Will Zong is the epitome of creativity. An energizer bunny with translucent pink Warby Parker glasses, Will is armed with a curious gleam in his eye and a good–hearted, go–with–the–flow nature that is always drawing him into his next grand adventure. He’s created just about everything under the sun, from binding his own books to computer games, and he doesn't show any signs of stopping post–graduation. To top it all off, he’s a volunteer with the greater Philadelphia youth to "create new inspiration" in the next generation.
Name: Will Zong
Hometown: San Jose, California
Major: Computer Science and Cognitive Science, with a double minor in Fine Arts and English
Where are you from?
Originally, I was born in New York, on Long Island. We drove from Long Island to Tennessee when I was one, because my parents wanted to keep the car and all our furniture, so they just moved everything over. When I was two, we flew to California, and then I lived the majority of my life in San Jose. I don't remember anything [about Tennessee and New York]. My parents have photos and will be like, “Oh, do you remember this house?” and I barely remember anything, even the apartment we were living in while my younger brother was born, because we moved almost right away to California.
So you were basically Mr. 305 before you could even walk. How helpful were you in the moving process?
Baby me…They left me in a car once, and I overheated a bit.
Tell me a bit about your academic journey here at Penn.
I applied undecided, writing about Visual Arts and Urban Studies on my application, but I quickly realized that I was going to do Computer Science. However, I didn’t want to go to the engineering school, because in the College, I can be half STEM and half humanities. I always try to pick fun classes, like this ABCS course I took Freshman Year, ‘Music in Urban Spaces.’ My schedule this semester is pretty good in terms of crazy classes, too, such as a Penn Global Seminar in traditional Chinese medicine.
Also, I'm taking a fine arts class right now, where we're making books. I'm still working on this first project, a 500–page book, where we’re focusing on the design part and putting it together, like binding it physically, which has been so cool, because now I have an actual physical book that I made. I’m also taking an AI and operating systems class, which falls under the category of my computer background. Even my CIS classes I love, because I’m learning about these computers, and I'm like, damn, it's crazy that no one actually knows how this shit works. We’re even tasked to code our own little computers right now! One of the CIS classes is literally remaking Minecraft. That's your project, to spend the whole semester just doing that.
How have you pursued your creative talents outside of the classroom, specifically in iNtuitons?
I have written two plays for Intuiton. They are part of the Philly Fringe Festival, which is the annual, month–long, city–wide Theatre Arts Festival. iNtuitons does what they call the Alternative Theatre Festival. It's a low–stakes way to get people who are interested in plays and acting to get involved without it being too intense. I wrote a play this year, which is my second year writing a play for them. I submitted my script last spring and it was accepted, and then over the summer, they went and found actors and directors and made it happen. My play was titled "Tuesday Standing Lunch." It was basically two friends having lunch, as they always do on Tuesday, and there's drama, obviously. It’s a short play, pretty funny, and it was put on earlier in the semester. My first play with iNtuitons was called "Mask for Mask: A Starbucks Fantasy," the epic tale of two frat bros finding love at Starbucks. Wish you could’ve seen it.
What is your creative background either in theatre or spoken word prior to Penn?
Growing up, I actually did mostly visual art. Every year in high school, I would take an art class, and then I did AP Art, and that was not good. I do still enjoy painting, however it was then that I decided to go to writing camp. Why? Because I thought it would be fun, and I should just go write for two weeks. I’m very down with whatever; I called my friend who goes to NYU this morning and she was like, “Hey, I'm making a game and I need your help,” and I immediately go, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
After the writing camp in high school, I started writing just for fun. Throughout senior year of high school, one of my friends in high school was also super into poetry, so we wrote together, just for ourselves.
When did you first start to see yourself as a creative writer?
Funny enough, it was actually my writing seminar class. I took Politics of Poetry with Professor Taransky in my freshman spring semester. Afterwards, she was like, “Let's get together and have a poetry club once a week on Zoom,” which at the time was totally reasonable [due to COVID]. Anyway, we were down, so we all got together over the summer and wrote a bunch of shit. One of my friends in my writing seminar had already applied to Excelano (a slam poetry performing arts club here at Penn) a couple of times, so he introduced this club to my roommate, Alex, during Taransky’s writing seminar poetry Zoom.
We had all written a bunch of shit over the summer, so we all went to audition for Excelano sophomore fall. I had written poetry before, but that was my first time ever performing one of my own poems. It was terrifying to walk into the Kelly Writers House artist cafe with a circle of people silently watching you, where you read your little poem, they say thank you, you leave, and then you get an email later. Funny enough, everyone from that poetry club eventually made their way into Excelano. Now, I’m the senior in the scary judgment circle.
