No ordinary person would admit they were obsessed with bridges as a kid or filled camera rolls with pictures of interesting–looking fire hydrants. But as Jackson Betz (C ‘19) tells me about his quirky childhood passions, it becomes clear that he was no ordinary kid.
In elementary school, Jackson was a big fan of covered bridges, which he explains are wooden bridges that have walls and a roof to protect the wood from wind and rain. His current Facebook cover photo is a photograph slide of a covered bridge in Wabank, Pennsylvania, which he discovered on eBay.
“People take pictures of them,” he explains. “Mostly sixty–five–year–old couples who are retired, spending their twilight years in New Hampshire and wanting to enjoy some fall scenery. Plus some nine–year–old loser from the Philadelphia suburbs.”
He chuckles at this, his soft voice bursting out into shy but genuine laughter. Jackson is tall, lanky, and blond, and wears circular black glasses. I first meet him in the Penn Band Room of the Platt Performing Arts House. It’s 5 p.m., one hour before the usual Monday rehearsal starts. There are only a few Penn Band members in the room at this point, but Jackson says hi to almost everyone who comes in.
The first thing we talk about is his major, which is what leads to his happy tangent on covered bridges. Jackson has a passion for architecture and transportation, and he loves to study “the way people move from place to place.” One field he’s interested in is traffic engineering, which he says addresses problems that are crucial to everyday life. Everybody has to go through traffic, and the shape of an intersection or the length of a red light can mean the difference between a clear road and one congested for miles.
But even though Jackson wants to work with roads and buildings, architecture is just his minor. He tells me that he was 100% sure he would major in the field when he got to college, but Penn and campus life in general had more than a few surprises in store for freshman Jackson. As the oldest kid in his family, the only image of college Jackson had was the sunny, easygoing portrayal of university life on TV and movie screens.
“I thought Penn was going to be like the brochure photos. And then I got there and discovered it’s more like a lot of time in Van Pelt,” he says, laughing. “Sitting in Van Pelt doing physics and math problems sets until 2 a.m. and getting most of the answers wrong, and turning it in, and not getting very many points for it.”
Architecture at Penn was a lot different than what he’d first dreamed of, and he found himself wanting to focus on a different subject as an undergrad, saving architecture for grad school. There was only one other thing he’d liked as much as fire hydrants and covered bridges: music.
Like most people, Jackson started playing the piano in the first grade because his mom forced him to. Although he went through the motions, he didn’t really start appreciating music until he fell in love with bands like the Beatles, Vampire Weekend, and Green Day.
Jackson can pinpoint the moment he fell in love with music: when he learned to play a Beatles song on the piano.
“I remember playing around with notes and realizing I had the power to play this song that I love and put my own spin on it …That was the moment it clicked, and I realized I loved music.”
It was his interest in music that led him to join Penn Band. In freshman year, Jackson joined Penn’s Jazz Combos, a jazz music group made of several smaller performance groups. During their concert, he remembers watching one of the other subgroups on stage and being blown away by the vibraphone player. Jackson had only ever played piano, and he decided that learning to play mallet instruments was the next step he wanted to take with music.
Penn Band was the perfect place for him to learn a new instrument, as it’s one of the only performance groups on campus that doesn’t require an audition. He showed up to the first rehearsal his sophomore year thinking that he’d only be in the group to get some experience with mallets. But Penn Band turned out to be an experience that encompassed much more than playing music. Three years and countless rehearsals, football games, and performances later, Jackson has no regrets.
“I discovered so much more than I’d ever hoped for in the Penn Band. I was thinking I’d maybe join for a year or so, brush up on some musical technique,” he says. “But then I discovered a community of friends and so much more amazing stuff.”
One of his best Penn memories is of a trip the band took to Dartmouth. Late at night, he and his friends snuck away from campus to walk over the bridge from New Hampshire to Vermont, just so they could cross another state off their bucket list.
“It was the kind of thing that actually turned out to be kind of lame,” he says, “but the fact that I had friends in Penn Band who were willing to walk somewhere in the dark just to say we could go to Vermont … I thought that was so cool, you know.”
Jackson believes this kind of intimate connection with other students is rare at Penn, which is why being a part of groups like Penn Band is so important to him. He says that the most challenging part of Penn is that a lot of the relationships feel impersonal.
“It’s kind of a trope at Penn that 95% of lunch plans that are made on Locust don’t actually happen, or they’re not even made at all because people are just there for you on paper,” he says. “People will comment of Facebook statuses … but when it comes to actually spending time or energy to make that happen, at Penn I kind of feel like it’s not as prevalent.”
But meaningful friendships can come out of this challenging atmosphere, and those relationships and experiences are what make all of Penn worth it to Jackson. He recounts a tough weekend he had recently, when his mental health began to take a serious hit.
“I kind of started going back to CAPS again, and I was having these thoughts that were like, ‘You know, everybody at Penn is so achievement driven, like what place is there for somebody like me who doesn’t really know yet what he’s doing next year, and it’s April?’” he says. He was walking to Van Pelt to study when a student at Penn he’d talked to a handful of times bumped into him. He was so surprised when she gave him a hug and asked if they could get lunch some time. Jackson thought it was just a passing offer that wouldn’t turn into real plans, but then she got out her phone and put down a date in her Google Calendar.
“The fact that somebody would reach out in such a real, human way was really inspiring,” he says. “Things like that are what make Penn amazing. Between all the darties and the people in suits in Wharton all the time and all the toxic overachieving … there are some really good people at this school.”
Jackson doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing after college, but he’s keeping his options open. He’s been accepted to some grad schools for city planning, but he’s also thinking about deferring for a year to get some work experience and become more financially stable. He wants students to know that being unsure is okay.
It’s 6 p.m., and band rehearsal is now in full swing. Jackson heads to the back of the room with others in the drumline. He introduces me to the whole section and offers me a cowbell and a tambourine if I want to join in on the music. As the band warms up and explodes into rowdy, energetic pop songs, he dances and sings while he plays, the sound of his bells ringing out across the room. It would be an understatement to say that the senior is in his element, surrounded by friends and doing what he loves. Throughout our conversation and during rehearsal, Jackson is sweet, vulnerable, honest, and authentically himself.