As graduation approached, my peers often asked me about the sometimes ambiguously defined world of “social impact.” They wondered what classes to take, which clubs to join, and how to pursue impact in internships. Many asked how to turn a general interest in impact into practice.
I was first exposed to the impact space in high school when I served as the lead podcast host for Women Investing in Women Digital, a female-empowerment media startup. Interviewing 100+ corporate leaders, government officials, entrepreneurs, and others working to make the world a better place inspired me to learn more about impact in college.
Since then, I can easily say social impact has been one of the largest influences in my Penn career — it was the focus of my admissions essay into the Wharton program, and it became my course concentration, the motivation for my extracurricular involvements and internships, and the perspective I hope to live by for the rest of my career and life.
I connected with the Wharton Social Impact Initiative (WSII) at the end of freshman year and became a member of the Turner Social Impact Society. My affiliation with WSII served as the launching pad for the rest of my Penn impact experiences. With the help of WSII staff Sherryl Kuhlman, Sandi Hunt, Tyler Hoffman, and Yuri Seung as well as countless classmates and professors, I began my path in pursuing impact at Penn.
In addition to getting involved with Wharton Social Impact programs, here are 7 ways you can integrate social impact into your time at Penn:
1. Join a club that focuses on the impact area you are passionate about.
The social impact scene within Penn Clubs can be overwhelming. From social impact consulting, to impact investing, to volunteer groups, and more, there are opportunities to join or even create organizations that serve your interests. The Social Impact Advisory Board serves as a great resource and platform to connect students to these kinds of organizations.
2. Join a club and take on an impact-focused role or integrate impact into the organization.
One aspect that isn’t explored as often, however, is engaging with impact within organizations that aren’t formed for the sole reason of social impact. For example, I served as a philanthropy chair for Chi Omega for a year, organizing events and donation efforts to benefit The Make-A-Wish Foundation.
3. Take classes that deepen your understanding of the issues you care about.
From the academic angle, there are many fantastic courses offered within Wharton’s Social Impact & Responsibility concentration. However, I also encourage students to look for different approaches to impact by taking courses in other schools at Penn.
Some of the most eye-opening classes I took to explore nuanced topics like community development, cultural learning, the refugee crisis, and healthcare reform were housed under Urban Studies, Nursing, Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies, and Comparative Literature & Literary Theory.
4. Volunteer in the community and burst the “Penn Bubble.”
I find it extremely important to learn about ways to create social good in Philadelphia outside of the “Penn Bubble.”
With the help of my classmates, I became acquainted with several outside organizations like MANNA (shoutout to Melinda Hu) and Vetri Community Partnership (shoutout to Savi Joshi). There are resources at Penn (like the Civic House) that are helpful in finding organizations that might resonate with you. Other centers at Penn work to coordinate volunteer opportunities for students. An hour of your time each week could add up to tremendous impact in our community.
5. Go on a community service learning trip.
During spring break junior year, I took part in an Alternative Break trip, where I learned about anti-fracking policy and practice in Pittsburgh. Other trips in the past worked with Habitat for Humanity, food banks, homeless shelters, environmental conservation groups, and refugee organizations across the country.
6. Gain work experience in the nonprofit sector.
One challenge I initially came across was struggling to find an internship that matched my need for both compensation and impact. This challenge is diminishing, as businesses are increasingly realizing that corporate social responsibility should be better integrated into their processes.
My experience working for nonprofits and foundations was unparalleled. Oftentimes teams ran lean and one day at work was completely different from the next. Interns had tremendous responsibility, from engaging grassroots efforts to meeting with donors. The best way I found these nonprofit internship opportunities was through networking. Alternatively, it may help to Google organizations in fields you are interested in and reach out to see if they need any summer interns.
7. Gain work experience in the for-profit sector.
My experience in the corporate setting was equally as powerful. I found it was important to explore the social impact implications of my work in the for-profit sector. For example, you can learn about health reform, employee rights, and manufacturing sustainability.
Pursuing social impact is not an either/or situation, it is a yes/and situation.
After I got my full-time offer, I became stressed that I wasn’t working for a company that existed for the sole purpose of impact. Would my knowledge go to waste? Would I now be that stereotypical “sell-out” student? The answer is no. None of those things are true.
At a Turner Social Impact Society event, Bobby Turner, W’84, shared his perspective about splitting priorities between work and impact. He advised me that it’s important to build your life both in and out of work (especially when starting a new job), and then integrate more formal social impact activities. You shouldn’t feel guilty if you aren’t always maximizing your time focusing on impact activities.
Keep in contact with those who are in the impact space.
I’ve benefited so much from the conversations I’ve had and the advice I’ve received from students, faculty, professors, company associates, entrepreneurs, and others in the impact space. Many of the areas I’ve explored (picking the right classes, clubs, internships, and volunteer opportunities) can be tricky. However, there are other students and graduates who went through the same search processes. LinkedIn and QuakerNet are great places to start. Don’t be afraid to reach out!
Feel free to connect with me and share your comments and questions. I wholeheartedly believe the more people actively pursuing impact at Penn, the better.
— Michelle Jaffee
Posted: July 2, 2019