Students Find Love Through Shared Interest in Modern Technology

IMG_7112 (1024x683)

Yina Fan and Michael Witzel. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

They met on the fifth floor of the Bluxome Lofts dormitory. He was a shy, studious former Marine who spent most of his time on the computer; she was an outgoing animation student, a recent arrival from China determined to communicate with him despite poor English. Thanks to Academy of Art University and a love of modern technology—from video games to the invaluable Google Translate and Skype—the two first-year students embarked on a friendship that led to a large-scale wedding celebration in Las Vegas last month.  

Michael Witzel, 27, and Yina Fan, 25, giggle when remembering their first encounters in the dorm in 2010. The clean-cut, blue-eyed vet caught Fan’s eye immediately, but to her frustration, was “always on the computer” and didn’t acknowledge her often.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see her looking at me even though she says she can’t see anything without her glasses,” Witzel recalled, smiling.

IMG_7125 (1024x909)

Yina Fan and Michael Witzel. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

But Fan was persistent and when in-person encounters didn’t go far, she friended Witzel on Facebook and proceeded to comment “so cute” and “so handsome” on all of his photos.

Witzel comes across as very deliberate and serious, but his life is full of colorful quirks. In his last few semesters at the Academy, he commuted from 180 New Montgomery to The Cannery via the waterfront on a collapsible, motorized EcoReco electric kick scooter. He loves video games and the magic of Disneyland and Disneyworld. And when he and Fan are together, they seem to have a language of their own—referring to each other (and their three adopted cartoonish Scottish Fold cats) in endearing pet names that have become their World of Warcraft character names. 

Despite two wedding celebrations in the last nine months (an understated ceremony at San Francisco’s City Hall in May and the large family celebration at the Bellagio in Las Vegas), Witzel earned his B.F.A. in game design in December, the culmination of a four-year journey that included game creation (he collaborated on Egg Defender, available on Google Play) and a work study program.

He credits his military training for helping him sharpen his focus and apply himself. 

“In high school I never did homework, I hated school,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to go to college. Going into the military helped discipline me.”

Witzel began playing video games on a relative’s SEGA machine when he was five years old. He later begged (or “forced” as he says) his dad to buy a computer so he could play games at home. And in the formative years that followed—a pretty uninspired high school experience and service in the Marines—the one consistency was those games.   

A big fan of World of Warcraft and Halo, his dream job is working for Blizzard Entertainment.

If his past is an indication of his ability to follow his dreams, he will make it happen.

Witzel was only in the eighth grade when 9/11 happened but shortly after, made up his mind to join the military—and knew exactly which branch.

“I wanted to [prove] I was courageous enough and strong enough to go into the Marines,” he said.

He was recruited the summer before his senior year of high school and showed up for preparation drills once a week during that final year of school. 

He was stationed in Japan, where he worked on communications as a field wire manager. After active duty, he served a few more years of inactive duty and rose to the rank of E5 corporal. 

But even with the discipline of the military, he found time for his favorite pastime. “In the military, all my down time was playing video games,” he said.

During his years of service, Witzel didn’t have time for much socializing and admits that Fan was his first girlfriend. The military may have strengthened his character but Fan strengthened his confidence. 

“I’m more outgoing than before I met her. She brought that out in me,” Witzel said.

Today Fan is close to earning her B.A. degree from the School of Animation. And Witzel was recently hired as a lab tech in the School of Game Development—in the same building where Fan takes most of her classes. Witzel’s experience communicating with Fan before her English became proficient has turned out to be a major advantage in his new position.

“Michael’s really good about helping people out who have questions; he’s been doing that since I’ve known him. And he’s a really good programmer, it helps the lab,” said David Goodwine, executive director of the School of Game Development.

This semester, the Academy launched its first B.S. degree in game programming for students like Witzel, who want to focus on math and objective-oriented programming. Witzel’s determination and patience is a great fit for programming, which is all about “figuring out the puzzle,” he said.

And indeed, figuring things out seems to be one of his main strengths, according to Fan. 

“Sometimes my English is not so good. I only say a word and he already knows what I want,” she said.