Wharton Stories

In Honor of Deaf Awareness Month, Meet the Pioneering Sheila Xu

Image: Xu stands in front of the AeroAccess' Zero Gravity simulating plane. (Sheila Xu)
“I hope my story inspires others to navigate their life challenges successfully, pursue their passions, and recognize that an MBA education is within reach.” – Sheila Xu, WG’24
The following is Sheila Xu WG’24’s firsthand experience navigating the Wharton MBA Program as part of the Deaf community. Wharton Stories also invites you to listen or read a transcript of the Knowledge at Wharton podcast in which Miss. Xu speaks more on improving accessibility in the workplace and the aeronautical industry writ large. 

Born deaf to hearing Chinese immigrant parents who moved to the U.S. for higher education, my life has been a unique journey of resilience, determination, and self-advocacy. I received a Cochlear Implant at the age of three and was raised speaking English – at that time, the prevailing thought was that deaf children could not learn multiple languages, a notion now disproven by recent research.

My time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) marked a pivotal period in my life. While pursuing a joint undergraduate major in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and Science, Technology, and Society, I immersed myself in Boston’s deaf community and learned American Sign Language (ASL). There, I further developed the ability to adapt my mode of communication depending on the person and situation with which I am interacting.

Sheila making history as the first deaf Asian female pilot. Photo Credit: Sheila Xu

My undergraduate internships at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL) and the Department of Transportation sparked my interest in the aviation and aerospace sectors. Then, in 2021, I made history as the first deaf Asian female pilot, joining the ranks of the approximately 200 deaf pilots nationwide and pushing the boundaries of what is deemed achievable for people like me. These experiences above have shaped my Deaf identity and fueled my drive to break barriers and stereotypes for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Navigating the Wharton MBA Program

Now, as someone entering my final year of graduate school whilst enrolled in both Wharton’s MBA Program and Harvard’s Master of Public Policy Program via a dual degree program supported by both schools, I am navigating and applying my unique perspective to two demanding academic programs.

Sheila (second from right) and her Wharton Learning Team. Photo Credit: Sheila Xu

Being the sole deaf student at Wharton, self-advocacy and seeking help when needed became crucial skills. With the support of the Weingarten Center and Wharton, I established an accessible system for myself to ensure a full, high-quality, and equitable participation in all aspects of academics and student life. This included a dedicated on-site ASL interpreter and coordinator who liaised with faculty and administrators, managed a team of ASL interpreters to provide full coverage, and relieved me of additional tasks of setting up access services, allowing me to focus on my studies and student life.

My graduate studies are equipping me with the tools and network to push for systemic changes that benefit the DHH and disability community within and out of Wharton. I may be the only deaf student at Wharton, but it doesn’t mean I can’t build a supportive community around me.

Flying in zero-gravity with a mission: AstroAccess

Beyond academics, my passion for the space sector led me to Mission: AstroAccess (“AstroAccess”), a nonprofit dedicated to advancing disability inclusion in space. Since mid-2022, I’ve been volunteering with this organization, and now serve as Deputy Director of Development and Treasurer. In this role, I apply the business acumen gained from my Wharton education to devise strategies for the organization, which includes securing corporate contracts and sponsorships, forging partnerships, and managing finances.

My journey with AstroAccess took off during a commercial analog astronaut training program at Biosphere2 and University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, in November 2022. Alongside two other AstroAccess members, I participated in various training sessions, such as spacecraft fire emergency procedures, Mode 8 egress, and spacesuit pressurization training. This marked a historic moment, as it was likely the first time deaf participants underwent a commercial analog astronaut training, proving that deaf people can indeed be trained as astronauts.

Sheila and her husband before her AstroAccess launch. (Image: Sheila Xu)

I also had the opportunity to conduct experiments in a zero-gravity environment on a Zero-Gravity Corporation’s parabolic flight in Houston, Texas, alongside 14+ AstroAccess crew members comprising groups of varying disabilities (blind, mobility, and DHH) and other supporters. My deaf colleague and I were tasked with evaluating the legibility of ASL communication in abnormal orientations in zero-gravity. We partnered with SonicCloud and Sony to adapt SonicCloud’s personalized hearing software with Sony headsets for noise control in a zero-gravity environment for both DHH and hearing crew. Even while we were conducting our experiments, the sensation of floating, leaping, and executing flips in a lunar, martian, and zero-gravity is an unparalleled and exhilarating experience like no other.

Our zero-gravity parabolic flight and experiments aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of astronauts and space explorers with disabilities. It underscored the importance of universal design in the space sector, proving that systems designed with people with disabilities in mind benefit everyone, regardless of their abilities.

How Wharton tied it all together

None of those experiences would have been possible without support from a Wharton professor who acknowledged the profound impact of my work and provided financial support for my research work with AstroAccess. Under the mentorship of Assistant Professor of Management Stephanie Creary, I authored a case study focusing on strategies for disability and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the space sector, using AstroAccess and my own experiences as examples. 

This case study offers an in-depth exploration of disability DEI challenges and advancements in the space industry, as well as a personal narrative of breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes of people with disabilities as potential astronaut candidates. The professor plans to incorporate this case study into their future curriculum, providing a real-world perspective and encouraging Wharton students to challenge the status quo in their chosen fields.

My journey as a deaf student at Wharton and an aspiring deaf astronaut, along with my work with AstroAccess, is preparing me for a leadership role ready to make an impact at the intersection of space, business, policy, and disability. I hope my story inspires others to navigate their life challenges successfully, pursue their passions, and recognize that an MBA education is within reach.

— Sheila Xu WG’24

Posted: September 22, 2023

Wharton Stories

Back-to-School Wisdom From a Wharton MBA Leadership Fellow

Image: Rendition of “Circle of Life” for Wharton’s Got Talent. Ganz (right) Dempsey J. Simonis, WG ‘24 (left). (Image: Ariyon Fountaine)
“At Wharton, you can truly customize your experience and tailor it to your goals. I realized there were so many things I could do and consider, but having my top priorities in mind at all times helped prevent analysis paralysis and maximize my time effectively.” – Sara Ganz, WG’24 and MBA Leadership Fellow

As new academic years unfold at the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School continues to engage in the annual back to college season. While an air of festivity settles across campus in Philadelphia, it’s understandable that some students might feel occasionally overwhelmed as they get into day-to-day life at Wharton. 

How does one navigate this new ecosystem? Just ask MBA Leadership Fellow, Sara Ganz, WG’24, who is gearing up to mentor Wharton students stepping foot on campus for the very first time. 

