Student Spotlight with Dafan Zhang

Dafan Zhang

Mark Stehle

PAYING IT FORWARD: Dafan Zhang, a says people often tell him that he’s lucky. Just years ago, he had been homeless, living in 30th Street Station, and working odd jobs. But Zhang, a third-year Penn Law student and alumnus of the Fels Institute of Government, says he’ll be drawing on more than luck as he launches his first political campaign for Pennsylvania’s 164th Legislative District seat. “I don’t really think there’s anything remarkable about my story. People see it that way, but that should be the norm. Everyone in this country should be able to work hard, go to school, and have a good life. That should be the way it is, but it’s not—so I ask myself, what work can I do to change that?”

ALMOST ESQUIRE: In addition to his master of public administration and soon-to-be law degree from Penn, Zhang completed his GED from the School District of Philadelphia, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from West Chester University.

QUAKER AT HEART: Zhang, who moved to the United States from China as a teenager and now resides in East Lansdowne, says he became a fan of Penn long before receiving his first acceptance letter. “When I was homeless, I used to come around Penn and hang around the campus. The students [seemed] so smart and carefree. You can go anywhere and meet anyone from any discipline. I thought, maybe my kids could come to Penn one day, but I never thought it’d be me.”

SOLVING THE ECONOMIC PUZZLE: Zhang, a Democrat, says education and jobs are the two main focuses of his campaign platform. “I came from the tech industry, where there’s always a 5 to 10 percent vacancy of jobs. But because people are not trained for those jobs, they might not even know they exist. I want to focus on education so people can get the skills to land the jobs that are out there.”

REBEL WITH A CAUSE: As he nears graduation in May and embarks on his campaign, Zhang says he’s prepared for the potential scrutiny that comes along with the election cycle. “I raced motorcycles up and down the East Coast for a living for a long time, so I’m used to getting attention, good or bad. People will always have something to say—that’s nothing new.”

LIVING THE DREAM: Zhang says this year’s Democratic primary—which happens to be the day after he graduates from Penn Law—seemed to be the ideal time for him to run for office. “If the primary doesn’t work out I can still explore all the other options. If it happens, I hate to say it’d be a dream come true, because everything so far in my life has been a dream come true. So I’m just going to stop saying that.”

Originally published on February 13, 2014