What’s your take on AI and its use in professional screenwriting as an amateur screenwriter yourself?
I'm still undecided. One, I don't think it's good enough yet. You know what I mean? As of now, there's no real worry, because it kind of sucks at writing most things, especially creatively. I was playing around with ChatGPT a little bit, trying to get it to write poetry, and it was spitting out nursery rhymes. So for now, it's not up to par. In the future, I don't know. It is definitely a worry, especially since everything's online, regarding who owns what and potential copyright issues. But from a creative standpoint, I don’t think we have anything to worry about yet.
How do you feel about the pre–professional culture here at Penn, and how did you manage to stay true to your artistic self? Ironically, what's the professional goal for your artistic career?
I am deep in my unemployment era right now. Obviously, it's stressful. So many people are already set for post–grad. I was thinking that I should do tech, but I've never had a real tech job yet. During the summers, I usually do nonprofit work. I’ve been volunteering at the Netter Center most years. This past summer, I was a creative writing teacher for kids in the greater Philly community with Cosmic Writers via the Netter Center. But yeah, professionalism. I'm just like, I need a job. All the pressure. In terms of navigating while I was here at Penn, I made it a point every semester to balance my course selection, not be super like sell–out techy and also take fun classes.
Pursuing something in the middle, where I can use my tech in the creative field, would be ideal. Dream job–wise, a creative director would be so cool, for a fashion magazine or brand or even in game design. At the end of the day, I'm a fucking gamer, you know? I get nerdy about board games and stuff. My favorite? Ticket to Ride, my first love. From the start, I was like, 'This game is life changing.' I’ve dabbled in creating my own games. Once I made a custom map for Ticket to Ride, and I’ve also coded some bots on discord during COVID to run board games. I just got access to laser cutting with the 3D printers here, so this upcoming year, the sky’s the limit.
What drives you to create?
Honestly, [creating] is just so much fun. You know, I just enjoy every project, like the bookmaking, which was so annoyingly tedious, but the anticipation and consequent gratification of the end product in my hand, something that I created, is what makes it all worth it. That's why I also love board games, physical material things that are created for a unique purpose. Yet, I also love computers—kinda paradoxical, I know. Don't get me wrong, the immateriality of computers annoys me all the time. I’m constantly thinking, ‘This is so fake. This is not real at all. I can't see any of this.’ But it somehow works because I can create things with a computer.
Regarding volunteering and teaching, I’m creating new inspiration via my students. I always say, I'm sick of being the creator sometimes. Sometimes I just want to be the muse.
What’s your favorite part about being part of the Carriage Society?
Carriage Society is definitely one of the more chill senior societies. I rushed last spring, because I had friends who were in it last year and encouraged me to rush. What I love about Carriage is that they make a big deal about not bringing in too many whole friend groups. So it’s just been a bunch of great new people that I've never met in my life, even after four years at Penn. Everyone's chill, we just hang out, have fun, throw parties—great vibes. It’s so important because the community at large is just so fragmented. Throughout college, everything has been so cliquey—if you're in, you're in, and if you're out, you're out, even with clubs. A lot of the time, there's a lot of nepotism going on. In Carriage, what’s great is that they're bringing together people from all these different friend groups. We're all gay, and no one's met each other before, but we're all chill, and we instantly have a whole new community that we’ve formed with our society.
As for why more people on campus should know about Carriage, we throw an epic Halloween party, Swalloween. See you there! No parents though, please—Penn really needs to change that.
Where do you see yourself five years post–grad?
I think it would be really cool to gain a new skill every year, you know? Once I have the money for it, glassblowing would be crazy. What I’m studying now, that’s just the starting point. The writing, the game design, it's just something I do for fun anyway, but it's not gonna go away. A lot of my friends exist in the creative space, such as my friend at Parsons and another at the School of Visual Arts, so I always have potential collaborators for the next grand idea that pops into my head.
Favorite color? Orange
Dream place to live? Manhattan, NYC
Favorite spots to write on campus? Clark Park, by the bright orange chairs and tables
Soundtrack to your life? "Powders" by Eartheater
If you could attend any concert of any artist, dead or alive, who would it be? Arca or Björk
Favorite breakfast food? Pancakes
There are two types of people at Penn … Normal and freaks
And you are? Normal, but my friends say otherwise because I do all of this wack shit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.