“From the get-go, understand that Wharton is ever-changing. In the beginning, your week-to-week experience can and will change,” says Ganz. “There’s so many people who find their core group of friends during the second term instead of their first, while others discover their niche clubs and passions right away. Trust the process, and know this: everyone is on their own journey.”

Miami-native Ganz, who considers herself as the “unofficial hype squad of the MBA Office of Student Life,” shares her tips-and-tricks and best advice for first-year MBA students looking to kick-off their inaugural semester on campus. 

Sara Ganz, WG’24, outside of Wharton’s Steinberg-Deitrich Hall. (Image: Sara Ganz)

Why Wharton + how to avoid FOMO at School

“At Wharton, you can truly customize your experience and tailor it to your goals,” Ganz advises. Also noting that everyone is on their own journey in terms of what and with whom they connect right away, Ganz seeks to reassure other MBA students that they have more time and space to figure out exactly what they want to prioritize in terms of their overall Wharton experience and to make meaningful connections. “I recommend that everyone make a list of their top three priorities at Wharton and to weigh every decision against those three main criteria. With an over-abundance of career opportunities, clubs, treks, and classes to choose from, having my top priorities in mind at all times helped me to maximize my time more effectively and avoid analysis paralysis”

Each semester, Ganz evaluates the order of importance for those three goals — which include her social priorities, building entrepreneurial skills, and maintaining excellent academics, though not necessarily in that order every semester — which shift depending on Ganz’ short-term goals.

Wharton Professor Adam Grant (left). (Image: Sara Ganz)

Maximizing your MBA Orientation experience

So far, some of Ganz’ most profound Wharton experiences came during her first semester at Wharton, where she learned to develop her personal leadership style during her early weeks on campus via the School’s venerated Management 6100 course. A required weeklong course for all MBA students, Ganz experienced eye-opening moments that enlightened her perspective. 

“My biggest takeaway from Wharton is to always assume good intent.” Ganz says. “Everyone is fighting their own invisible battle, and the frameworks we learned in pre-term and Management 6100 continually help me to reframe and navigate through conflict from a place of greater empathy, understanding, and willingness to address and resolve personal blind spots.” 

During her own Orientation Week, Ganz especially appreciated how Wharton intentionally structures multiple touch-points to help MBA students connect with their classmates. 

“Rather than dropping you with 900 other MBA students, Wharton does a phenomenal job connecting new students on a more intimate level during pre-term,” Ganz explains.” “Whether it’s small group dinners, your cohort, pod or Learning Team, there are really beautiful moments to connect with classmates at the micro-level before being thrown into the macro.”

In this same spirit of slowly-walking one’s way into the MBA Program’s immersive experience, Ganz also recommends that first-year MBA students not feel a need to lock into commitments too quickly. 

Orientation Week is a wild ride for most. A self-described non-athlete, Ganz was still eager to participate in the Wharton Olympics, a beloved Orientation Week activity. As a member of her class’ Lion Cluster, Ganz championed the African board game, mancala, during the Wharton Olympics; she also wrote the lyrics and music-directed her cluster’s rendition of the “Circle of Life”  for Wharton’s Got Talent. By fully embracing the silliness, the connections, and diving into every opportunity, any incoming MBA student can ensure that they will genuinely enjoy the beginnings of their Wharton experience.

Proud members of the Lion Cluster, Ganz alongside her learning team members, Najib Zgheib and Hannah Zhang, all WG’24, at the Wharton Olympics. (Image: Sara Ganz)

– Grace Meredith

Posted: August 22, 2023

Wharton Stories

Wharton MBA Pre-Term: An Unforgettable Orientation Experience

Image: Laura Williamson
“You are going to meet people at Pre-Term who are going to be in your life for the rest of your life, so take time to get to know everyone around you.” — Kristen Auch, Director of External Strategy, MBA Admissions

The MBA Class of 2025 has arrived in Philadelphia!

Three weeks before the official start of classes, eager members of WG25 arrive on campus for Pre-Term, ready to embrace their new home and seize the opportunities that lie ahead in the forthcoming academic year at Wharton. This three week-long student orientation helps new students build connections and community before fully immersing themselves in academics.

MBA students meet their new classmates during the Pre-Term Welcome Ceremony. (Image: Shira Yudkoff)

Pre-Term is one of the oldest Wharton MBA traditions. From competing in the spirited ‘Wharton’s Got Talent’ show, to collaborating with their learning teams, and concluding with a meaningful MBA Convocation ceremony and reception, there is never a dull moment during Pre-Term.

Every year, Pre-Term kicks off with a highly anticipated Welcome Ceremony, and lots of swag. In the days that follow, students meet their Academic and Career Advisors, select classes, and network with their new classmates. In the evenings, small group dinners are planned around Philadelphia to allow students to relax and unwind in a more intimate setting while getting to know their new city. The second week includes an immersive leadership experience, a full day of Learning Team bonding, and interactive workshops that discuss diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. In the final week of Pre-Term, the incoming MBA class takes MGMT 6100, a simulation-based class that sets the tone for the academic experience at Wharton.

Incoming MBA Classes meet their cohorts for the first time at Pre-Term. (Image: University of Pennsylvania)

To help students prepare for Pre-Term, we turned to those who know it best – the Wharton staff members who plan and execute these events – for their favorite traditions and best tips to maximize the experience.

Kristen, Director of External Strategy, MBA Admissions

“Pre-Term is a marathon, not a sprint. My best advice is to be willing to get rest every night and be willing to say yes! The stretch experience starts now – get comfortable with embracing discomfort, that’s a recurring theme during your two years at Wharton. You are going to meet people at Pre-Term who are going to be in your life for the rest of your life, so take time to get to know everyone around you. You never know what you will gain from them.

This is a special and memorable time. Relish the accomplishment of where a lifetime of hard work has gotten you. And of course, it’s hot in Philly in the middle of August – remember to hydrate!”

Ericka, Program Coordinator, Office of MBA Student Life

“My favorite part of Pre-Term is the addition of Wharton’s Got Talent. I am in awe of the talent and creativity of the class and what they create in such a short time! It’s an unmissable experience and provides students with a creative release during a time where they’re taking in a ton of information.”

Students show off hidden talents at Wharton’s Got Talent. (Image: Derek Rodenbeck)

Abby, Associate Director of Marketing and Communication, MBA Admissions

“I love that Pre-Term gives MBA students time to really explore Philly before hitting the ground running at Wharton. Take advantage of Small Group Dinners to check out the amazing food scene and use the weekends to walk around different neighborhoods!”

