Months ago, MBA student leaders of Return on Equality (ROE) and undergraduate student leaders of Wharton Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Group (WEDIG) were immersed in planning their respective “diversity weeks” for the spring semester, when an idea began to percolate.
“If we could just have a candid conversation with our Dean about what she believes in, on these issues that we care about really deeply, what would we want to hear from her?” asked Kara Murray-Badal, WG’21, co-president of ROE.
Both the MBA and undergrad students reached out to Dean Erika James separately, asking if she would be interested in participating in their diversity week programming. WEDIG board member Ryan Pruitt, W’21, who was the lead on the programming this year, remembers emailing the Dean for the first time in January. To his surprise, “She got back to me within an hour.”
The coincidence kicked off a unique collaboration.
On April 1, three MBA co-presidents of ROE and three undergraduate board members of WEDIG sat down with Dean James for a virtual “Fireside Chat” during ROE’s annual One Wharton Week. During the live discussion, the seven traded questions about the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Wharton and how to implement change together.
The chat was a two-way street, said WEDIG’s Karen Herrera, W’21. “I think it also helped Dean James understand the culture, needs, and interests within the student body, both at an MBA and undergraduate level.”
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Because WEDIG’s Wharton Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Week took place right after ROE’s One Wharton Week, the undergrad students were able to replay the Fireside Chat and hold a “Multicultural Student Town Hall” where affinity group leaders — from Wharton Asia Exchange, Black Wharton, Wharton Latino, Wharton Women, Wharton Alliance, and FGLI — could reflect and brainstorm actionable steps.
ROE’s One Wharton Week has been a staple for MBA students since 2015, but WEDIG is a newer student organization, launched in 2020 by members of Wharton Wellness and the Wharton Dean’s Undergraduate Advisory Board. This was their first time hosting a diversity week.
“The MBAs and Undergrads are doing a lot of similar work, just in completely different channels of communication,” said Daniel Mendelsohn, W’21, WEDIG co-founder and board member. “While organizing the Fireside Chat, we had a discussion with the MBA leaders and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing more together?’ There are so many synergies.”
“I think as you start to work, you realize the need for DEI more,” Ryan said. “Undergrads tend to stay in their own circles. But when you’re in the workplace and surrounded by your colleagues, you might notice that all your colleagues might not be that diverse. I think with the experience the MBAs have, they might be more aware of that.”
For the MBA students, the Fireside Chat was also an opportunity to connect students with the Dean more personally. ROE Co-President Sonali Salgado, WG’21, GEd’21, said, “We wanted to humanize her a bit, have everyone hear her story, and talk about what it was like to start as the first Black, female dean at Wharton in the year 2020.”
Reaching the Other Side
Kara said One Wharton Week remains an important time of the year for all the various student affinity groups to connect with one another. “I think especially in this moment, with the clear need for solidarity in the Asian community and in the Black community, this is really the time for that cross-cultural connection. That’s what we’re striving for.”
Likewise, Ryan hopes that meetings like WEDIG’s town halls — where Wharton and Penn affinity groups can coalesce — will happen regularly in the future. He described a “summit” that would allow those student representatives to pose questions to School leadership.
One salient question that emerged during the Fireside Chat was how to engage students who may not always “self-select” to participate in DEI programming.
“It’s the people who come from underrepresented backgrounds that are joining these conversations,” Daniel said. “The hope is that as these Town Halls grow, we start to get more of the other side involved.”
Karen, who moderated WEDIG’s Town Hall, compared the diversity events to C-SPAN because they create a space for students to tune in and get a pulse on DEI at Wharton. She added, “In the long term, these events are all setting the foundation for what we want to see.”
— Gloria Yuen
Posted: May 7, 2021