Penn Mentoring Program Provides Undergraduates Advice on Post-grad Study, Career Paths

By Julie McWilliams

When Vidya Daryanani, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore from Lima, Peru, wanted guidance on possible career paths, she felt she couldn’t just go to her fellow undergraduates. Instead, she found her perfect mentor in the Grad-Undergrad Mentoring Program housed at Penn’s Graduate Student Center

Daryanani, an economics major in the School of Arts and Sciences, said she learned about the program through a department email.

“Friends said a graduate student mentor would provide an older point of view,” she says. So that’s what she asked for -- and got — in the person of Wharton Ph.D student Andy Wu. She and Wu, now in his fourth year in applied economics, meet for coffee and conversation about once a month.

“I’m so happy to have someone with so much knowledge guide me,” Daryanani says. “He looks at my decisions, tells me what I should or shouldn’t be doing and what’s important and what’s not.”

That’s one reason why the GSC, in conjunction with the Graduate and Professional Student Association and the Undergraduate Assembly, runs the mentoring program.

“Let’s say an undergrad in English is thinking about law or a Ph.D in another area,” Anita Mastroieni, director of the Graduate Student Center and Family Resource Center, says. “You need us; we can make mentor matches across 12 schools; you can see what it’s like.”

Mentoring Fellow Joshua Taton makes those matches. A Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education, Taton has been in his position for two years and is pretty clued into the mentor-mentee relationship.

“I think that when you’re a new undergraduate, the pathway to success and a happy career is unclear,” he says. “And it’s okay if you’re not sure. Penn has a great mentor program. Here’s a friend and supportive other who can offer you perspective.”

Taton says about 100 undergrads enrolled in and stayed with the program this year.

“We make every effort possible -- go to the ends of the earth -- to find them a match,” he says. 

Both mentees and mentors fill out applications and are matched based on interests and career path. They then meet for coffee sessions, courtesy of the GSC.

Some 300 graduate students volunteer to be mentors.

“We deliberately have more mentors than mentees so we have several to choose from,” Mastroieni says.

Taton says they look for several things in recruiting mentors for the undergraduates.

“First we look for a passion for their subject as conveyed in their applications, and, second, a willingness to share that passion. Academic life can be challenging, and, if they’ve reached out for support and benefited from a mentor, this is a chance to pay it forward.”

Andy Wu, mentor to Vidya Daryanani, echoes Taton’s message, “It’s great to be able to give back. I believe strongly in mentor-mentee relationships.”

“Many faculty at Penn are great mentors, but there can be a great gap between them and undergraduates,” he says. “Grad student mentors can bridge that gap. The grad student population covers a broad range of careers. We are in a great position to provide advice to undergrads.”

But it’s a two-way street, with the grad mentors learning a lot as well. For one thing, they really have to know their area of expertise.

“You don’t really understand a subject until you try to teach it,” Wu says.

Also, the program is the perfect opportunity for the grad students to develop the mentoring skills they will need to advance in their careers.

Daryanani is Wu’s second mentee. Originally from Lexington, Mass., Wu came to Penn for graduate work at Wharton four years ago and has mentored the entire time.

“My first mentee, Jeremy Yoo, was studying math in SAS and business at Wharton,” Wu says. “His goal was to go into a Ph.D. program in economics, so I recommended he apply to the same program as I’m in, and next year he will be a first-year student here.”

With Daryanani, Wu says he’s most recently been helping her get a summer internship, counseling her on “networking strategies, cold emails, cold calling and stuff like that.”

She has learned her lessons well. With Wu’s help, she’s applied for several internship opportunities back home in Lima. Narrowing her search down to two, she must soon decide between a consulting group  and a private equity firm.

 “When we first met, Andy asked me what I wanted to do in 15 years and how I planned to get there,” Daryanani says. “He helped me focus and gave me advice on how to get to where I want to be.”

And about that 15-year goal? Daryanani, who is minoring in international relations and consumer psychology, is first eying a management consulting job in a big organization.

“I’m very much interested in public policy as well as economics, so I’m looking at the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank,” she says.

Going to graduate school right after her 2017 commencement isn’t on her list right now.

“Andy has always emphasized to me the importance of work experience.”

Wu is proud of what his mentees have accomplished and plans to continue mentoring when he achieves his own dream position teaching entrepreneurship and innovation at a business school.  “It’s a phenomenal program, really beneficial to these students,” he says.

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