Kacey, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications, Office of the Vice Dean

“This is one of the only periods of time during your MBA that there are no other competing priorities – we intentionally make Pre-Term a time where there are no assignments or deadlines so that you have uninterrupted time to learn about all that Wharton has to offer. At its heart, the goal of Pre-Term is to allow you to acclimate yourself to a new environment, so completely immerse yourself in it and enjoy the ride!

Based on feedback from students in previous years, we have revamped the check-in experience for the Class of 2025. In the past, students checked in on campus at the same time, and then went into a full day of programming. This year we are offering a staggered check-in process, welcoming each cluster at a different time during the day, to give students more down time in the first day of Pre-Term to move into their apartment, set up internet, get their Penn IDs, or complete other tasks to help them reduce overwhelm as they arrive on campus.”

Joe, Associate Director of Student Life, Office of MBA Student Life

“Pre-term will be the first opportunity for you to meet your next best-friend or cofounder! Take advantage of this time and be open to experiencing all that Pre-Term has to offer. Be curious and ask questions, trust the process and most importantly, be yourself! Given this is my first pre-term with Wharton, I look forward to meeting my cluster and partnering with my students to make the most of their Wharton experience. GO DRAGONS!”

Students show off pride for their Cluster at Pre-Term. (Image: Shira Yudkoff)

To learn more about Pre-Term and the MBA student experience, visit the Office of Student Life.

Posted: August 4, 2023

Wharton Stories

Navigating Autism, Importance of Service, and Pursuit of a Wharton MBA

Image: LeoPatrizi
“I knew that I could use my skills and talents to help others in the neurodiverse community. After reflecting on the most effective ways to drive change, I realized that business school would be the best place to grow as a social impact leader.” – Edwin C. Portugal, WG’25

Nestled within Wharton’s halls lies a vibrant community, where the School’s students each contribute their own unique perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. Without the diverse tapestry of individuals that make up its uniquely non-homogenous student body, Wharton would simply not be Wharton. It is within this ecosystem that student activists are rising to the forefront, advocating for causes that extend far beyond the classroom.

One such remarkable individual is Edwin Portugal, WG’25, an incoming MBA student who is also a proud advocate for the rights of neurodivergent people. Cleveland Clinic defines “neurodivergent” as “a term that describes people whose brains develop or work differently for some reason. This means the person has different strengths and struggles from people whose brains develop or work more typically.”

For Portugal, who is autistic, applying to Wharton as a neurodivergent person was a task that felt daunting at times.

“When I was applying to business school, some people said not to mention neurodiversity,” he says. “They had good intentions – they knew that unconscious bias is rampant in our society. I knew this too. I struggled with this knowledge. I could take a safe, typical route, focusing on other aspects of my personal and professional life.” Instead, Portugal embraced his unique perspective via his Wharton application, wherein the first sentence of his admissions essay read: ‘I am autistic and aim to improve life outcomes for people like me in the neurodiverse community.’

Now that he’s learned of his acceptance into the School, Portugal now finds himself looking forward to joining Wharton’s campus in Philadelphia this fall. Here, read more about Portugal’s journey navigating not only his MBA application; but his experiences as a National Guardsman, as a husband, and as a proud advocate for the rights of other neurodivergent people everywhere.

Meet Wharton MBA candidate, Edwin Portugal

Edwin Portugal, WG’25. (Image: Ali Bennett Photography)

Portugal grew up in a small town of about 2,000 people in upstate New York, where he nurtured his deep interest in public policy and political systems, taking particular interest in the history of the Soviet Union. These childhood interests carried over into his undergraduate years at Brown University, where he earned his BA after he majored in public policy and Slavic studies. Despite his commitment to his double-major, Portugal felt called to serve his country and found time to enlist in the National Guard at the age of 18, during his freshman year at Brown.

As the child of Filippino immigrants who underscored to Edwin the values of patriotism and love of country from the days of their son’s early childhood, Edwin enlisted because, he knew that if he didn’t, he would have regret.

“I also come from a policy background, but I think that service is such an important, beautiful thing. I encourage people to find ways to serve your country, or however you most define community,” Portugal explains.

The twenty-eight-year-old also found that he thrived under the structure of the National Guard and found it brought order to his life; which, later, he realized may have related to his autism diagnosis, which came shortly after he discharged from his military service in 2020.

As a Communications Specialist with the National Guard for over six years, Edwin has high-level expertise with satellites and radios. (Image: friend of Portugal)

How seeking help helped Edwin put the pieces together 

Even though Portugal both graduated on time from Brown and went on to work in high-functioning positions around local, national, and international nexus of political power, Portugal still sensed that he behaved differently and faced certain challenges, especially socially. He struggled with organization and sought therapy to address these difficulties during the pandemic, with the support of his fiance at the time, Emma, who Portugal married in early June of this year.

He initially booked an evaluation with a hunch it would result in a diagnosis of ADHD, but left the appointment with a formal diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) instead. And while Portugal is now fully open about his ASD diagnosis, it took a full year before he began disclosing his condition more publicly. But ever since he felt ready to dive into truly understanding how his autism impacted his life in both Portugal’s past and his present, his perception of his diagnosis is now a source of strength.

“So much makes sense, now that I know my diagnosis and what autism is. I’ve learned more about my own form of ASD, it’s been such a big insight into the challenges I’ve faced in my life, and my strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

Love on the spectrum: hear how Portugal’s wife, Emma, continues to support and encourage Edwin to pursue his dreams

Newlyweds Edwin and Emma, pictured on their wedding day on June 3, 2023. (Image: Kadri Photo)

Portugal’s relationship with his now-wife, Emma, serves as one of the primary cornerstones of support upon which Portugal depends for success. The couple met during Portugal’s internship in Washington, D.C., while he worked for Quicken Loans before joining the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe as a policy intern.

After Portugal’s autism diagnosis in 2020, Emma’s continuous love and support served as a major source of strength for Portugal as he absorbed the news for the very first time. “Emma was so supportive. She understands that the person who I was when I met her was autistic then, too; we just didn’t know it yet. When I got the news, she just said something to the effect of: ‘I don’t have any like negative connotations around [your diagnosis], and I love you as you are.’

“A common misconception about autistic people is that we have no emotions. But the truth is that we perform our emotions in a different way, and you can absolutely be on the spectrum and still find love and be married,” Portugal says.

Portugal formally begins the full-time MBA program this fall.

