.

While the world raced to find a COVID-19 vaccine, their classroom was a computer. These classmates had to find new ways to find each other, online during the fall semester and on campus in the spring semester.

Pandemic restrictions meant dining halls were closed and group activities inside were restricted. Safety protocols meant distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing, daily health-symptom checks, and weekly COVID tests. Red and green passes displayed on cell phones determined entrance to buildings.

Most had been in the Class of 2020 in high school, their senior years scuttled by the pandemic, proms and graduations and final-year celebrations cancelled or significantly curtailed. 

“Many of us would like to forget all of this,” says Paul Sniegowski, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Being young, they’re sure to remember and tell stories about it for the rest of their lives. Yet despite all of the challenges they faced in finishing high school and starting here at Penn, this class has distinguished itself for its outstanding scholarship and its civic-mindedness.

“Members of this class have won prestigious national and international scholarships for postgraduate work; have conducted and published peer-reviewed research across the natural sciences, social, sciences, and humanities; have engaged locally, regionally, and globally with our West Philadelphia community and the world; and have made their voices heard in the great concerns of our day,” Sniegowski says.

“All of our graduating classes are special: this class is one that has risen above their difficult transition from high school to college and will be remembered with great admiration by us all for their resilience in a difficult time.”

Max Cass

Arriving on campus that January, Cass and his parents pushed moving carts up the ramp and into Harnwell House. Cass said that day that he felt like he “really lacked the college experience, so, when we got the news that we were allowed to come back, I was ecstatic.”

Max Cass moving into his dorm room in 2021, and at his work-study job on Penn’s campus in 2024.
Max Cass, from Haddonfield, New Jersey, moved into Harnwell House in 2021. A politics, philosophy, and economics major, he worked at Penn Residential Services during his years at Penn.

Cass and his friends have often talked about what it was like for them that first year, he says, “and just how hard it was becomes even more apparent” as they have experienced the campus without COVID restrictions. “It definitely makes me sad knowing that we didn’t get that typical freshman year,” he says, noting that he has a “little bit of jealousy” for the younger students who have had an easier time.

They weren't allowed in each other’s rooms or in dorms other than their own, and it was too cold to be outside together for too long. “There was a constant fear of hanging out with people. We really couldn’t with the COVID policies,” he says. “I totally understand that was necessary, but it was really difficult.”

In his work-study job, Cass has been at the front desk of Penn Residential Services, triaging calls from parents and students and prospective students and regularly talking with Penn staff. “It’s ironic, because freshman year the policies that were the hardest to adapt to were coming from the department for housing,” he says. “Knowing where those policies were coming from, and the people that they were coming from, I have a deeper appreciation for how much those people care.”

Cass is in the interdisciplinary major of politics, philosophy, and economics, with a concentration in choice and behavior. He has taken diverse courses, including clay, poetry, Russian literature, and strategic reasoning. Philosophy courses were some of his favorites. “I tried to take as many cool classes as I could,” he says.

A gender-and-media course was important because that’s where he met professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, now dean of the Annenberg School for Communication. He did an independent study course with her, and she is also his advisor for his honors thesis, on how a rising consumer demand for authenticity affects queer representation.

He also has been a research assistant for Penn’s Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics, interested “in the power of social norms in determining our choice and behavior” because of his exploration of his own sexuality and identity, he says.

In the spring of his third year, Cass studied in Paris with Penn Abroad, a “spectacular experience” which included travel through Europe, and connections with more Penn classmates. “I was able meet totally new people and expand who I was hanging out with at Penn,” he says. “I still have those friends, and now they’re friends with my friends.”

During his final semester, Cass says he has been focusing on “cementing these really good friendships that I’ve made hanging out with friends every single day.”

Cass is planning to take a gap year to travel and backpack, doing conservation and agriculture work, with his good friend Chloë Mouzakitis, a fourth-year biology major who also works at Residential Services. He also plans to study for the LSAT and apply to law schools to start in the fall of 2025.

“I’ve had really great experiences with the advising and the professors at Penn. I’ve been very fortunate to have a support system,” says Cass. “It was hard freshman year, but I’m impressed by the resilience among a lot of the students because they are still very involved and still doing a lot of really cool things.”

Carmen Harrison Montoya

Wrestling large suitcases with the help of her mother, that January move-in was the first time Harrison Montoya had seen Penn’s campus. “I’m so excited. I really can’t wait to explore it all,” she said as she stood in the center of the Quad. “It just all seems like a world of opportunity.”

Carmen Harrison Montoya with her suitcases in front of Penn’s Quad in 2021, and at Penn’s legal clinic in 2024.
Carmen Harrison Montoya, from Houston, moved into the Quad in 2021. double-major in political science and criminology, she has been working at the Gittis Legal Clinics at Penn Cary Law School this year.

Harrison Montoya has found many opportunities during her years at Penn, including a semester working at the White House, a summer internship in Argentina, and a work-study job in the Gittis Legal Clinics at Penn Carey Law School. She is a double-major in political science and criminology with a concentration in political science and international relations.

