Name: JJ Kampf
Major: Computer science and philosophy
Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.
During your first year at Penn, you transferred into Engineering from the College. What was it that made you decide to go that route?
When I came in, I was much more interested in humanities—in high school, I took a lot of government and history classes. [My first] year, during the shopping period, I sat in on CIS 160 with Rajiv Gandhi, a professor in computer science. I really loved the nature of the class, as it was different from anything I’d experienced in high school. My high school had 20 people in the graduating class, and my first lecture ever was 120 kids in the class. It was a lot, but I realized then that I wanted something that was going to challenge me, and engineering might be something I’d be interested in.
I ended up taking some computer science classes that fall and transferring the following year. It was challenging because I came from a smaller school and focused on humanities in high school, so I didn’t have as strong of a STEM background. I definitely had to grind that first year to be able to get into engineering in the first place, but it ended up working out. It really was just off a whim that I sat in on the class, and the rest is history.
And it sounds like you stayed involved with Professor Gandhi for a while afterwards.
Yeah, I ended up TA–ing for the class, even though I struggled with the class a lot. It was definitely a grind and not easy for me at all, but I loved the class and loved the professor. I think people think that if you’re a TA at Penn, you cruised through the class and had a really easy time with it, but that was not the case for me in 160 at all. I’m thankful that I had that experience to take it before transferring into engineering, but it definitely was not a line drive.
Coming from a school with only 20 kids in your class, you must be used to having a personal connection with teachers. Have you been able to find that here at Penn?
I was careful to be a little more proactive in that sense, going up to them after class and introducing myself. You really can get to know teachers here at Penn—I think people look at the class size and think you can’t, but I’ve had classes with over 100 people where I was able to get to know the professor and have them know me. It’s a lot on the students to make the first move. With Rajiv, it was about going up to him after class. I took "Sports Business Management" junior year over Zoom, and it was hard to get the professor to know you. But after just emailing him and getting to talk after class over Zoom, to this day he’s someone I go to for advice.
So how does that class, or sports in general, tie into your career and extracurricular goals?
I am very interested in sports analytics. I got involved with the Penn Sports Analytics Group, where we work with the varsity football and basketball teams. We worked with the football team over the summer, using some of their data about the other Ivy league teams to help them build reports to prepare for their upcoming games. This semester, I’m working for a basketball team in basketball strategies and research. It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, to be in sports. As a sports fan, I love the energy and emotion that surround sports, and I think it’s cool to work in a space that people have actual emotional attachments to.
How did your internship with the NBA come about?
I went to this thing called the NBA Summer League, which is a two–week long event where the draft picks and younger players in the NBA come to Las Vegas for a couple weeks to play in smaller games. The decision–makers and front offices of teams will come to Vegas and watch the players and figure out who’s on their radar. Because my brother and I are big basketball fans, we decided to go to Las Vegas, and because I always wanted to work in the NBA, I just reached out to a couple teams that were there by cold–emailing them. I had some conversations with people in the analytics departments in Las Vegas, and I ended up getting lucky.
As an engineer, I found it hard to just be by myself. I coded for hours in some of my previous internship experiences. I like working with people and talking about decisions related to interpersonal things, so that’s what motivated me to look outside of just core software engineering. My whole family and I grew up loving the Grizzlies, and I always dreamed of going to work at a basketball stadium.
So shifting gears, tell us about the Shabbatones.
The Shabbatones are a Jewish a cappella group, and we sing a mix of Jewish choral pieces, English pop, and Israeli music. I auditioned right when I got to Penn [my first] year. We rehearse for six hours a week, and every year, we go on a tour. The biggest thing for me has been understanding the impact that we can have on the larger Jewish community. Each year we go on a tour and go to synagogues, Jewish schools, and old–age homes, and we do Q and A’s about life on a college campus as a Jewish student. For me, Shabbatones has been just as much about the cultural aspect, things like singing at Hillel and the tour. We’re about to go on tour in New York, Boston, and Connecticut.
It seems like your Jewish identity has really impacted your experience here at Penn.
Five other kids on my gap year program to Israel were all coming to Penn, so I came in with that community of Jewish students who all had the same experience during our gap year. We came in and got involved with the Orthodox Community at Penn through Hillel, so that consistent community of people has been core to my Penn experience. When I was thinking about colleges, one of my criteria was how strong the Jewish community was because it’s a big part of your everyday life, with things like dietary restrictions and celebrating the Sabbath. I definitely think Penn has a really strong community, and that’s one of the reasons why I love it here.
And tell us a bit about your experience on the Class Board.
I wasn’t involved [my first year] fall, but a senior in my a cappella group, Michael Krone (C '19), was president of the Undergraduate Assembly when I started on Shabbatones. He was also my peer advisor and Pennacle leader, so we crossed paths a lot. It got me thinking about student government, and [first year] spring I ran. The best part of the experience of running for Class Board was that it forced me to branch out of my community and meet more people—I had a lot of great conversations with people who I ended up becoming better friends with as Penn went on. Class Board overall has been a really strong community for me, especially during Hey Day this year. Seeing the whole class have such a good time at Hey Day was great. It was something that, as a [first year], I’d always looked to as a staple of the Penn experience. We really fought for having an in–person Hey Day, so being a part of the conversations and community has been something I’m really thankful for.
Last song you listened to?
If you were to be a building on campus, which would you be and why?
I’d be Fisher Fine Arts. It’s the most underrated library on campus, and it’s beautiful. I definitely recommend it to all the [first years].
What would you have as your death row meal?
A waffle with peanut butter and sliced bananas with almond milk.
There are two types of people at Penn …
Those who go to Quaker sports games and those who don’t.
And you are?
I’m definitely one of the people that goes. I’m hoping Penn begins to improve with people coming out to games because it’s a really fun time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.