– Grace Meredith

Posted: July 3, 2023

Wharton Stories

Nurturing Community: The Impact of AAPI Wharton Student Clubs

“The beauty of Wharton is that you can be part of multiple communities; and for me, the AAPI community has been a backbone to my Wharton experience.” — George Iwaoka, WG’23

At Wharton, there is great pride in the diverse contributions that the School’s Asian American and Pacific Islander students bring to both the MBA program and the wider Penn community. Wharton’s student-led international and cultural clubs serve as vibrant centers of engagement and allow students to share their cultures with each other. By honoring their rich traditions, these clubs unite students and facilitate meaningful connections.

These clubs are open to all and play a crucial role in nurturing a strong support system through events, networking opportunities, professional development, and group travel, all with the aim of fostering a tight-knit community.

Below, hear from Wharton MBA student leaders speak on the impact and strength of the AAPI clubs to which they belong at the School.

From George Iwaoka, WG’23, President of the Wharton Japan Club:

George Iwaoka

“The AAPI community at Wharton has been a great support system to stay connected to my Asian American identity. The beauty of Wharton is that you can be part of multiple communities; and for me, the AAPI community has been a backbone to my Wharton experience. As President of the Japan Club, being a leader has helped me stay connected to my Japanese heritage, but also provide a strong community for all international students.”


From Hao Feng, WG’24, President of the Greater China Club:

Hao Feng

“The AAPI community at Wharton plays a vital role in enriching the overall student experience. Student clubs such as Greater China Club, Wharton Asian American Association of MBAs (WAAAM), and Southeast Asia Club help promote awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the rich tapestry of Asian and Pacific Islander cultures. These student clubs support the community through social, academic, and career development activities. By sharing its diverse cultural background, the AAPI community provides Wharton a vibrant, inclusive learning environment that helps Wharton students become true global citizens.”

From Jenny Niu, Ariel Aldrin, Jack Puntawong (all WG’24), Co-Presidents of the Wharton Southeast Asia Club:

The Southeast Asia Club at a networking session that overlooked Philadelphia.

“Southeast Asia Club warmly welcomes students, whether from the region or simply interested in it, creating a home away from home. Our vibrant community enhances student life by celebrating the diverse cultures, traditions, and experiences of Southeast Asia through exciting events. By fostering connections, we promote understanding and appreciation of our similarities and differences in culture, enabling us to learn and grow together.”



From Ginny Maceda, Hunter Dong, Vishoka Balasubramanian
(all WG’23),
all Co-Presidents of the Wharton Coffee Club:

Leadership of the Coffee Club at a Lauder event.

“It would not be an understatement to say that a lot of Wharton could not run without the contributions of the AAPI community. In the Coffee Club, we ensure that Wharton is not only well caffeinated with the best coffee, but we also strive to highlight AAPI coffee businesses and professionals to expand Wharton’s awareness of all the hard work that goes into their cups. Here, we were lucky enough to chat with Starbucks CEO and Wharton alum Laxman Narasimhan about how his story and how he plans to bring those values to his new role.”

— Abby Behrends

Posted: May 25, 2023

Wharton Stories

Unlocking Potential Through Resilience Education | Wharton WORKS

Image: The pilot class of Wharton MBA students in the Resilience Education: Wharton WORKS program, pictured as they stand with Professor Phillips and Resilience Education’s Executive Director, Tierney Fairchild. Here, they are pictured outside of Huntsman Hall, just before their departure to SCI Chester; once there, they handed off certificates of completion to the justice-impacted individuals with whom they learned and taught through the program.
“The value in Professor Phillips’ course and Resilience Education: Wharton WORKS is just as much in the act of empowering these justice-impacted individuals as it is changing our own views and preconceived notions about prison in this country.” – Alec Shah, WG’24

There is growing recognition of the importance of education and training programs for incarcerated individuals to reduce recidivism and enhance their chances of success after release. In response to this need, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania partners with Resilience Education to create Resilience Education | Wharton WORKS, which pairs Wharton MBA students in Professor Damon PhillipsReforming Mass Incarceration and the Role of Business class with incarcerated men at the State Correctional Institution – Chester (SCI Chester) in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Wharton will follow the same model with a larger MBA teaching group and the full Resilience Education curriculum in fall 2023.

Over the course of two semesters, Wharton students teach and empower justice-impacted individuals with business education and marketable skills. In addition to the connections they are able to forge beyond the Penn campus community, those who take Professor Phillips’ class earn credits for participating in this groundbreaking pedagogical initiative. 

Wharton Stories attended the graduation ceremony at SCI Chester, and caught up with four of the MBA students in Professor Phillips’ class. Of his greatest takeaways from the program, John Burgoyne, WG’24, discussed the impact this experience will have on his perspective as a future employer. “Thanks for both Professor Phillips and Resilience Education, we are now equipped with so much more information about how incarceration works in this country,” he said. “We will weave this issue front-and-center into our own future hiring decisions.”

John Burgoyne, WG’24, and Alec Shah, WG’23, share their takeaways from their course before the drive from Huntsman Hall on Wharton’s campus to the prison in Delaware County, PA.
Pictured here is one of the certificates of completion that each justice-impacted individual received upon their April 2023 graduation from the Resilience Education: Wharton WORKS program.

Led by Professor Phillips and Resilience Education, Wharton MBA students and justice-impacted individuals engage in a powerful information exchange 

Professor Phillips first taught Reforming Mass Incarceration and the Role of Business to a wider group of Wharton MBA students in fall 2022. This preceded the spring 2023 portion of the course, which saw sixteen MBA students from the fall class teach cases within Resilience Education’s flagship Financial Capability course to twenty incarcerated learners at SCI Chester.

Of the partnership, Professor Phillips said that providing business education to incarcerated individuals is an important step in breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration that affects many communities in the United States and specifically in the Philadelphia area.

“I am excited for this partnership that allows our MBA students, as future leaders, to both teach and learn from incarcerated learners,” he said.

A long-time champion of social impact and entrepreneurship within the business world, Damon Phillips is Wharton’s Robert Steinberg Professor of Management and instructs the School’s Reforming Mass Incarceration and the Role of Business class.

In April, the pilot class of incarcerated individuals graduated from the Wharton Works program in a celebratory moment witnessed by their Wharton MBA student instructors; plus Professor Phillips and Dr. Tierney Fairchild, C’89, the latter of whom serves as the Executive Director of Resilience Education. 

Of the graduation ceremony upon the course’s completion, both Professor Phillips and Tierney witnessed the justice-impact individuals receive their Wharton-branded certificates of completion. “Through our partnership, Resilience Education and Wharton are not only providing incarcerated learners with the tools and confidence they need to flourish in their communities; we are also creating a lasting impact on Wharton MBA students, who will go on to become leaders who actively promote social and economic justice in their respective fields,” said Dr. Fairchild.

