When Randall Zhou ’23 came to Swarthmore, he was sure that he wanted to devote his time to developing his understanding of American literature and mastering the English language. Nearly two years later, Zhou finds that the freshman who matriculated four semesters ago is unrecognizable to him, and that his academic interests have shifted entirely.
“I had spent all of my high school years telling people that I was going to study English lit in college, then get an MFA or Ph.D, and then become a professor of literature and writing,” he said in an interview with The Phoenix. “But when I came to Swarthmore, I took Intro Econ and found a brand new way of thinking about the world that I had never known about before. I decided to throw myself into my econ studies, which has probably been one of the best decisions of my life.”
Zhou currently serves as the head of the Student Budget Committee. He first joined as a sophomore hoping to gain a little bit of experience with accounting and insight into how the college’s finances work. He finds that his analytical mindset, which he claims is trained to find even the smallest discrepancies, helps him focus on giving student organizations the appropriate amount of funding.
“There needs to be someone in charge, and I just feel that things tend to run more smoothly when that person is me,” he chuckled. “Is it bad to say that? I mean, everyone thinks it, right? That things would be so much better for everyone if they were in charge? I love seeing the look on people’s faces when we approve their budgets and the amount of funding they requested, but it’s also kind of fun telling them that their budgets are bloated and unnecessary. It’s kind of like a video game, only I win no matter what I do.”
Outside of academics and his work for SBC, Zhou also enjoys hiking, music, and spending time with his friends. His favorite meal at Sharples is pasta bar, which he claims is criminally underrated.
“The marinara sauce?” he said. “Delicious. The wheat pasta? Exquisite. The garlic bread? To die for. And it’s twice a week … most people only get to experience their favorite Sharples meal once every four weeks, but I get to twice a week. I didn’t used to like p-bar that much, but I taught myself to love it after realizing that I would unequivocally maximize my amount of happiness if it became my favorite bar. As an economist and an effective altruist, I find a lot of value in finding the most effective ways to maximize human happiness and utility – including for
Zhou enjoys attending student performances in accordance with his love for music, but he also finds himself frustrated at students’ tendency towards constant validation.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m super grateful to attend college on a campus where there are so many talented and vibrant souls who love sharing their gifts with others. At the same time, I think that we can sometimes be too kind about student performances. You’re with The Phoenix, right? Well, I read the Arts section, and I can’t remember the last time a writer said something even vaguely critical about student artwork. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it self-censorship like that NYT op-ed writer, but it does feel a little disingenuous at times. I don’t think it’s mean to say that, because it’s just what everyone is already thinking, anyway.”
After college, he hopes to go into finance. He’s currently looking forward to his internship as a summer analyst for BlackRock.
“One of the things that I can’t stand about Swarthmore is how everyone reacts when I tell them about my internship this summer. It’s like a cross between disgust and anger … danger? I’m not dumb
–— I understand why people have qualms with this type of work, but I’ve already pledged to donate 10% of my annual income to effective charities. I’m willing to hazard a guess that none of my detractors are willing to do the same, so I just ignore them.”
Zhou’s work for BlackRock will take him back to his native New York, which is where he fell in love with English literature as a young teenager.
“It’s been a while since I really spent a lot of time back home, so yeah, I would say I’m looking forward to it. Living in a super small Pennsylvania town now, I realize that there are so many resources and opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of while I lived there. I used to spend a lot of time hanging around Central Park and just reading Thoreau while listening to the sounds of the city. I realize now that there’s a lot more than that to life, like learning about the intricacies of markets and investment.”