This fall, Wharton students are coming together virtually from all over the world. Some are nearby in Philadelphia, while others are at home, far from campus. To bridge that distance, administrators have been brainstorming ways to help students tap into the valuable resources right in their cities — Wharton alumni.

“Wharton has plenty of excellent existing programming that connects current students and alumni, and most of it will continue seamlessly in a virtual format this semester,” says Shannon Connelly, executive director of alumni relations. “But we wanted to offer something additionally to provide more personalized encouragement for students in these unusual times.”

Enter Wharton Alumni Welcome (WAW), a program that matches MBA students around the world with local alumni for one-on-one mentoring. Once paired, alumni and students have the flexibility to choose when and how they meet: via video call, phone, or email, or in person if public health guidelines in their region allow.

The project builds off of other novel virtual solutions put to the test during COVID-19. Kacey Barnes, director of external engagement for Wharton MBA Admissions & Financial Aid, saw how MBA admits took to Wharton’s new hub on Workplace by Facebook. “We had tremendous success with our online community, Wharton HQ,” she says. “We saw the power behind combining a virtual platform and physical communities through our alumni clubs.”

Alumni response to the initial kickoff has been amazing, says Connelly. In August, more than 35 global alumni clubs welcomed MBA students in their areas who opted to take virtual fall courses outside Philadelphia, inviting them to local programming. Then, in September, those same students were matched with individual alumni nearby through WAW. “The most frequent question I hear in my conversations with alumni is, ‘How can I help Wharton students right now?’” Connelly says. “Alumni participation in this program ranges from those who graduated this past May to our most senior board members.” WAW also aims to connect every single MBA student in Philadelphia with an alum by early November and launch a pilot program connecting undergraduate students with Wharton board members and alumni club leaders.

“What I love about the Wharton community is that fellow alumni genuinely pick up the phone and want to help each other out,” says Alana Rush WG15, who is currently living in Dublin, Ireland. Guidance from Wharton alumni helped Rush land her first three jobs after graduation. Now COO of international tech company Shortlist, she still vividly remembers her introduction to the Wharton community during MBA Pre-Term six years ago. “I was next to a six-foot-tall veteran as we battled another Cluster in tug-of-war,” she says. “At that moment, it struck me that ‘networking’ at Wharton doesn’t mean exchanging business cards and leveraging elite connections. It means sharing experiences and pulling for one another — in this case, quite literally.”

Rush is looking forward to participating in the WAW program as an alumna herself through the Wharton Club of the United Kingdom. “Whatever challenges I faced on campus, it was invaluable to talk to students and recent alums who had been in my shoes before,” she says. “The WAW program can help students by connecting them with Wharton alums when the semester begins and also down the line, when they start navigating the recruiting process, deciding what classes to take, and thinking about next steps.”

Behind the scenes, bringing the program to life has been a collaborative effort across the Graduate Division, including MBA Admissions, Student Life, and External Affairs. “We anticipate that we will expand our partnerships both within Wharton and in our alumni networks,” says Barnes.

For Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives, the WAW format has inspired new ways to enrich remote student life. The program has created a version of WAW called Squads in which students in the same class and location can form groups with which they can learn, study, and socialize in person on a smaller scale. “Second-year students are already doing some of this on their own, but we wanted to provide a way for first-years to connect in person safely,” says Catherine Molony, director of alumni engagement for Philadelphia and San Francisco and Philadelphia program director. “The Squads project opened up the possibility of connecting first-years to second-years as well as to alumni.”

Even after the pandemic subsides, WAW will remain active and continue to facilitate ongoing and potentially lifelong relationships, both professionally and personally. Rush says she has been encouraging fellow alumni to participate in WAW as well: “I’m excited to help the newest batch of Wharton students as they embark on a life-changing journey, and I appreciate the opportunity to give back to a community that has given me so much.”


Published as “Come Together Right Now (Over Zoom)” in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of  Wharton Magazine.