Executive Director of Resilience Education, Dr. Tierney Fairchild (left), C’89, pictured with Resilience Education’s National Program Director, Bianca Bellino (right), in the lobby on Huntsman Hall on Wharton’s Campus. Tierney and Bianca both organized the program and coordinated the logistics of the visits between Professor Phillips’ MBA students and the justice-impacted individuals at SCI Chester.
Parting gifts: Camille, John, Alec, and Sush all receive necklaces with “Resilience” written in Morse Code, in addition to wrist-watches, from Resilience Education and Professor Phillips on graduation day in April.

The program fulfills an urgent civic mission while changing lives and shaping minds along the way

While Resilience Education | Wharton WORKS fulfills its mission in fostering personal growth and teaching business skills to incarcerated individuals, the Wharton MBA students who actually teach these classes are also empowered through the act of information exchange and knowledge delivery. The program emphasizes the development of interpersonal and leadership skills, as well as an understanding of ethical and social responsibility in business. Justice-impacted individuals learn how to market their talents and consider their post-release plans from an entrepreneurial perspective, and Wharton MBA students learn how to connect with a new and underserved community while learning the benefits of employing individuals with records on the teams they themselves will lead after graduation. 

Wharton understands that to do good, we must do well

The benefits of this partnership between Wharton and Resilience Education extend beyond the individual participants. By empowering incarcerated individuals with business education and entrepreneurship skills, the initiative can help break the cycle of poverty and crime, create jobs, and contribute to economic growth in underserved communities.

This initiative combines the power of business education and entrepreneurship with the goal of promoting personal growth and resilience among incarcerated individuals. It has the potential to create positive change not only in the lives of the program’s participants, but within the Wharton community and beyond. The Resilience Education: Wharton WORKS program is a testament to the power of collaboration between academic institutions and nonprofit organizations. 

Grace Meredith

Posted: April 28, 2023

Wharton Stories

A Conversation on Community with Wharton Women in Business (WWIB)

“When I think of a Wharton woman, it’s someone who exudes confidence. This doesn’t mean you have to be the most extroverted, but someone who speaks very well and is introspective, thoughtful but kind at the same time.” — Madeline Donoghue, WG23

Wharton Women in Business (WWIB) represents over 650 students and partners in the Wharton MBA program. Their mission is to further develop the voices of women as confident leaders. WWIB provides specialized resources to Wharton MBA women, fosters relationships with the alumni community, and organizes events like the Wharton Women’s Summit and the Female Founder Pitch Competition.

The group also holds WWIB Week annually during Women’s History Month. During WWIB week, women in business are celebrated with networking sessions, fireside chats, and an annual gala benefitting a local organization. The MBA Admissions team sat down with WWIB leaders during WWIB Week to discuss being a woman at Wharton.

MBA Admissions: How did you find your community at Wharton?

Madeline Donoghue: That’s an interesting one, because when I came to Wharton, I expected to find my close friends through the cohort system, and I was surprised when I didn’t immediately click with my cohort. I think one of Wharton’s biggest strengths is the community revolving around clubs, professionally and socially. So, I started looking toward those — whether it be the hockey team that I’m on or the professional clubs, I found those to be the most helpful way to meet a big and wide variety of people. Then naturally over time, I started to get closer to people within various organizations.

Krishna Shah: Wharton has a ton of ways to get involved, whether it’s professional clubs or affinity clubs. But the informal ways of meeting people through classes or catching up over coffee on breaks have also been valuable to me. I’ve really enjoyed not having any one community at Wharton. I have pockets of communities across different areas of our class, which has been really nice.

MBA Admissions: What are some ways WWIB starts to foster relationships and community at the beginning of a student’s Wharton experience?

KS: I think that’s something that we continue to rework and be mindful of. A significant change that we made last year was to only organize events that we thought brought value to the student body, especially during Pre-Term. We encouraged more informal ways for students to meet up at the beginning. We really wanted to establish a built-in network of other women to lean on during our time at Wharton. During Pre-Term we created informal touch points and then when we got back to school in September, we had a better sense of what people were really interested in. We wanted to create an opportunity to have deeper conversations.

We rolled out our subsidized workout classes and wellness events. People love health and wellness at Wharton, which I think has been a really refreshing part of the student experience. Giving women ways to do that in a way that also felt equitable was important to us. Workout classes can be expensive, so is constantly getting meals with people, so we leaned into free platforms. WWIB is fortunate to have a lot of financial support from the school and from sponsors, which makes it easy to give back in the form of free or reduced-price events. But I’d also say the admissions events that we’ve started running this year are a great way for students to meet one another before they even matriculate.

WWIB wellness initiatives
WWIB’s Wellness Committee develops and implements programming that supports maintaining good mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.

MD: We’ve tried to have as many touch points as possible while admits are trying to make their decision. The main event that we run is a Welcome to WWIB virtual session for everyone to get a sense for what WWIB is. We’re going to do more customized sessions for specific questions. We’re planning an office hour session for affinity groups in WWIB, so if people want to speak to women who are first generation college students, certain ethnic backgrounds, or just want to ask questions in a more informal setting they can do that.

During Welcome to Wharton (Wharton’s in-person admitted student weekend) we do individual one-on-one coffee chats with women. The final admissions event that we do is a careers panel to give women the space to learn about where we’re headed after Wharton and our pathways to get there. We’ve had a lot of interest in that panel so far and it’s given women a chance to really envision what Wharton can do for their career.

MBA Admissions: What does being a woman at Wharton mean to you?

MD: I think about this more as how the Wharton women’s community is perceived from the outside. To me, it’s really meant just growing into myself and having a lot more confidence than when I came in. There are so many great opportunities at Wharton, especially for many of us working in male dominated fields. There’s been a lot of learning, feeling comfortable, having a voice at the table, and continuing to get better at public speaking. When I think of a Wharton woman, it’s someone who exudes confidence. This doesn’t mean you have to be the most extroverted, but someone who speaks very well and is introspective, thoughtful but kind at the same time.

I’ve found it’s been really refreshing to meet other women in the business field. Personally, coming from the Midwest, all my home friends tended to go into other industries, and it was lonely not having women to talk with. At Wharton it’s been amazing to find a community of women in business and know that I have it going forward. When tough situations arise, I have someone to talk to.

