In the chilly first week of February 2020, the smell of coffee was in the air, and the room was lively with conversation. Along the back wall of the Pret café in Huntsman, my team and I were checking in our classmates for our community coffee chat. Almond croissants and lattes in hand, we caught up on the latest in each other’s lives. Little did we know this would be the last in-person event we would have last year.

This year marks the eighth anniversary of Wharton GUIDE, an Undergraduate Division-sponsored organization founded in 2013 to, as the acronym symbolizes, guide undergraduates in their development and education. Our flagship program matches first-year MBAs with juniors and second-year MBAs with seniors to support each other in navigating the Wharton experience. In a way, we’re like a platonic dating service — think Match.com, but for mentoring. Our fellow undergrads share with the MBAs their insights into Philly life, and the MBAs share their industry experiences and wisdom. Our joint MBA-undergrad board of 12 oversees the matching process and event programming for our community of 1,200-plus students, or one in four undergrads and one in three MBAs at Wharton.

I joined GUIDE as a freshman in 2018 because I wanted to create experiences that brought people together. Over two years, we’ve hosted study breaks in Huntsman Hall, ice-skating socials at the Penn ice rink, and talks over tacos at Distrito. We spent dozens of hours improving our matching process and experimented with new ways to engage our members and foster the relationships between mentor-mentee pairs. Through this, we created lifelong friendships within the community; one undergrad/MBA pair attended each other’s weddings.

We revisited GUIDE’s mission and had to rethink our programs from the ground up.

But 2020 hit us hard, especially as an organization defined by bringing people together. With the dawn of the remote era, we recognized that as a community, we needed each other more than ever. Our team quickly canceled the Schuylkill picnic, industry coffee chats, and small group dinners on the calendar, instead focusing on delivering content that empowered pairings to check in with each other. Our amazing senior director of digital engagement, Ilyssa Delos Reyes W22, leveraged our community engagement platforms to encourage one-on-one conversations on mental health, digital wellness, and socializing remotely.

The Zoom fatigue was real. I felt it. My team felt it. And we knew our community felt it, too. So we sought to make it as seamless as possible for us to connect using the technology at our disposal. From smart-chat links in our emails to shout-outs on social media, we let purpose and creativity guide us. The semester flew by quickly, and to send off the 300 graduating seniors in our community, our MBA board co-president, Gabrielle Manoff WG21, collected and compiled clips from our MBA classmates on what they wish they’d known when they graduated.

Summer came, and along with a break from classes, it gave me time to pause and think about GUIDE’s plans for the upcoming school year. With the help of our vice president, Kaitlin Young W22, we revisited GUIDE’s mission and purpose, taking a deep dive into our core values and vision for the future. Given the likelihood of another remote year ahead, we had to rethink our programs from the ground up, with an emphasis on how we could add the most value to the Wharton community in the coming months.

To be more intentional with our event programming, we refocused on our mission of developing undergraduates, including underclassmen, whom we’ve historically underserved. After checking in with our MBA board and our advisor, Undergraduate Student Life associate director Aman Goyal, we developed several new workshops and panel concepts targeted to new students and the entire Wharton community. In partnership with the Undergrad Division, we staffed MBA panelists for a weekly career exploration series as part of the Wharton 101 curriculum. We hosted several workshops and panels in consulting, tech, and interview skills, coordinated by our senior director of career development, Lauren Arribas W21. This was on top of matching more than 600 students and curating regular prompts to keep mentor-mentee pairs engaged throughout the semester.

Internally, we shifted from a task-based model to a project-based model, focusing on building incremental improvements to the organization. I spent time throughout the semester checking in with each of our five directors on projects ranging from developing our next-generation matching algorithm to fostering new partnerships and collaborations with other student groups.

The past year saw quite a lot of change for GUIDE. At the end of the day, the challenges we faced forced me and my team to grow. I learned how to adapt quickly to new situations, communicate clearly in crises, and be aware of the needs of my team. Together, we explored new mediums and formats. We leveraged the power of our internal data to make informed decisions for the good of our community. We became more intentional and purposeful with our programs and messaging. Yes, 2020 took much from us, but it also tested our resolve and pushed us to be stronger for tomorrow.

 

Dragon Chan W22 is a junior from San Diego, California, concentrating in behavioral economics and business analytics. He is president of the Wharton GUIDE Undergraduate Board.

 

Published as “Connecting With Purpose” in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of  Wharton Magazine.