A tight-knit Class of 2026 celebrates two years in, two years left

Penn’s 5th annual U-Night brought nearly all second-year students to High Rise Field to honor their unity as a class and the midway point in their journey to graduation.

A crowd of second-year students cheering at U-Night.

The line to enter High Rise Field at Harrison College House on April 30 was long and buzzing, with nearly every member of Penn’s Class of 2026 queuing to enter Penn’s 5th annual U-Night celebration. The evening event was a celebration to mark the halfway point for Penn undergraduates, as they transition from second-year to third-year students. For the Class of 2026, many will be living off campus in the fall, and U-Night provides a rare evening of unity and congregation for the singular class alone.

The U-Night tradition began in 2019 before virtual celebrations replaced the in-person gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The live gathering on campus resumed in 2022. On this night, the sun set on a warmer-than-average evening, and students dressed in summer clothes and complementary U-Night T-shirts, with a Class of ‘26 design that mimicked the Philadelphia 76ers logo.

Cosette Burrese said that attending the Wharton School was a dream when she was in high school in Missoula, Montana. She’s in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, a dual-degree program in Wharton and the School of Arts & Sciences. Burrese had never been to the East Coast before she arrived at Penn, and said she finally feels home in Philadelphia after the transition from Montana. She was happy to be celebrating her halfway point alongside her friends and roommates.

Eight students, two holding their Class of 2026 t-shirts, pose for a photo at U-Night.

Rihem Sassi is also a student in Wharton, studying finance and business economics and public policy. She said she was the only Tunisian undergraduate on campus when she arrived at Penn two years ago. Since then, she’s joined Sigma Kappa, and said “this night is special; it’s the only time I get to hang out just with second-year students.” Sassi and Burrese said that all Wharton students had finals that week, earlier than the other schools, and many, including Sassi, had finals the next day.

After a long but social wait in the queue, the students beelined for the catering tables serving dinner, and ate to the sounds of a DJ playing hip-hop and dance tunes.

Tap Snap Philly set up three photo booths, and captured groups of friends, including an almost-successful seven-person pyramid, with students holding pennants, pompoms, noisemakers, and one wearing a giant taco hat.

Nicole Hoang from San Jose, California, studies Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is pursuing fluency in Vietnamese through Penn’s Vietnamese Language Program. They have a busy summer ahead: a Mellon Mayes government fellowship, work as a teaching assistant, and a VP of finance for the Penn Vietnamese Student Association. Last summer, they served as a legislative intern for Dianne Feinstein, a former Democratic Senator from California. This night in particular, they said, “is a rare break.”

Arav Nangia from West Windsor, New Jersey, is a biotech student who will be interning with a biotech research firm for the summer and living off campus for the first time. He and his friends unanimously said what brought them to U-Night: “free food.”

Free food and “awesome friends” brought Alexandra Curtu to High Rise Field. She studies economics and finance at Wharton and is from Iowa City. This summer she will be a finance teaching assistant for the Wharton Global Youth Program.

Dom Ciccotelli, from Parsippany, New Jersey, is studying biochemistry and is on a pre-med track. He will be taking the MCAT this summer and said he will begin studying this month while getting certified as a medical assistant. “Penn provides balance, so I don’t feel overwhelmed.” He and Curtu pointed out that the last time the entire class of 2026 gathered as a group was Convocation.

The Class of 2026 student president Vedika Jawa welcomed the group, and Provost John L. Jackson Jr. gave opening remarks. He congratulated the class on being halfway through, but quickly added, “I know we’re not done.”

Balloons that spell out UNIGHT on Penn’s campus.
Six second-year Penn students pose for pictures at U-Night.
A crowd of second-year students hold up their lanterns on U-Night.

He urged the class to “embrace the fact that there won’t be another four years in your life like the four years of your undergrad experience. This is a time like no other. Squeeze everything you can out of the next two years.”

He told the crowd that there would be laughter and lots to celebrate, and also challenges ahead. But, he stressed, there is support for the challenges, and no one is alone. “You have your professors, you have your advisers, and you have each other.”

The lantern exercise followed, an opportunity for the entire class to recognize its similarities as well as its individuality. The Class of 2026 student board members led the exercise, asking students shining their lights when their school was named: The College; Engineering and Applied Science; Nursing; Wharton. Then came the detailed questions: Who listened to a lecture recording on two times the speed? Who switched majors? Who took a gap year? And, poignantly, who is unsure about what your future holds but is excited, nonetheless? Despite the number of students with solid plans for the summer, for fall, and even for next summer, lights still shone bright for this question. The most illuminating response was to the prompt, “Shine your light if you are excited for the next two years of your life.”

After the lantern ceremony, the crowd went back to the free food, selfies, and making plans for the rest of the evening, a mix of finals prep and hangouts, while the DJ blasted Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

Images are courtesy of the Office of Student Affairs.