KS: One piece for me that has defined being a woman at Wharton is the idea of meeting other women like me. I have always wondered if it’s ridiculous to think you could “have it all” in the way of having a demanding job but also a really fulfilling social life and time for hobbies and interests. I think I’ve always struggled with that because I’ve worked in a male dominated field where I didn’t have examples of what it meant to “have it all” or women role models. Being at Wharton, it’s just been nice to see that you can. We’ve all found our equilibrium at different points. Just knowing that you don’t have to be one way or the other; you can be this multifaceted woman and still have the respect and authority you’ve worked towards has been great.

It’s helped me fight imposter syndrome reminding myself that there’s a reason I’m here, I deserve to be here, and I should carry that forward when I’m back in my career. Learning not to doubt myself or doubt the reasons why I’m at the table has been an essential part of my Wharton experience.

MD: The fact of the matter is it’s been hard. We haven’t had as many role models as men may have in our careers yet. It’s been nice to know that going forward, I’ll always have my Wharton network of women to turn to.

WWIB leadership development
WWIB’s annual pitch competition creates equitable opportunities for underrepresented founders, who are comfortable in a space centering around women’s experiences.

MBA Admissions: What advice would you give to women navigating their career in business or thinking about pursuing an MBA?

KS: When you come to business school, do it because you want to do it for yourself, not because other people want you to or because you think you should. It’s easy to seek validation and happiness from other people and situations. Business school can be overwhelming, but when you get here you want to create the experience you want to have, not the one society thinks you should have.

It’s important to have a central compass when you’re applying to know why you’re doing it and how you see yourself here. You truly want to be spending these two years at Wharton with goals set for yourself. When you get here, hold yourself to that true north. I know I’ve wavered a bit my first year, but it’s always helped know that I have goals I really wanted to accomplish while I was here, because that’s why I chose to come to Wharton and how I want to inspire other women in business to do the same.

MD: Make sure you’re purposefully using your time for what you want to do. When I first came to Wharton, I found myself signing up for every club and event that I could, and found myself really burnt out and not present while I was there. I found myself enjoying my time so much more when I started being selective about where I invested myself because I knew I was going to have a meaningful experience for me and no one else.

MBA Admissions: How has Wharton prepared you to be a business leader?

MD: I think being able to speak well and comfortably in front of big groups is one of the best skills you can develop and something I felt less comfortable with before coming into Wharton. There are so many opportunities to develop poise and strength in communication and to me that’s what Wharton has helped me with the most by far.

KS: Having a network of women in all different industries and across the world. I think it’s hard to see the value in that while we’re still in school, but I do think just knowing I’ll have peers that I can call on to pick their brain or ask for help and the answer will always be a yes is super helpful. That network has already opened doors in more ways than one and I’m so grateful to have that going forward.

Connect with WWIB as a prospective student here.

— Abby Behrends

Posted: March 31, 2023

Wharton Stories

Celebrating 50 Years of AAMBAA at Wharton

“AAMBAA does a great job of helping people understand that Wharton is more than just a place a student gets an education, but that the School also becomes a community in that process.” – Marques Stevenson WG’23

50 years ago, enterprising Black Wharton students formed the Black MBA Association, later the African American MBA Association (AAMBAA), with the goal of supporting “the continued achievement of students of African descent at The Wharton School.” Representing about 160 students, AAMBAA is one of the largest organized groups of Black business graduate students of any business school. Through extensive social networking, academic support, career guidance, and fun, AAMBAA works with students at every stage of their Wharton journey; from their time as prospective students, to when they graduate as Wharton alumni who continue advance Black accomplishments in business.

Wharton Stories sat down with Zoddy Imoisili WG’23 and Marques Stevenson WG’23, two officers from AAMBAA who are both pursuing consulting careers, and discussed the art of finding community, cultivating friendships, and the ways that the entire Black at Wharton network builds community here at Wharton.

Please tell us about yourselves.

ZI: My name is Zoddy Imoisili, and I am one of AAMBAA’s two Vice Presidents of Partnerships, which I really enjoy doing with AJ Tella. I’m highly involved at Wharton outside of AAMBAA as well, and serve in several leadership positions throughout the School. In my professional life thus far, I’ve had roles at Pepsi, Google; and, plan to go into consulting after I graduate from Wharton in May. 

MS: I’m Marques Stevenson. I am in my second year, along with Zoddy, and I am one of the co-presidents of AAMBAA. Before Wharton, I served in the military, including my six years spent on active duty in both the Air Force and Space Force. After a summer spent consulting in New York City, I will be returning to the field in New York post-graduation. 

photo by C. Robinson

How did you both find community at Wharton? 

MS: Here at Wharton, the community quickly finds you. The Admissions Team does a fantastic job at crafting cohorts that represent a broad diversity of personalities, interests, and backgrounds. Everyone comes as they truly are; and I promise you, you will find your people. So you find your people if you come just as yourself. And the interaction points are pretty numerous, especially during the early forming stages, whether it be the preterm or first semester. So, I just encourage everybody that does come here to really just come as yourself and like you’ll find your people.

ZI: Connection here is multifaceted. There’s a sense of community even before I got here because of group chats and all of those conversations that we were having, and people got accepted, and then we did AAMBAA 101. So, we meet some people and then those group chats start, and then we follow each on Instagram, and then you all meet in person, and then preterm starts. And then from there you’re going to be relieved that you know a few people who came from similar cities or did similar pre-MBA things with you. And then, you get close with the cohorts or other groups, so it just kind of expands off of there. You start networking with those communities, as well as seeking out what you’re interested in, and then finding like minds in those spaces, and then growing in the community around there. 

How does AAMBAA foster relationships and community with new Wharton students? 

In many ways; but first, we offer to have our current students review elements of your application or resume, talk about Wharton, and ask any questions about the program. I think that my first introduction to Wharton was having a visit with a student who was a couple of years older than I am, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to just pick his brain, talking about what I wanted to do. And he said, “Hey, I got a friend who’s doing what you just said you want to do.” Before you know, I’d talked to four or five Wharton students, all of whom also belonged to AAMBAA.

But those touch-points were the nexus of my original interactions with Wharton and building community, and we continue to do that now. And then when you get admitted, that bond is further amped. The current students do a great job of putting pressure on people. So we’re calling you, we’re picking your brain in trying to help you make the decision; hopefully, you’ll make the right one, and come join us aboard. And then once we get here, we have what I think is unique to Wharton, the 100 Series, which is AAMBAA 101.

The AAMBAA 100 Series occurs the weekend before preterm where we introduce them to the history of Black at Wharton and really stress the legacy of it, and then also give them a cursory glance at ways to succeed here and the different resources that they can use. They’re all a part of a bigger approach. I think AAMBAA has done a very good job of making people feel like this is more than just a place you get an education, but also a community.

photo by C. Robinson

How are other ways the Black community comes together at Wharton?

