Any gap year student counts themselves lucky if they have the opportunity to pursue one of their passions during their year of exploration. Rachel Zhang (W ’25) was no exception—her gap year afforded her the time to engage in two very distinct but personally important pursuits.
During the first half of her gap year, Rachel and her friends started a non–profit organization called the Rochester Community Initiative based out of her home state of Minnesota. The objective was to serve underprivileged demographics by inspiring youth leadership and pushing underrepresented voices to the front of regional dialogue. She complemented this experience by working for the Minnesota Democratic Party, where she served in the field for the local campaigns of southern Minnesota. “I dedicated myself to doing good things [and] trying to help other people, especially during a pandemic,” she says.
The culmination of Rachel’s political half–year was when she ran for youth delegate of Minnesota in February 2020 and became the sole national delegate for the state. In August 2020, Rachel had the opportunity to introduce former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, and South Dakota National Delegations. “I almost peed my pants when I was doing the speech,” she says.
As if that wasn’t enough, after her speech, Rachel was invited to write an op–ed for Teen Vogue on climate change. In the article, she urged young Democratic voters to prioritize climate issues during the 2020 presidential election, support the Green New Deal, and pressure local governments to take action.
"With these steps, we can begin to rewrite our storyline," she wrote. "Together, we can transform a burnt, drained, and inequitable world into a green, replenished, and just one for generations to come."
In the second half of her gap year, Rachel pivoted in a completely different direction—she moved to Hawaii and lived on a farm for a month with another Penn gap year student. "I lived in a tent, harvested kale, had vitamin D, and [had] no seasonal depression. It was great," she says.
A farm was a perfect place for Rachel to call home. "I think I'm already a pretty outdoorsy person. I get stressed out easily, but I also relax easily if I'm outside. During COVID–19, it was a good way to still be able to travel and explore, but not by interacting with people," she explains.
She then went to Santa Cruz, Calif. to build upon her interest in farming by harvesting strawberries, her favorite fruit. On a small, organic farm, she learned about permaculture, composting, and plant cycles. The experience dovetailed nicely with her interest in public service; Rachel liked that the farm focused on giving back to the community and non–profits. She remarked that they were ethical and paid their workers more than other farms in the area.
Now that Rachel has settled in at Penn, she's focused on building her own community on campus and throughout the city. One of her priorities is making sure she doesn't get too wrapped up in the "Penn Bubble" so she can take advantage of all that Philly has to offer. She hopes to explore local organizations that aren't affiliated with Penn. She also plans to participate in the 2022 midterm elections, either by becoming a state delegate, campaigning, or encouraging her peers to get involved in making a difference.
A day in her life includes a variety of activities. In the morning, she checks in with her roommate, skips breakfast, and heads to class. Following classes, she usually ends up lying on the Quad grass before heading to a Huntsman GSR. Rachel also prioritizes social activities every day for her mental health: She loves eating meals with others or sitting on the window ledge in her room while blasting Lorde with her friends.
Thinking ahead to the next four years, Rachel is excited to form friendships with a diverse group of people from all over the world. Because she grew up in a small city where people considered themselves “trapped,” she wants to branch out and get to know people from every walk of life.
Outside of the classroom and work, Rachel describes herself as a spontaneous person—“unfortunately for my mom, she gets really stressed out about that,” she laughs. She likes to bring a bit of fun to everything she does and tries not to plan too far into the future. Helping others and building community are her life motivators.
"Trusting my gut and going along with it has so far led me to pretty good things, so we will see how that affects me going into Penn," she says.