Amanda Ngo (W’/C’ 20) describes herself as a “chronic introspector.” In between balancing her classes in both Wharton and the College of Arts and Sciences as a student in the Huntsman Program, Amanda always manages to find time to reflect on her personal values and beliefs in order to live her most intentional life.
Inspired by her experiences back home in Auckland, New Zealand, Amanda came to Penn seeking a space where she could collaborate with others without the demands of rubrics and deadlines.
“Back in New Zealand I was part of a co–working space which was a creative co–working community. You'd into this space...[with] some work and then four hours would go by and you would be having this insane conversation with some musician who had wandered [passed] it.”
Facing the challenges of culture shock and homesickness, Amanda decided she would recreate the sense of community and creativity that she had experienced over 8,000 miles away on campus. Together with her good friend Carmen Lau (W'20), Amanda formed the Meraki Collective, an organization unlike any other on campus.
She describes the goal of forming Meraki as a way to unite passions. “We both had very difficult experiences freshman and sophomore year in terms of finding communities and finding places where we could have meaningful conversations with people and really authentically connect over things [we] cared about..without school and other pressures crowding that out," Amanda says.
When Amanda envisioned what the Meraki Collective would look like, she toyed with the idea of creating a shared house based on the intentional community models that she and some of her friends had experienced in San Francisco. In these intentional communities, people live in apartment–style housing while sharing food, housework, and decision–making. She humorously notes, “we were like... [that won't] work, Penn kids find it hard to commit to things.'”
For some time, the Meraki Collective existed as a more laid–back gathering of students that would meet weekly in Kelly Writers House to work on their own creative projects outside of classes. Inspired by a prior Penn club called Space Gatherings, Amanda sought to grow the reach of the Meraki Collective by planning events that would bring students together to form new and sincere connections.
“We did a lot of big dinners where we would have a massive room and would have themes like, ‘What are you most excited about right now?’ and we would facilitate. We had sticky notes with questions on the walls with questions that you could ask people to really get to know them. Some of them were like 60–person shenanigans with people coming in and out. Other events were small. We did a TedTalk–style event where we got people in a room and we were like, 'Okay you have two minutes. what does the world need to know?' Everyone would sort of go around and do their spiel.”
Another one of their most positively–received events was titled, “Dinner in the Dark,” in which strangers sat together in groups of four at a dinner at Pattaya. The catch? Diners had to remain blind–folded for the entire duration of the dinner. Amanda didn’t participate in the blind–folding, but facilitated the event by seating attendees and helping them order their food.
Amanda explains the event was even more transformative for participants than she could have anticipated. “Apparently it was wild, people said food tastes so different when you're blindfolded, sounds are different, [and] the way you connect with people changes," she says. "You don’t get a visual impression so your stereotypes are kind of broken, which was one of the goals of that.”
Amanda still has dozens of more novel ideas for events that make you say, "Wow I kind of want to experience that!’” Yet beyond the creative event–planning, Amanda’s larger goal is to change the way that Penn students think about their own lives. She hopes to inspire students through the Meraki Collective to carefully consider what values they hold and how to intentionally pursue them. “I think what would be fun would be a life–philosophy week where every day you practice a different life–philosophy.”
“We would give you the guidelines of how to do it, like how the stoics lived their life and you would practice living like a stoic for a day. You would get to the end and you would have experienced all these ways to live your life based on philosophical traditions," she elaborates. "It’s the spirit of what we’re trying to do. It’s not just connecting people, but also getting people to introspect and think deeply about what is meaningful to them and how they can live in alignment with their values."
While working with a social entrepreneur in New Zealand, Amanda became deeply interested in the philosophy behind the meaning of life. “I read a lot of books on meaning and I integrated a lot of different philosophies and I was like, 'Wow. This search, this thing of sitting down and reading books, what is it? What do I think about that?'" she says. "It was such a valuable thing that I had done and I thought that everyone should do it and we should have the space to do that. “
For Amanda, her interest in personal philosophies spans beyond the Meraki Collective and into her own research on campus. Working alongside Angela Duckworth and Katie Milkman in the Behavior Change for Good Initiative Lab, Amanda is currently finishing her senior thesis project that asks, “Does having a rule or resolution, for example, I never check my email past 10 pm or I never eat meat, does this help you have more self-control?’" She hopes that she can help people improve their lives “using the understanding of the mind and science.”
Outside of her classes, Meraki and research, Amanda emphasizes how important her personal creative pursuits have been throughout her time at Penn. She encourages others to seek out those things that engage passions. She says “It’s important to carve out space for that feeling of being alive when you’re really experiencing everything. It’s super important but definitely undervalued in a place where everyone is constantly being busy.”
For Amanda, her latest creative pursuits have been teaching herself animation and learning about artificial intelligence as she prepares for her job at a startup in the field.