ZI: Several ways. Well, I feel like it’s so formalized through AAMBAA, then there’s the 100 Series; and for that 100 Series, it’s not just AAMBAA 101, but also 102 and 103 as well. One is to focus on academics and one is focused on career development. The 101 is the intro to Wharton and then there’s stages to that, through the first semester, so that’s one formal way we connect. We have the Whitney M. Young Conference, for which we onboard first-years to help. AAMBAA alumni also come back for frequent returns to campus, and a lot of people connect that way. And then we keep in touch informally through group chats a lot, birthdays, getting dinner, classes, study groups, and parties.

MS: Of the affinity clubs on campus, we’re one of the more active ones in terms of official programming, but even I think that’s the case for unofficial programming as well. Like she said, the 100 Series is what we have in academics and career-based assistance for current students, but we do small group dinners; we have little families where we breakdown the AAMBAA into  smaller groups with second years and first years, forming a familial structure. It’s a good way to make sure that people are getting more intimate interactions within AAMBAA.

We’ll give them budgets to have dinner or anything they like. What we’re trying to emphasize is that, within AAMBAA, we are also striving for informal programming and networking. Those touch points are numerous and there’s always an opportunity here at AAMBAA.

photo by C. Robinson

What advice would you give to Black students to find their own sense of belonging at Wharton?

MS: I would say get personal experience. Mine was coming to visit my friend who was here and just being around the students and immediately feeling that sense of home. Everything felt so real, so authentic, and I felt like I was really at home here. So, I would say to speak to as many people here as possible. You have the opportunity to come and visit on any weekend or for a visit tailored for prospective students. The energy is palpable here at Wharton and it speaks for itself when you visit.

ZI: For a lot of people, AAMBAA is that home-base unit. You always know everyone’s going to have your back, you have friends there, you’re always going to run into each other in the hallways and say “hi.” You have to explore and remind yourself why you came to business school and find anything that reinforces that.

photo by C. Robinson


—Abby Behrends

Posted: February 27, 2023

Wharton Stories

How Climbing Mount Everest Led This Advocate for Girls’ Sports to Pursue A Wharton MBA

“I wanted to scale my impact to help more girls find home in both athletics and the world of adventuring at large. Here, at Wharton, I’m finding ways to do just that.” – Deeya Bajaj WG’23

The University of Pennsylvania’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, once declared, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” This creed applies to many Wharton students; however, for MBA student and extreme adventurer Deeya Bajaj WG’23, energy and persistence are not just character traits, but tenets by which she charts the course of her life; lessons and challenges hard-fought, hard-won, hard-climbed. Raised in an adventurous family, Deeya spent her weekends and holidays as a child hiking, rafting, kayaking, cycling, and more. This proved to be invaluable preparation for the accomplishment of a lifetime: Deeya and her father recently completed their personal quest to ascend the Seven Summits of the world, which includes Mountains Everest, Elbrus, Kosciuszko, Kilimanjaro, Vinson, Denali, and Aconcagua. And with her trademark energy and persistence, Deeya managed to train for many of these expeditions while studying for her MBA at Wharton.

When Wharton Stories spoke with Deeya in her apartment in University City, she joined the conversation with a wide and relaxed smile, a lifetime’s worth of adventuring already amassed under her well-traveled belt.

Hello, Deeya! Please tell us a bit more about yourself. How did you get involved in the world of mountaineering? 

I grew up in Delhi with my younger sister, my mother, and my father. For just about every family holiday, we went adventuring. Since my family owns an adventure tourism company in India, Snow Leopard Adventures, adventuring was always a part of our lives. We would go to the Himalayan foothills for rafting and hiking and zip-lining and other fun outdoor activities. This was normal for us; but, in India and for a family with two daughters and no sons, this certainly bucked the status quo. In most family systems within my home country, there is a stigma regarding girls participating in sports; and, unfortunately, daughters are not often given the same opportunities as the sons to participate in athletic activities. 

But a foundational influence in my life is my father, who is a huge adventuring figure in India. Among other accomplishments, he is the first Indian man to ever ski both the North and South Poles, and he’s always worked to give my sister and me access to similar opportunities. As a little girl, I grew up listening to his accomplishments; and forever, I’d beg him to take me with me. My pleas fell on deaf ears; until, finally, at age 17, I asked to join my father on a cross-country skiing trip across Greenland, a proposition to which he agreed.

There, I achieved my own accolade, both for myself and my dad. Not only were we the first Indians to ever attempt and successfully ski across the ice-laden nation, but I was also the youngest person to do so as well: an incredible 550-kilometer journey that concluded after twenty-one freezing days, and my first taste of Big Adventure. Next, right after high school, my dad and I ascended Mount Elbrus; which is both the highest peak in Europe, and the first of the Seven Summits that we climbed as a father-daughter team.

I went to Cornell for undergrad and kept up with outdoor recreation. Cornell has a great program for teaching outdoor education, so I taught young people whitewater rafting and how to cross-country ski. One day, my dad visited; and as he reminisced on his adventures, he happened to bring up Everest. So, we decided we should try it. 

After I finished my BS at Cornell, I moved home to work on the family business. Over those two years, in between helping our guests achieve their own dream adventures, my dad and I trained for Everest constantly, including with four practice expeditions. In 2018, we chose to ascend the face of Everest that is within China’s borders, the North side of the mountain, because the Chinese government more heavily regulates travel up the mountain. This makes for a more optimized travel experience because the authorities give out fewer permits; thus, less traffic and less trash. However, it is also steeper, colder, and windier.

Deeya and her father, Ajeet, on the summit of Everest in 2018

When you were on the mountain, what was it like?

It was me, my father, and then a group of Indian climbers. Every climb I’ve done is both eerie and unique in different ways, but one aspect remains consistent throughout each and every one: it’s the people who make the experience. It’s less about the nationality of the other climbers as much as it is about the individuals. Putting yourself through extreme duress and calling it fun will attract like-minded people, and that makes the experience so special. 

There’s something addictive about being outdoors and cut off from the rest of the world, going past your physical and mental limit. The friendships and community on these expeditions are so key because, in the most primal truth, you really only have each other. Anyone that I’ve climbed with, I trust with my life, and that’s why these bonds last a lifetime. I love adventure for how much it tests you; the community it builds; and being with a group of people who all chose to participate in an experience in the most raw of nature, working towards a goal together. And, of course, climbing with my dad is so special. We were India’s first father-daughter team to climb the North side of Everest. The reason this “first” is so important to me stems from how, back in India, daughters don’t always get these opportunities. Women and girls can do so much more with family support, and advocating for this essential truth is a major part of my life’s work thus far.