During those first few hours on campus she was waving hello to classmates she had connected with online. “Everyone would follow each other on Instagram, and there would be ways to video chat with new people and clubs,” she says. “Penn did a really great job at fostering virtual connection that first semester.”

In a research position at Perry World House as a second-year, she focused on military technology and artificial intelligence. She became interested in international politics, international law, and how technology like AI influences military and governments.

And she started to travel, first with a summer internship in Buenos Aires with the nonprofit America Solidaria, focused on youth empowerment and education in low-income communities in Central and South America.

“I wanted to continue using my Spanish language and really strengthen that by using it in a professional setting for the first time,” says Harrison Montoya, whose mother is from Colombia. An only child who grew up in Houston, she says she is the first on her father’s side to go to college and the first on her mother’s side to go to college in the United States.

A turning point for Harrison Montoya was her experience in Washington, D.C., with the Penn in Washington program and the White House internship. Working in the Domestic Policy Council under Susan Rice was “life changing,” she says. Each intern was assigned to an aspect of policy, and Harrison Montoya’s was immigration. She “really found community with the other interns” at the White House.

“I think in the end I felt so much more self-worth, and I felt more confident in my abilities to interact with the world around me, especially interacting in an institution like Penn,” she says. “It was hard for me to adjust to the world here at Penn, and I think the White House really gave me that confidence to understand that I deserve to be here. In my next steps, I know that I will be kinder to myself, and that I deserve to be there too.”

Travel has continued, with a trip this semester to Geneva, Switzerland, and the United Nations as a Perry World House Student Fellow. “I would have never been able to travel internationally without Penn,” she says.

During this fourth year, she has worked at Penn’s legal clinics, translating court documents in Spanish and English, and working to keep the filing system organized. Her honors thesis is on lethal autonomous weapons systems and why nations would choose to develop them, which blends her interests in international security, international relations, and international law.

She is currently applying to law school, interested in a career in international humanitarian law.

“I feel like I’ve changed so much as a person but still maintained the core of myself,” she says. “I’m so glad that I could still have that wonder and that joy that I had the first day that I came in.”

Babatomiwa Sofela

Sofela moved into the Quad with help from his older sister, who graduated from the Wharton School in 2020. His other sister was a fourth-year at Wharton at the time.

Babatomiwa Sofela pushing a move-in cart into a dorm with his sister in 2021, and on Penn’s College Green in 2024.
Babatomiwa Sofela, from Nigeria, moved into the Quad in 2021. A healthcare management major, he was president of Nigerians at Penn, and will be starting a job at a healthcare consulting firm in New York City after graduation.

“Once we came on campus it felt more like the college experience. I was making friends. I was able to meet up with people, with the restrictions, but it felt more like a community experience, a personal experience,” says Sofela, who attended high school in Atlanta.

“But I don't know what exactly I would've been missing because I had no other frame of reference,” he says. “I was just happy to be on campus at that point in time. It felt like I was finally actually starting college.”

After that first year, Sofela was a summer intern with Penn’s Biocultural Anthropological Methods Lab, researching disparities in maternal mortality between Black women and other races in the United States. “It was something that was near to my heart that I wanted to learn more about and help impact in a positive way,” he says.

The fall semester of 2021 was the “most fun I’ve had at Penn, just because everything was new” with fewer pandemic restrictions, Sofela says. He developed most of his relationships that second year, when he lived in Harnwell with his friends “because that’s when everyone was really trying to be outgoing.”

Academics became more challenging, Sofela says, because he started focusing on classes in his major of health and societies, with a possible minor in neuroscience. But he also had an interest in business, and he was looking for summer internships, while working a remote internship for Xenon Health during the school year. “I was trying to juggle different things,” he says, “but that’s when the friends group became more solidified, leading up to junior year.”

Working with Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics during a summer internship and traveling to conferences laying the foundation for a career in business, he made the switch from a pre-med track, deciding on a concentration in health care markets and finance.

Sofela was president of the student group Nigerians at Penn. He also was director of member development for the Black Wharton Undergraduate Association. “That got me interested in consulting and helped me with understanding business more,” he says. And he was part of the Penn chapter of First Generation Investors, teaching high school students about financial literacy.

“Junior year was probably my most impactful year at Penn. I felt I learned the most from my college experience, or at least experienced the most things at once,” he says. Pandemic restrictions that had been in place were finally removed, and he was living in a house with four other students. He worked out regularly at the gym, which “helped a lot with discipline and being able to manage my time better.”

Sofela says that this year it has been important to him to continue making memories with his friends and to go to as many senior events as possible. 

He has decided on a career in health care consulting and already has a job lined up with Ernst & Young-Parthenon in New York City as an associate.

“It’s crazy to me to think about at this point in time how I felt like starting college. I was very unsure on what I wanted to do or why exactly I was here,” he says. “I feel like I’m still very unsure about what I want to do exactly, but I feel like I have a good path I’m starting on and that I’ll be able to figure things out more down the line.”