The John R. Rockwell Gymnasium was unrecognizable on Tuesday evening, where 600 alumni, students, and friends gathered for the Fall Scholarship Celebration. Low-lit red and blue lights were strung across crimson and navy floor-length drapes throughout the room, as donors and students alike enjoyed roaming crudités and dinner plates of small bites. The event brought together scholarship recipients and philanthropists for a formal meet-and-greet, and to honor the generosity and impact that donors have had on students, and these students successes’ during their time at Penn.
Alumni and donors, some from as far back as the Class of 1947, gathered at small tables for lively conversations with Named Scholarship students. A central tenet of President Amy Gutmann’s tenure has been increasing access to a Penn education—and for the students in attendance, their innovation and motivation have led to tangible outcomes.
“To the donors, the future of the world is here tonight. That is simply true,” Gutmann said. She highlighted the University’s mark on the higher education landscape: Penn is the largest university in the U.S. to have a grant-based financial aid program. This year, one out of seven students are first-generation, and one-quarter of students are first-generation and low-income. Applications to Penn have soared 150 percent in the past few years, as the University’s financial aid and scholarship legacy prompts more students to consider the possibility of a Penn education, regardless of their economic status. With the launch of Penn First Plus this year, the University is increasing its strides to assist first-generation, low-income students.
“Excellence and inclusion go together,” Gutmann said, herself a first-generation graduate. Addressing the donors, she remarked, “None of this would be possible without you. I knew Penn alum had it in them.”
For Erica Dienes, a senior at the Wharton School majoring in finance from Tampa, Fla., leaving home, a was “really scary. But I knew there would be no growth or change if I never left the familiarity of home.” Dienes is the recipient of the Julian J. Aresty Scholars Program Scholarship, the Howard R. and Joy M. Berlin Endowed Scholarship, and the James Askey Endowed Scholarship.
In high school, Dienes spent a summer at one of Wharton's pre-college initiatives, the LEAD Program, where she fell in love with Penn. She submitted an application, but knew the tuition was an obstacle. “I was the girl who got into Penn, but might not go to Penn. When my financial aid package came, Penn went from the unknown to my dream.”
Dienes remarked that the list of names of donors on her financial aid packet was overwhelming. “I could not believe people I had never met were willing to pay for my education. The amount of trust they have in this institution is remarkable.”
Throughout her years at the University, Dienes has connected with other Native students through Natives at Penn, and at other schools. After graduating, she plans to work at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the public investment banking division. “I owe everything to the generosity of the people in this room. This generosity is kind of wild.”
For Jamison (JJ) Vulopas, a senior at Wharton majoring in finance and computer science, a childhood spent worrying about food allergies resulted in self-identifying as “JJ who can’t eat milk or nuts. I identified with what I can’t do. And I had to make a conscious decision to live in the land of ‘can.’”
Vulopas is the recipient of the James G. Dinan Endowed Scholarship II, and the Harold and Catherine Kehler Family Endowed Scholarship.
As a sophomore, he was inspired to write Gutmann a letter after hearing her speak about “terra incognita,” or embracing the world of the unknown. Gutmann’s encouraging response to his letter led Vulopas to a difficult decision: Should he follow his dream to write a book for kids, or pursue a summer internship in finance to help further his career prospects? Vulopas turned to his donor, James Dinan, for advice. “I told him my idea to help kids. He said ‘do it.’ This is a room full of people who encourage students to live a life of possibility, to explore terra incognita.”
He founded The Land of Can, a daily blog that empowers children with food allergies and their families to define themselves by what they can do. He also wrote the book “The Land of Not” to help kids with food allergies discover their strengths.
Vulopas addressed Gutmann directly. “I wanted to live a life of ‘can.’ Dr. Gutmann, you are a can-opener.” After graduating, Vulopas plans to continue to promote his campaign for kids and families with food allergies.
As a student whose education was made possible by donors, Vulopas reflected on obstacles, but urged students not to be defined by them. He finished by saying, “Thanks to everyone in this room for being a donor, a mentor, and a can-opener.”
Photos by Ben Asen.