Deeya and her father, Ajeet, atop Denali in North America, May 2022

When did you finish the Seven Summits? What particular moments stand out the most to you from among that gamut of mountains?

Just this past May, my dad and I climbed Denali in North America. This was the last of the Summits and for that reason and more, just totally unforgettable. 

The expedition to Mount Vinson in Antarctica stands as, by far, the most outlying location to which I’ve ever traveled. First, you fly to Chile, then to Union Glacier, then to basecamp, from where you ascend. It’s a really special expedition because of the continent is unabashedly isolated and extremely remote.

The most harrowing moment of all of these adventures probably comes from our Everest expedition: about an hour before we reached the summit, my dad’s oxygen mask froze over. The final stretch of the mountain leads you to a tiny and rocky path; too narrow for us to walk together, especially because we climbed with Sherpa guides. My dad encouraged both myself and my Sherpa guide to go ahead without him, so I moved proceeded with both reluctance and worry, concerned about my father’s health. And when you ascend Everest, you leave your basecamp at 8:30pm and climb overnight, so this scary scene occurred around 4:00am. Half-an-hour after this moment with the mask came to pass, I reached the summit, but the skies were dark and felt so much stress. Then, soon after, as the sun rose over the peaks, I looked down and saw my father among the climbers just below, safe and sound. What washed over me was an incredible feeling of both pride and relief. 

Deeya and her father atop Vinson in Antarctica, 2018

Why did you choose Wharton?

Before Wharton, I worked for my family’s business, but I always wanted to scale up my impact. And at Snow Leopard Adventures, we are always trying to raise awareness and acceptance for girls in adventure; but I know that with a Wharton MBA, we can do so much more. I wanted to go to a school that will help me use the voice I’ve been fortunate enough to have to generate empowerment for women and girls everywhere.

Wherever Deeya and her father climb together, they have each other’s support and respect.

What would you want to do with your Wharton MBA? What else are you involved in at Wharton?

In addition to advocating for equal representation of women in the adventuring field, I want to scale my family’s business. We currently run trips for both schools and corporate team-building training sessions. If I can increase the scope of the company as well as our audience, we can grow. At Wharton, getting the academic perspective on business operations is an enlightening experience; and I took William H. Alexander’s course, Strategies and Practices of Family-Controlled Companies, to deepen my knowledge on how to remain viable and grow even more successful in this context. 

I am currently on the WGA Executive Board, which consists of four people (including myself) who plan and execute many activities for the whole school. It’s a lot to balance with classes, and I do overextend myself sometimes. But, personally, it works for me because I find I work more efficiently when I have too much to do. I prioritize my activities and make time where I have to; lessons that come from my outdoor experiences, like so many other principles by which I live my life.

Devon Chodzin and Grace Meredith

Posted: January 12, 2023

Wharton Stories

Building a Community for First-Generation, Low-Income Students

Image: The Wharton Graduate 1Gen Club at the MBA Pre-Term Welcome Picnic in 2021.
The 1Gen Club was founded by two friends who wanted to grow community, allyship, advocacy, and mentorship opportunities for first-gen, limited-income students at Wharton.

When Laura Muñoz, WG’22, and Yohanna Pepa, WG’22, met during MBA Pre-Term, they didn’t expect to co-found a club together in their time at Wharton. But they instantly connected over their common experiences at Yale, and soon began to realize they both shared a desire to create a community at Wharton dedicated to serving students of first-generation and/or limited-income backgrounds.

“We had both written about it in our admissions essays! I think we shared a conviction that a community like this had a strong reason to exist at Wharton,” recalled Yohanna. The goal would be simple — to affirm and support the journeys of first-generation, low-income students doing their MBAs, recognizing that this identity fundamentally shaped not only the early part of their careers but also their experiences at business school.

The Wharton Graduate 1Gen Club — affectionately referred to as Wharton 1Gen — was officially founded in the Spring of 2021. As the founding co-presidents, Laura and Yohanna saw the club grow to almost 150 members in its first year. It now has four aims: to cultivate community among its members, to build allyship within the larger student body, to build advocacy, and to mentor young professionals and college students.

Laura (left) and Yohanna (right) graduated from the Wharton MBA Program in 2022.

The club plugs an important affinity gap that is sometimes difficult to detect on an MBA campus, where students tend to have already found career success. However, first-generation and low-income students continue to make unseen trade-offs, such as between prioritizing financial security and chasing one’s passions. Often, students look to support not just themselves but their families, and with fewer connections in the corporate world, some report finding the business landscape more difficult to navigate.

“Even the admissions process can be a solitary one,” added Laura, “where students have fewer inbuilt networks and resources to lean on, and may have to make large financial commitments with less savings or help from family.” Challenges like these create additional stressors on the MBA experience, but can make the degree more significant.

Embracing Diversity Within the Community

Ultimately, the hope for these students is upward mobility — that they might be the first to effect a change in their family’s socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic diversity, however, tends to be a harder topic to bring up in business school settings.

“To many of us it means having to take care of ourselves and be fiercely independent, and trying to achieve the same goals as others without having the same level of resources,” said Yohanna. “You may also have other people in your life depending on you — some first-gen, low-income students face a great deal of responsibility to help family figure out ‘life stuff.’”

Wharton 1Gen at a Thanksgiving Potluck in 2021.

Laura added, “At the same time, there is a form of pride as well. To have come a long way despite circumstances that wouldn’t naturally predispose you to go to business school. There is gratitude for the people who have helped me get here.”

Creating Safe Spaces

The club aims to create safe spaces for members to unpack these issues. Potluck dinners and themed discussions bring the community together over shared experiences. For example, a recent small group dinner discussed what it means to carry or redefine one’s family legacy. The club also recently organized a personal finance workshop catered to the needs and questions of the community. “It’s amazing to be able to help create a space for people to support each other and find solutions together,” the founders said.

The club has big dreams as it continues to grow. New Co-Presidents Tam Luong, WG’23, and Dolapo Salawi, WG’23, have taken the reins and aim to expand partnerships with firms and establish a network of first-gen, lower-income Wharton alumni. As for advice for incoming applicants considering Wharton, Yohanna said, “Talk to as many people as you can with a similar background. B-school through the first-gen, low-income lens can be very different, and there are nuances that you may not anticipate or know how to address. If you don’t know anyone, reach out to the club. This is why we exist.”

— Geneve Ong, WG’23

Posted: November 17, 2022

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