Celebrating ‘excellence and service in combination’ at PIP/PEP luncheon

Seven graduating students were recognized at an annual luncheon for the President’s Engagement and Innovation prizes.

pep and pip winners at luncheon
The 2024 President’s Engagement and Innovation Prize winners are (from left to right): Simran Rajpal and Gauthami Moorkanat for Educate to Empower; Catherine Hood, Brianna Aguilar, and Anooshey Ikhlas for Presby Addiction Care Program; and Rahul Nambiar and Yash Dhir of Jochi.

At an annual luncheon for the 2024 winners of the President’s Innovation Prize and President’s Engagement Prize, held in early May, the room swelled with pride from parents, advisors, and administrators who joined to celebrate seven intrepid soon-to-be-graduates. 

The winners of the prizes receive $100,000 for their project and $50,000 each for a living stipend; they are also paired with a faculty mentor. The prizes are awarded annually and are the largest of their kind in higher education. 

“This level of support represents the confidence we have in our recipients,” remarked Interim Penn President J. Larry Jameson at the luncheon. “We know they are going to take what they’ve learned at Penn and put it to work and make their ventures thrive. But it’s not the size or the prestige of the award that makes them unique; it’s really their focus on excellence and service in combination.”

interim president jameson speaking to pep winners
jochi team with dean kumar
educate to empower team during luncheon
Penn leadership—including Interim President J. Larry Jameson (left photo, at left; right photo, at right) and Penn Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar (center photo, at right)—connected with Prize winners over lunch and recognized their ambitious projects.

Jameson noted that the room represented “the very best of our University’s aspirations,” and reiterated Penn’s mission of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and also to “use it to do good in the world.”

Simran Rajpal, who was awarded the President’s Engagement Prize for Educate to Empower, alongside Gauthami Moorkanat, recalls being in shock the day she got the phone call from Jameson about the Prize. Rajpal and Moorkanat will work to dismantle barriers to breast cancer screenings in marginalized communities.

I feel very lucky and grateful for not only [this coming year] but everything Penn has given me in the past four. Simran Rajpal, President’s Engagement Prize winner for Educate to Empower

“I saw a 215 area code, and my immediate reaction was, ‘This phone call is either going to change my life, or it’s going to be a spam call and I’ll be very disappointed,’” Rajpal recalls with a laugh. 

Rajpal says community engagement opportunities with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships have deeply impacted her work. Moreover, she is especially grateful for the preparation she’s received as a health and societies major. 

“The major has given me the training to think very much outside of the box, and we’ve considered other perspectives and stories in that major,” she says. “I feel very lucky and grateful for not only [this coming year] but everything Penn has given me in the past four.”

pep winner with parents at luncheon
At the annual luncheon, Prize winners are welcome to invite their family members to join, including Simran Rajpal and her proud parents.

At the luncheon, Deepak Rajpal, her father, says that he and his wife are “ecstatic,” particularly because he takes pride in her patient-centric approach to health care. And because Simran Rajpal’s mother also had a breast cancer diagnosis and was recently declared cancer-free, there’s a personal layer of joy brought to the occasion. 

“Now she’s going to help many people like my wife,” Deepak Rajpal adds. “I don’t know how to describe how happy I am. Very proud.”

Brianna Aguilar, who won a President’s Engagement Prize alongside her two teammates for Presby Addiction Care Program, which aims to improve the experiences of people with substance use disorder during hospitalization, attended the luncheon with her mother, Irma, and her little brother.

“My family, it means so much [to have them here],” Aguilar says. “I’m a first-generation, low-income student, so I’m the first in my family to go to university. My parents came from Mexico to the U.S., so it’s so amazing—my mom has been on Facebook sharing and everything.”

Aguilar eventually plans to work in emergency medicine as a doctor, she explains. Working for the past two years with harm reduction alongside her teammates—Catherine Hood and Anooshey Ikhlas, who are also her roommates—has been one way to start to feel more comfortable interacting with patients and helping people receive the care they need. 

Yash Dhir, who won the President’s Innovation Prize alongside his teammate Rahul Nambiar for Jochi, was surrounded at the luncheon by advisors for their project and sat with School of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Vijay Kumar. Dhir says he’s feeling well-prepared by Penn to keep Jochi’s momentum going. Jochi is an online ed-tech management platform that improves the educational experience of students with learning differences.

provost john jackson at the pep pip awards luncheon
Provost John L. Jackson Jr. shares a laugh with awardees at the luncheon.

“I don’t think there’s much fear, it’s just so much excitement,” he says of the future. “We’re sad to graduate, but also couldn’t be more excited.”

And because Nambiar doubles as his best friend, he adds, “it doesn’t feel like work.”

Rajpal, meanwhile, says she can’t wait to get started on Educate to Empower. Together with Moorkanat, they’ve mapped out what they call their “dream year.”

“There are so many exciting things to come. We’re ready to hit the ground running,” Rajpal says.