When I first spot Jonathan Song (C ‘23), he’s deeply immersed in a tarot card reading session with his friends at Metropolitan Bakery. He eagerly explains his reading to me. In the center lies love, accompanied by the Queen of Cups hovering above. Sporting a long, platinum blond shag, the compassion between Jonathan and the ephemeral, blond queen, is an easy one. Jonathan smiles, “I think these [readings] are more shaped by what my friends know about what’s going on in my life.” 

Our conversation encapsulates Jonathan’s outlook on life. With a keen interest in the laws that govern our universe and their spiritual interpretations, Jonathan extracts valuable insights from every encounter he has. He doesn’t hesitate to scrutinize the activities in which he participates, but hopes to foster connections through artistic and philosophical pursuits. 

Jonathan started his freshman year in 2019. His mindset going into college was profoundly shaped by his high school experience at an all–boys Catholic school in Vancouver, British Columbia—where God and brotherhood were held up above all else. He felt the pressure to repress his sexuality, constantly feeling the need to conform. Coming to Penn, Jonathan promised himself that he would live truthfully. 

As a freshman, Jonathan rushed a frat and flirted with an economics major. He sensed that being involved in greek life would bring him success and social currency, but wrestled with this notion, battling his personal promise to live truthfully. Everything changed in the spring of his freshman year when Penn’s campus shut down during the COVID–19 pandemic.  

Despite the circumstances, Jonathan was grateful for time off–campus. He took a gap year to do some soul–searching, and this was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the time away from Penn and do so.

Jonathan meditated for a month, painted, learned to sew, and wrote a song. He also had several realizations about his studies. By his gap year, Jonathan had moved away from economics and was interested in architecture. He had a passion for his craft, but he was also often frustrated. The gap semester helped Jonathan understand that passion didn't guarantee an absence of challenges. 

Partway through Jonathan’s gap semester, his dad suggested he “should do something legitimate.” Jonathan moved to a research internship in Japan at the Fukuoka Institute of Technology, studying supercapacitors (a mix between capacitors and batteries). He then tried his hand at a startup inspired by the experience, but after realizing that it would be unrealistic to continue as a student, put it down. Jonathan decided to take the rest of his gap year to explore the world. Well–traveled and modest, he bats away the question of where he went. “It’s kind of basic,” he laughs. But in the last part of Jonathan’s gap semester, he lived in New York City and Los Angeles for a month each, then city–hopped in Europe for two months, visiting ten cities.

Jonathan returned to Penn in 2021 with a renewed sense of purpose. With a knack for physics and an affinity for the cosmos, he added a physics major. “The laws of physics govern our world and our machines,” says Jonathan. “The type of impact I want to make in this world requires me to speak its language and to understand its language.” 

After his time abroad, Jonathan re–encountered the familiar social and economic hierarchy that privileged wealth, whiteness, and prestige on campus. While Jonathan clarifies that he does not entirely fault Penn for this hierarchy, noting the University’s efforts to offer equal access to opportunities, he finds Penn to be extremely stratified. Jonathan acknowledges the importance of earning money, but believes Penn places too much emphasis on wealth, leading students towards dehumanizing jobs. He wanted to chip away at this paradigm.

Jonathan found inspiration for this goal at an artist collective he visited in Berkeley, Calif. There, he saw 59 students and artists, living in harmony amid vibrant murals telling the cooperative’s history. “I saw a community that embodied all the values I hoped I could pass on,” he explains. 

At Berkeley, Jonathan learned that collectives require core values. He recognized that establishing a collective offered a means to counteract “a rapid loss of sense of community.” It also offers residents and visitors the opportunity to defy the constraints imposed by societal norms.

Jonathan began establishing a collective at Penn in an 11–bedroom West Philadelphia house, dubbed “The Herzog Collective.” It was named after the house’s builder, Herman Herzog, a successful nineteenth–century landscape painter. In the first year, Jonathan felt strongly that the collective should serve as a radical housing experiment or even a utopia. But, he explains that he saw the hypocrisy in calling it a utopia at an Ivy League school, implying that living in the house comes with strict doctrine. Today, Jonathan views the Herzog Collective as “a community that drives toward unity” or an academe, an academic community.

The key to the Herzog Collective is its mission of equity. The group devised a way of establishing rent and creating a collective fund to stock the pantry and cook group meals, as well as buy cleaning and gardening supplies. The collective fund also allows the group to put on events for the house and the wider community. 

The first event the house hosted was called the “Transcendence Carnival.” “That is what I considered the moment that we defined our image at Penn and defined our possibility,” says Jonathan. Between 500 and 600 people attended the event, which was free and open to the public. 

What is the future of the Herzog Collective? Currently, much of the collective’s activities are coordinated in collaboration with Penn affiliated arts groups and LGBTQ+ groups. The group also added monthly community service to their schedule. Jonathan envisions the collective as a haven for marginalized communities, a mission he intends to uphold. Looking ahead, Jonathan says that the students who will lead the Herzog Collective after he leaves Penn view it in less revolutionary terms, but as a “place where people can feel safe and feel a sense of community and love.” 

The Herzog Collective is a key part of Jonathan’s Penn experience. “I love it. It's my number one commitment, sometimes at odds with all my physics exams,” he laughs. “I've spent a lot of energy on it and I'm really proud of where it is.”

Jonathan intertwined Herzog with his academic experience at Penn. Currently, Jonathan is working on his two senior theses. The first, inspired by an auto–fiction course, is a novel for his creative writing minor. The book, tentatively titled Turning Money into Stardust, will detail the history of the Herzog Collective.

When asked what the future holds for him, Jonathan has one word: “Freedom.” He is going to France for one semester to study physics and spend one semester in London to study architecture. After more time abroad, Jonathan plans to continue to study music and writing. 

Jonathan’s time at Penn is a symphony of transformations: From fraternities and economics to the boundless realms of architecture and physics, Jonathan epitomizes the seeker, his mind unfettered by convention. While his recent tarot card reading aligned him with the ephemeral queen of cups, perhaps the queen of swords fits Jonathan best: forever probing and challenging the orthodox.