Like some of the best things in life, Emma Van Zandt’s (C ‘22) journey at Penn began entirely by accident: The now–visual studies major from Annandale, Va. was looking for a place to eat in University City after sitting in on a class at Drexel University. At the time, she was sure that her college experience would be spent at a studio art institution, and her interest in Drexel’s design school brought her to Philadelphia in November of her senior year, “way past all the ED deadlines.”
This is the first time I become aware of the quiet force of Emma’s self–confidence; for a teenager growing up in a staunchly competitive suburban district, it’s undoubtedly gutsy to opt to pursue a career in studio arts.
However, things took a turn that November day when Google Maps sent her and her mother in the direction of honeygrow, right next to Pottruck Health and Fitness Center on Walnut Street. As the two were walking to lunch, Emma took notice of Penn’s campus and began to look into Penn’s academic offerings. “I ended up finding visual studies,” she explains. “I wasn’t even aware that it was a thing that I could study, but the second I saw it I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually what I want to do.’ I completely changed my entire college list a month and a half before all the RD deadlines and applied to visual studies.”
“Being in visual studies is already not as common for the Penn student profile,” she explains, “and being interested in the arts or a more creative field is also not typical, so in the beginning, I became comfortable pretty quickly with just doing whatever I wanted to do.” In her exploration of Penn’s offerings, she landed on consumer psychology. “Psychology courses have been invaluable because they really help you understand yourself and other people better, and how we all function,” she remarks. "I think people are better for taking them.” On May 16, with achievements under her belt like president of the Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) sorority and founder of Wharton Undergraduate Founders and Funders Association, Emma will be graduating with a minor from Wharton’s consumer psychology program, alongside her visual studies major in the College.
As the raison d'être of her entire Penn journey, it’s understandable that the visual studies program and community have taken on a vast importance in Emma’s last four years, something that’s evident by the contagious enthusiasm with which she talks about her experience in the major. “It’s very unusual that you get a rigorous studio experience while also being able to understand art and design in context—we do things like art history, perceptual psychology, and neuroscience, but also learn how to actually design. You get the best of both worlds, and that’s really unusual,” she explains. “Because it’s so interdisciplinary, it’s very customizable, so everyone is doing very different things; in visual studies, there’s a bit more diversity in thought.”
The diversity of paths within the visual studies program proved to be the perfect environment for Emma, who was coming into Penn with little idea of what might be next for her. Her concentration in art practice and technology, along with her consumer psychology minor, pointed her in the direction of marketing, which she was able to explore through an internship in her sophomore summer at a Silicon Valley startup.
The gendered social dynamics that she noticed in the startup world led her and her sorority sisters to found the Wharton Undergraduate Founders and Funders Association. The club focuses on “helping women who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs or working in VC [venture capital] break through the glass ceiling,” seeking to extend the invaluable network of Penn alumni and professional resources to women who may not see a path forward for themselves in the entrepreneurial world.
In her own experience in startups, Emma was able to discover an invaluable application for her design passion, which led to her interning last summer for the furniture company West Elm, experimenting with website and e–commerce design. After graduation, she’ll continue to work for the company remotely from Philadelphia.
As much as she’s looking forward to “extending [her] college experience,” the main reason she’s staying in the city is to complete chemotherapy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which she was diagnosed with late in her junior year at Penn.
Cue the record scratch—we’ve gotten to know Emma for her infectious passion for the arts and articulate, thoughtful demeanor, and we’d be remiss to forget any of that in the face of the gargantuan, all–encompassing label of “cancer patient.” But it’s impossible to talk about Emma’s story through young adulthood and Penn without acknowledging the major impact of this “disorienting,” life–altering diagnosis.
In reflecting on her battle with the disease, Emma is particularly ruminative, describing it as “an isolating experience—for a while, when I was going through treatment, it really took out the social aspect of Penn, so I’m grateful that if I had to have that experience, it was later in my Penn career when I had really great friends and my community nailed down." She adds thoughtfully, “Nobody owes you anything, and when people go out of their way to be there for you, it makes you appreciate the people that you’ve surrounded yourself with.”
Emma’s youth complicates how she grapples with the disease: “It’s very rare for people to have cancer at this age,” she explains. “It’s very morbid, because you see a lot of people who pass away or suffer for a really long time, so it brings you really at peace with life and chance, and shifts your perspective in a way that people don’t typically think about until they’re older.”
As challenging as Emma’s experience with cancer has been, it’s also broadened her perspective: “It made me appreciate little things much more—it’s so cliche, but it’s so true. I was in the hospital for three weeks in one room, so the day I got out, breathing the air was like breathing for the first time. You really appreciate being free and feeling good; I wouldn’t recommend the experience, but it has made my life richer.”
Since her diagnosis, the community she has found through her sorority has been particularly important: “I’d already been a part of SDT and gotten a lot out of it, but that was the ultimate test of the support system’s strength, and my sisters were the ones that got me through balancing chemo, school, and all these other things.” She describes the community as “a rock, which if you had told me as a freshman that that was the case, I’d be happy to hear it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that. I don’t come from a big “ra–ra” Greek life family, but it’s something that I felt was worth a shot, and definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Emma’s ability to embrace uncertainty and make her own path through it all has proven invaluable. “The field that I’m going into I had no idea existed,” she explains, “and it’s not a typical thing that you’d expect out of Penn. Sometimes it’s more difficult to do something where the path is less clear, but once you get to the finish line, it’s really worth it.” Speaking on the impact of preprofessional pressure, Emma explains, “Everyone expects you to have it figured out and it’s so stressful, which makes it easy to be like ‘Ok, I’m gonna go work in [investment banking],’ where there’s a preset path. There’s nothing wrong with that, but even though it’s a messier process, taking the time to explore what you’re interested in is important.”
Getting comfortable with unconventionality is something that her art background set her up uniquely well to do—“For somebody that was considering going to art school, I already had to be like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do whatever.’ I’m lucky I had my crisis before I actually came to college.” But in whatever form it comes in, Emma animatedly encourages people to embrace the same “fuck it” mindset. “I think that it’s important to be confident in what you learned and what you bring to the table,” she says. “You have the opportunity to do pretty much whatever you want here, which is the biggest advantage ever, and really what I wanted when I came to Penn.”
It’s what she wanted, and ultimately, what she got: Four years after her fateful honeygrow run, after squaring up with cancer, preprofessional pressure, and a million other obstacles that pepper the universally difficult experience of growing up, Emma Van Zandt is emerging triumphant. “I remember thinking how old the seniors seemed to me as a freshman, and I just don’t feel that old,” she ponders. “I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t have a full four years of normal school, but I honestly feel like it’s just that you always feel younger. It’s bittersweet for sure—I’m excited to move on to a new chapter and about where I’m going, but I’m going to miss Penn a lot.”