On an average morning, Jana Korn (C’18) wakes up hoping for good weather so she can go on a bike ride. Ideally, she might discover a few new cafes on the way and drop in for a spot of coffee to replenish her energy. “I spend a lot of time exploring the coffee shops of Philadelphia,” she admits. Lately, she tries to ride as much as possible in preparation for her post–grad summer trip: a two–month bike trip of the east coast from Key West and to Canada.
Right now, life is relatively calm for Jana; school is coming to a close and a well–deserved graduation is right around the corner. She looks carefree with her short brown hair tied half up atop her head, beaded turquoise earrings swinging as she laughs at her various Penn memories. Jana’s life hasn’t always been this simple. In fact, her life has been much more stressful than many of us could handle, and the impact that Jana’s made on this campus is anything but calm.
Jana Korn is one of Penn’s political powerhouses: former president of Penn Dems, co–founder of Fem Dems, and dedicated political activist. She has a taste for exploration. She wants to know the world around her. When she’s not exploring new coffee shops, she is canvassing throughout this city.
“I fell in love with [Dems] my first year, because I was like, I’m not seeing West Philly. But when you’re canvassing, you’re just speaking to residents like your equals, right? Like the two of us are just voters, our votes count equally, I just want you to use yours a specific way, right?” Dems helped her to connect with Philadelphians on a person to person level that is often missing in our university culture. “I think a lot of what Penn does in relation to West Philly is [to] treat us as superior, like not on the same plane, but when you’re just talking that way as voters, it’s much different.”
Her canvassing efforts were just the beginning. Jana’s seen and done things that shatter the boundaries of average student life, like taking part in Hillary Clinton’s motorcade during her presidential campaign. While Jana was the president of Dems, she got a phone call from Hillary’s staff. They asked for volunteers, and she supplied them with the necessary number of willing students, including Jana herself.
“It was insane. I drove a van—it didn’t have her in it, it had staff in it, but it was so scary.” The student volunteers arrived at the private airport where Hillary’s private jet, embossed with “Ready for Hillary,” sat waiting for its riders to deplane. The volunteers were given numbers and lined up to wait for the members in their assigned vehicle. One by one, each volunteer was paired with staffers, and eventually Jana found out that she would be chauffeuring Hillary Clinton’s speech writer and head photographer.
“It was literally surreal,” says Jana. Despite all of her leadership roles at Penn, on this day, she was just a chauffeur—and a nervous one at that. “Don’t talk to anyone,” she told herself, “Don’t fuck up. I’m not even a good driver! I don’t know why I did this!”
But, at the end of the day, she knows exactly why she did it. She did it because she is passionate about politics—and will do whatever it takes to support the causes that she believes in.
Despite her initial nerves, Jana soon found commonalities between the staffers and herself. “I always tell this story because I think it’s so funny: the next day, we drove them back to the airport to get on a flight, and they were talking in my car about what song they wanted Hillary Clinton to come out to at her victory party.” The song in question? “Sit Still, Look Pretty” by Daya, now a keystone of Jana’s music library. “I still kind of cry when I hear it.”
Jana smiles easily, and she punctuates her storytelling with light laughter. Her demeanor is sweet, but don’t underestimate her: she’s made waves on this campus that have no doubt caught each of us in their ripples.
“In February, [we] organized a demonstration on Locust where we had people stand with signs holding the names of every mass shooting since 2017.” Jana explains, “I don’t remember the number, but it was a few hundred. It’s insane, and you only hear about the ones that are in the news. But there’s a mass shooting every day, right? People are killed every few minutes.”
At the close of the demonstration, the participants held a moment of silence for every one of the victims of these mass shootings. This moment amounted to a full eight minutes of silence: one hundred and fifty Penn students standing on Locust without saying one word.
“I recognized—I think we all kind of recognized—in that moment that on campus there was kind of an itch to do something, it’s just an issue that people feel so viscerally,” Jana says, eyes on something in the distance. “You can kind of ignore tax policy or even ignore climate change because it’s not affecting you, but no one is safe from the guns that exist in this country.”
The contrast between Jana’s soft demeanor and the intense dedication she has to her beliefs makes her all the more compelling as a leader. And, it seems this distinct type of leadership has been paramount to her success. Being the president of a hundred–plus member political organization during election season is hectic enough—add in the countless groups that were suddenly looking to collaborate and it was chaos.
“I just remember, I was driving back to school in August before my junior year, and I got this call from someone on a campaign that was like: ‘Hey, Elizabeth Warren wants to do a rally on Penn’s campus, can you reserve a room?’ I was literally in the car with my dad driving back to campus.” Obviously, Jana had her doubts, but she kept calm in the face of celebrity–induced awe mixed with the huge amount of responsibility placed upon her, and she got the job done. “We did it in the museum—it was really fun. But that was representative of my whole semester.”
Sometimes the gentlest of people are the ones that conquer the toughest of tasks. When it comes to Jana, this seems to be the case, but the stress of the semester certainly didn’t end there. On election night, it peaked. “Dems did a watch party at Cav’s, which I was at for a little bit. When things started to go south, I left and went downtown. I interned on Katie Mcginty’s Senate campaign, so she and all of the state party were doing an event at the Sheraton downtown. I went there because I just wanted to be with campaign people, and I mean, I don’t—it was horrible.”
When McGinty lost the Senate race, the night was truly over. “It was late, it was like 1 a.m. by the time they called her, and she spoke and it was horrible, but it happened,” Jana says with calm resolve, running a hand over her sticker–adorned hydro–flask water bottle and quietly nodding her head.
Though a Washington D.C. native, Jana doesn’t automatically credit her childhood home for her interest in the political world. “People assume that because I am from there it’s in my blood kind of—I don’t know if that’s the case, my parents weren’t involved in politics at all.” Regardless, Jana grew up independently attending protests downtown and participating with her high school in walk outs, such as the one she participated after the death of Trayvon Martin, and various other demonstrations.
Maybe Jana’s desire to spice up this campus hails from her affinity for similarly spicy Latin–American cuisine. Her go–to drunk food is nachos, accompanied by her drink of choice, the margarita. Or, maybe it’s tied to her proclaimed essence animal, the giraffe: “When I was growing up the zoo near my house had a giraffe named Jana, and I just kind of latched onto it.” Just like giraffe Jana, human Jana stands tall and proud, making her presence known without ever being imposing.
“I don’t want to overstate it because there are so many people who are doing activism on this campus,” she says. But Jana has distinguished Penn Dems by making it a place where anyone with a spirit and a goal can see their feelings put into action. “Even as a freshman, you can come in and say I wanna organize this protest, I wanna organize a panel discussion about this.” And that sentiment exists due to the precedent Jana has set.
Put simply, Jana’s story here at Penn is one of empowerment. “I think especially with this gun control organizing that I’ve been doing, I hope that people can see that and realize that it’s super accessible to do work like this,” she says, voice unwavering, “It doesn’t have to be your whole life, you don’t have to be studying political science. If you really care about something, you have the ability to do something about it.”
Jana’s mark on campus is a testament to just that.
Read about the rest of the students profiled for 34th Street Magazine's Penn 10 project here.