A Penn Law student who was once homeless is running for state representative.
Dafan Zhang, who will graduate from the Law School this spring, entered a three-way race for the Democratic nomination to be a Delaware County state representative this week. Zhang also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University.
Zhang wants his campaign to focus on education and believes strengthening existing public school systems and ensuring they are all well funded is important. He disagrees with proposals for more charter schools and voucher programs that “just bring more chaos to the education system.”
As an immigrant, Zhang came to the United States from China to attend high school, but dropped out prior to graduating. He spent several years without a steady job and a period of time homeless, during which he would sometimes stay on the streets around Penn’s campus. Eventually, he earned a GED in Philadelphia and went on to attend West Chester University for his undergraduate degree.
Zhang said that he is running for public office in part because he wants to help young people in his community succeed as he has. “Everything has worked out well for me in the last few years. I decided that if I can … achieve success, I can also help others achieve the same,” he said.
In particular, Zhang is advocating for more funding for practical education programs and activities such as music, athletics and the arts in public schools. He says these extracurriculars “are the sorts of things that can enrich a young person’s life and give them perspectives outside the classroom and make them successful adults.”
He hopes to see Pennsylvania and local communities “focus on investing in human capital, in our residents and in our children by having a more practical, broad and diverse education.”
Right now, Zhang is developing policy proposals centered on what he calls “practical STEM” education — vocational programs that teach high school students marketable skills.
He is modeling the proposal on a similar partnership program between the William Penn School District and Delaware County Community College, where Zhang teaches information technology and paralegal studies courses.
Zhang’s opponents are also focused on education. Attorney and former Lansdowne Councilperson Billy J. Smith has criticized incumbent Margo Davidson’s voting record on education issues, saying that as a product of the Philadelphia public school system, he feels obligated to do what he can to ensure that public schools in the Philadelphia area are fully funded and that there is a “public discussion that leads to some progress for students in what has been coined a ‘failing district.’”
“I credit all that I am and all that I’ve become to a series of mentors — many of them public school teachers — throughout the course of my life,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t turn my back on them because they didn’t turn their backs on me when I was in public school in Philadelphia.”
Davidson, who has held the contested seat since 2011, has defended her record. She cited $3 million of state funding she secured for the Upper Darby School District as well as $1 million she secured for the William Penn School district.
Remembering the time he spent homeless on the streets of West Philadelphia, Zhang says he never could have imagined where his life would take him. Years before he enrolled at Penn Law, “I used to come to campus and hang out, [but] I always worried that I would be kicked out,” he said. Today, he wants to pass on the success he has gained through education to young people in Delaware County.
“I really appreciate the opportunity that Penn gave me,” he said.
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