“I always enjoyed being the big little kid in the room,” says Ari Bortman (E ‘22).
Even if he didn’t say it out loud, it would be obvious within minutes of meeting him—from his boyish grin as he talks about climbing to his infectious enthusiasm as he proclaims that Penn should embrace silliness, Ari is the biggest little kid you can imagine, despite him being older than most students in his graduating class thanks to two gap years.
“College is just kind of an extended opportunity to be a kid, and to do things that move you,” he says.
For Ari, that means a healthy combination of the silly and the serious: He’s a mechanical engineer, but also president of the Penn Outdoors Club. He’s a coordinator for Fossil Free Penn (FFP), but also an ultimate frisbee player. He imbues even the most quotidian of things with a sense of fun, like sending hilariously surrealistic mass emails to club listservs and finding ways to weave jokes into conversations about climate justice.
“Penn is not silly,” Ari says. “It's really serious, and like I feel like something Penn loses in selecting all of the people who work really hard to get really good grades, [is that] you select out a lot of silly.”
So how did someone so enamored with frivolity end up as an activist–type STEM major?
Ari’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a joke: “I was bamboozled by the idea of mechanical engineering.” After growing up watching his dad install solar panels for a living, Ari knew he wanted to build things. Mechanical engineering seemed like the logical way to get there.
“I thought it was cool. I didn't realize how much math I'd be doing,” he quips.
But rather than commiserate about the difficulties of partial differential equations, Ari prefers to talk about all the things that made him feel fulfilled during his time here—even if he has complicated feelings toward Penn itself given its history of gentrification and investing in the fossil fuel industry.
“It's still a ridiculous fight we're having that Penn refuses to say that destroying lives and homes and communities for profit is bad,” Ari says. “[But] it’s a success in so many ways that new organizers see that this campus can be activated with a strong call to action.”
Ari’s own activist journey started like many other Penn students’. He wrote about climate change for his county’s newspaper, attempting to raise awareness about its effects on the planet. Helping his dad install solar panels instilled in him an impassioned but narrow focus on green energy.
“I came here with a very white liberal environmental framework that less carbon in the atmosphere is the be–all and end–all,” he says. Ari cites learning about climate justice and the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color as one of the most important takeaways from his time at Penn. “[Even if] the source of energy emits less carbon at the point of production, if it's extractive, if it's exploitative, then it's not sustainable, because sustainability means sustainability for everyone.”
He hopes that this lesson sticks with the new generation of FFP coordinators who’ll be taking the helm, emphasizing that the fight for climate justice can’t succeed without understanding that all of these struggles are linked.
“Now that so many people know what divestment is, our next job is to make sure that we continue to push campus’ understanding of climate justice and bring community voices onto campus,” he says.
But student activism comes in waves, just like in the real world. The summer of 2020 was a huge one, sparked after the formation of Police Free Penn, Fossil Free Penn’s blockade of a Board of Trustees meeting, and many other student demonstrations in addition to Black Lives Matter protests across the nation.
Unfortunately, that energy didn’t last.
“This year, it's been really hard to activate students to do anything,” Ari says. But, ever the optimist, he follows it up with a list of ways FFP stirred up interest instead: educational campaigns on its Instagram to connect with students, teach–ins to raise awareness of its demands, collaborating with and supporting other activist groups on campus to protest displacement at the UC Townhomes, and ultimately camping out on College Green.
“People were coming and saying, ‘We’re talking about this, we support you,’” he says, emphasizing that this was not only Penn students and faculty but also local community organizers. “That was really powerful and affirming.”
If the encampment showed him anything, it’s that the underclassmen inheriting Penn’s activist groups are more than capable of pushing for change, even if Penn as an institution remains resistant.
“Two days ago, the Roe v. Wade brief came out from the Supreme Court. And in a day, two freshmen who hadn't organized at Penn before put together one of the biggest actions I've seen at this university,” he says. “It was incredible.”
While encouraging the next generation of climate activists at Penn was one of Ari’s proudest achievements during his time here, it certainly wasn’t the only thing that mattered to him. Across all his involvements—FFP, Outdoors Club, ultimate frisbee—he remains grateful for the people who supported him along the way.
“Those are the people I live with. Those are the people that I stay up late with, on mismatched couches in poorly lit basements, writing documents and making graphics and doing whatever we need to do. Those are the people that I go camping with and sleep in cars and sleep in bathtubs at frisbee tournaments with,” he says. “To be part of building those communities, bigger and stronger than they were before, [was so rewarding].”
Just as it seems like he’s ready to tie his story into a neat bow, with childlike excitement, he can’t help but add another item to his list of favorite things: the outdoors. Even though the people were what made his experience as president of the Outdoors Club, Ari still loves nature more than just about anyone.
“Outside has always just been where I can breathe. That's where I have my deepest connections with other people,” he says. “I know some people talk about the outdoors making them feel small or something like that, which has never really been my experience. It's just the thing I could look at forever, you know?”
After graduation, Ari is holding onto his childhood dream as long as he can by interning at a company in New Jersey that builds interactive children’s museums, which he developed a love for after working with the Please Touch Museum in West Philly.
“The combination of building stuff and the hands–on work and getting to talk to designers, talk to kids, prototype and test stuff—it's really fun,” he says, beaming with excitement at the prospect of finally getting to focus more on building things than doing calculations in a classroom.
But his college days might not be totally behind him.
“I do have a year left on my master’s,” Ari says. “So it looks like I might do it next year, but if they give me a job offer, maybe I won't do it next year. … Will I ever return? Who knows?”
Whether or not he comes back to Penn, Ari still has the same wide–eyed hopes for a better future as when he first arrived, but now with a list of tangible goals and ways to achieve them.
His concluding wisdom? “It's okay not to know. And it's better than okay to do pointedly not what you're expected to do,” he says. “Why do things the way you're supposed to? Someone already knows how to do that. You're not figuring anything out.”