I vividly remember my lofty ambitions for social change in high school. I attended Northeastern Academy, a small religious high school in uptown Manhattan. On my morning commute, I encountered large world problems: poverty, homelessness, structural and economic inequality. One day, during an idealistic “change the world” conversation with my AP English teacher, she uttered four words to me: You’re a change agent. As I sat across from her at a tiny desk, I understood why I was going to college. This mentor saw my earnest desire to, as cliché as this sounds, leave the world a better place. The question was: How? Fortunately, Wharton would provide me with the wings, knowledge, and power to build upon this desire.
Business school seems like an odd choice for someone with the heart of a philosopher and the fierce passion of an activist. The balance sheets and supply and demand curves, while helpful, didn’t exactly catch my interest. However, when I encountered the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion, my entrepreneurial ambitions merged with my interest in reducing structural inequalities. It started with an internship at a New York City nonprofit for homeless advocacy and thrived in the classroom through a Leading Diversity in Organizations course and scholar Stefanie K. Johnson’s book Inclusify. I found my big problem, the thing that consumed me. I began to view Wharton as the training ground for my development as a transformational leader. My education was more than a chance to gain access to top-notch faculty and accomplished peers — I was here to think critically about my role in the larger scheme of things and how I could help.
I’ve always been dissatisfied with the status quo and fascinated by uniqueness. At the core of DEI is the belief that your individuality can be leveraged for good and that new knowledge, experiences, and cultural capital can improve business outcomes. I clung to this notion. As a Black woman in the Wharton School, I am one of few. I spent my early Wharton days feeling out of place, longing to see my uniqueness represented in the courses I took or events I attended. DEI instilled a fresh hope in the value of my own diverse background.
I started to approach my Wharton experience from a DEI perspective. Business classes were a chance to integrate information across different domains. I sought opportunities to learn from fellow students through peer mentoring arrangements. Coffee chats with my Organizational Behavior course were a formative experience. Even last year over Zoom, as I sat across from classmates who were different from me, we discovered commonalities that bound us together.
From each person, class, or conversation, I broadened my worldview. Wharton was my personal United Nations. I understood the knowledge and value that my background holds and worked to uncover the value of others’ uniqueness. Wharton became a colorful playground for a more cosmopolitan and informed me.
By encountering and honoring diversity in my interactions with others, I became motivated to advocate for the interests of minority groups. Around this time, I began writing for the Daily Pennsylvanian’s opinion department. My columns spanned varied topics, such as mental health, career indecision, social justice, and women’s empowerment. I greatly enjoyed representing the student voice with my opinion column, but I wanted to put all the ideals I passionately advocated for in my columns into action.
That’s why, in my junior year, I joined WEDIG, the Wharton Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Group. I’d wondered if I’d ever find a group of students who shared my passion for solving social and racial issues. WEDIG introduced me to peers who had the same concerns and questions. We grappled with the vast magnitude of DEI. We challenged each other to think critically about the role of inclusion in promoting student well-being. Initiatives of all sorts — action plans, speaker events, town halls, forums — grew out of these discussions. We remained united by a common goal: to ensure that every Wharton student feels accepted and embraced by our community. I’m in awe of the dedication and grit of WEDIG’s superstar leaders.
WEDIG reinforced that diversity can’t be reduced to a simple numbers game — it’s important on an ideological, intellectual, and interpersonal level. To achieve these three I’s, you have to be open to challenging yourself. I became a true systems thinker, working to uncover the roots and historical backgrounds of the problems we’d risen to fix. A fierce advocate emerged within me, one that would speak and write passionately about the issues I observed with the social landscape, to promote broader awareness and enliven the discourse. For example, I found myself leading the DEI Power Panel during WEDIG Week in April, guiding a conversation with accomplished DEI professionals and scholars (including Inclusify author Johnson) on how to join this movement.
My story shows that wherever you are, you have the power to make a difference. Your larger world problem is often right in front of you. From writing to leadership and organizing, the key to impact is starting where you are. I found diversity in conversations, classes, and the perspectives that surrounded me. I know that diversity and advocacy will be an integral part of my future, and I attribute this interest to my Wharton experience. The School introduced me to this important work, and I’m eager to maintain this ambition on my life’s journey.
If there’s an idea or a theory that stirs a passion within you, own it, and make it yours. Enthusiastically engage in the things that consume you. Say yes to novelty — embrace the thrill of new experiences, people, and projects. In my senior year, I hope to lean more into intersectional empowerment and broaden the scope of WEDIG’s impact. Exemplify diversity, wherever you are.
Surayya Walters W22 is a senior from New Rochelle, New York, concentrating in management and marketing, with a minor in urban education. Surayya is the co-chair of WEDIG. She enjoys writing, reading, cooking, and daydreaming about launching multiple businesses.
Published as “Diversity, Inclusion, and Me” in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Wharton Magazine.