For English major and literary enthusiast James Chang (C ‘22, Law ‘26), there probably aren’t many things that are “hard to define.” A graduate of both the College’s Creative Writing concentration and PPE major, he’s pretty much a wordsmith extraordinaire. When it comes to describing the ex–Editor in Chief of the Penn Review, however, I find myself struggling to encapsulate the James Chang I’ve just met. In conversation he’s exceedingly articulate, soft–spoken, and thoughtful, possibly a result of having cut his teeth in the notoriously intense New York City prep school debate circuit.
At Penn, James graduated with a double major in English and PPE, interned at the Department of Justice with the Penn in Washington program, and assisted with sociological research on what laughter says about us as human beings according to Freud and South American field research. Now, he is well on his way (post–gap year) to becoming a Carey–Law–minted Juris Doctor. For all of his achievements in a variety of fields, it makes sense when he says he's happy he also studied PPE “because it gave [him] a super broad understanding of philosophy, sociology, politics, and economics, but English is [his] one true love from all the way back.”
At Penn, James found community not only in the English department itself, but also in its beloved Kelly Writers House, the center for campus literati. “Having a little private hub for creative writers is something that really appealed to me, because I was really into creative writing. I was really passionate about that, did my literary journal at my school, so Penn’s Kelly Writers House program really drew me [in],” he explains. The first club he joined on campus was the Penn Review, an entirely student–run literary magazine which churns out three yearly issues of poetry, fiction, and art. After ascending through the ranks, he was eventually appointed Editor–in–Chief during his senior year.
With a constantly rotating staff, the magazine’s culture is often evolving, and once James got a chance to put his stamp on the Penn Review, he did so zealously. “I was really focused on making the magazine an inclusive place for freshmen and incoming sophomores to be, especially after that COVID year, so we focused a lot on membership,” he says. “We had a huge emphasis on organization, and … the club came a little closer together after that."
James’s passion for equity and inclusion took on a new significance in 2020, when he went to Washington for a semester with the Penn in Washington program. He interned at the Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division, monitoring elections on Super Tuesday in Harris County. Working with a county known for discrimination in terms of voter accessibility propelled him to continue seeking positions in that field. “I also interned with the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], which listens to calls from people who believe they suffered from racial and sexual harassment,” he says. “That cemented my desire to apply to law school. I liked that field and having the vocabulary to deal with those issues.”
Now, with a law school acceptance in the bag, James is taking a year to wander and lean into new experiences before he heads back to Philly for another three years. While there is much to be said for all this consummate “doing” that school, clubs, and jobs bring out in us, nothing can discount the wealth of adventure to be had by opening ourselves up to the world outside.
This spirit led James to alaskajobfinder.com and a two–month stint leading whale–watching tours off an Alaskan island.
You read that right. If you were one of the lucky folks boating around the Alaskan waters this past summer, odds are you may have had future–lawyer James Chang as your tour leader. When asked “Why Alaska?,” the first of a whole host of questions hoping to get to the bottom of what led James to this point, he answers with a simple, “Why not?”
That takes care of any follow–up questions: Why not, indeed? Sure, he could further discuss why he would be inclined to become an Alaskan boathand, leaving behind the familiar world of the East Coast comfort class to live in a shipping container three hours from the mainland (by boat) with an ex–felon, and why he would stay after three workers broke their bones and one had to be airlifted to Juneau. But the better question, and perhaps the only answer, is “Why not?”
James lived on an island of less than a thousand, immersed in the storied and awe–inspiring culture of the native Tlingit tribe and the in–and–out contours of Alaskan whales. “It was something where I just wanted to throw myself in and see if I could survive. The air is so clean and totally untouched there, so that’s something I’m really going to miss—how unspoiled everything was,” he muses. To be sure, it sounds like the experience was a breath of fresh air in every sense.
James hopes to continue his travels and explore Japan, a complete 180° from remote Alaskan shores but an adventure nonetheless. Ultimately, the best way to describe James is through his journeys, whether he’s going back in time to analyze modernist literature, around the country to witness functions of democracy from a new point of view, or across the table at the Kelly Writers House to experience the artistic musings of countless writers of all ages.
To travel in any sense allows the writer to lose themselves entirely in a world of their own creation, just as creative writing—James’ first love—does. It’s all out there, scores of people we’ve never met, cultures we’ve never experienced, oceans we’ve never seen—just beyond the force–field bubbles of our comfort zones and safe spaces.
If James’s exploration has taught us anything, the only question to ask is, “Why not?”