Thinking through the Student-University Relationship: 5 Lessons on Student Engagement

Stephanie Kim, Wharton Social Impact Initiative’s Manager of Community Impact, walks through her process of developing, refining, and growing a fellowship program built with students in mind.

WSII notebooks

“The Wharton Social Impact Initiative exists first and foremost because students demanded it.”

WSII Managing Director Sherryl Kuhlman told me this my first day on the job.

I think about this statement a lot — in part because my colleague wrote it on a post-it note in clear view from my desk, but mostly because it has come to define our organization’s work in ways I could never have imagined from day one.

And while engaging and supporting students is just one element of our work at WSII, engineering a robust infrastructure around it has also made them an integral driver for our success.

WSII’s internal team almost tripled in size over the past academic year and with this increased capacity came an exponential increase in organizational activity, from Philadelphia to Africa, impact investing to social entrepreneurship. Students, corporations, and community organizations alike approached us with more than 150 requests for collaboration in 2014 alone, and we needed to find a way to start saying yes. It was time to scale.

Students demanded an opportunity to get involved, WSII needed high caliber human capital to drive forward our rapidly growing initiatives, and external organizations wanted stronger collaboration with the Wharton community.

The result was the creation of the Social Impact Fellowship program, with its inaugural cohort boasting a diverse collaboration of 30 undergraduate and graduate students across Wharton and Penn.

The Fellowship was designed with a three-pronged mission:

  1. To facilitate a unique, relevant, and comprehensive exploration of what “social impact” can mean to our students during their time at Wharton and beyond, through involvement in meaningful projects and thoughtful discussion;
  2. To serve as the hub of a scalable ecosystem of global relationships by bringing students and partner organizations together through the medium of consulting work; and
  3. To create a higher standard of accountability, quality, and excellence of student engagement with the community through rigorous management and a thorough vetting process.

By playing to the strengths of the Wharton student body and forming student-driven components for each of our initiatives, we are able to leverage our Social Impact Fellows as integral players across the full gamut of our work.

But being the hub of a scalable ecosystem of relationships means being more than a project bank or a consulting firm.  Our long-term goal is to build healthy, sustainable relationships with students, faculty, organizations, companies, donors, and community stakeholders to drive towards collective impact.  Projects with which to engage students are a means to reaching this goal, not an end, and we’d be remiss in our responsibility as an organization if connecting students to exciting projects in impact investing or community development was all that we did.

Now in the middle of its second year, we have grown the fellowship to 50 students, selected from a whopping 200 applications from across Wharton and Penn.

With best practices in mind, we are excited to create an incomparable experience for the students who join our team from across Wharton and Penn.

Summer Fellows for web

As we continue to refine our student engagement practices to become a leading model replicable across other urban business schools across the world, we have learned to apply the following five key learnings in student engagement:

1. Recognize your role and resources.

Social impact is the business of solutions, and in the competitive social sector landscape it is tempting to get lost the fray in finding the most innovative, entrepreneurial, and even hip solution to the world’s greatest problems. Wharton has joined the race, and WSII is the launch pad.

However, we’ve realized that we’re also uniquely positioned to join and support the good work that is already being done—and to make it better.  Identifying and amplifying the positive impact already happening around us through the work of our partners increases the magnitude of our collective impact at an exponential scale. We have trained ourselves to take risks and to also seek out existing, proven approaches (after all, keyboards on phones and wheels on suitcases are some of mankind’s greatest innovations based on new combinations of existing technology), and then leverage some of our greatest assets—students, alumni, and faculty—to lead the charge in turning knowledge into action.

2. Anchor and facilitate relationships and initiatives in house.

Our work in this field has demonstrated that relationships and larger-scale, multi-year initiatives are more effective than one-off projects. However, students are transient bodies within this institution, especially at the MBA level, where a fast-paced academic program, intensive recruiting timeline, and two-year turnover rate makes maintaining relationships and building initiatives over time especially difficult.  Students come and go but WSII is here to stay, and by housing major relationships and initiatives within our organization we are able to see great work build upon itself over time while lending robust infrastructure and thought leadership.

We are measuring the success of our students’ work by what happens two years after they leave: was the vision large enough to last over the years, and concrete enough to be broken down to move forward through multiple semesters?

3. Scope challenging opportunities and select students and partners who will be challenged by them.

I often use a metaphor that when it comes to the way we work with students: the business school is an airport, students are pilots, their clients are passengers, and WSII is the control tower. Our students are on the wheel, but we will not let them crash as long as they are here.

Along those lines, one of most exciting recent developments is a group we are referring to as the WSII Consulting Corps. While there are several student consulting groups on campus, the Consulting Corps works directly on projects relevant to our major initiatives in Philadelphia, Africa, impact investing, and social innovation.

In addition to vetting program models and potential impact, we select project partners and clients for their availability to work closely with our students; projects for their level of relevance to what students bring to their table; and students for their ability to be challenge and deliver a quality work product. We impose a high standard of accountability on all sides and manage students with an assigned project manager, clearly established roles, a work plan, mutually agreed upon deliverables, and closely-managed expectations.

This year, we are proud to partner with groups including CEO Connection, Ben and Jerry’s, Penn Medicine/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, The Enterprise Center, and Wayne Presbyterian Church to design and implement impactful and replicable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues.

4. Build in opportunities for learning before, after, and during their work.

Social impact, broadly speaking, has two parts: knowledge of the “social” and knowledge for the “impact.” We engineered the Fellowship experience so that students build a stronger knowledge base on both fronts.

On the social side, especially in our community development work, we incorporate learning opportunities for students to get to know the context of the social issues they’re addressing before they recommend and implement solutions through a design thinking process. This means holding meetings on our community partners’ sites, meeting their staff, and volunteering with their program beneficiaries.

On the impact side, we build multiple presentation opportunities with experts and alumni into project plans to facilitate a reflective learning process on both their assumptions and solutions.

With “impact now” as one of WSII’s key goals, this process keeps both our organization and our students accountable.

5. Evaluate, improve, and repeat.

I look back and am amazed at just how much our student engagement strategy and infrastructure has evolved over the past year. By soliciting constant feedback from our students, colleagues, and project partners, we have been able to test, evaluate, improve, and continue to refine this model through a very honest process.

We’ve learned that undergraduate and MBA students can work productively together to create something of a “super team”. We’ve learned that sourcing graduate students beyond Wharton and from across Penn lends expertise and perspective that we humbly realized we can lack.

Most importantly, we’ve learned to strike a harmonic balance between creating structure and creating room for creativity. With both, our students thrive. Thankfully, at WSII we have the flexibility and safety to change—and at times fail—so that those we work with don’t. We often joke about how Ben and Jerry’s has a graveyard for all of their failed ice cream flavors. We’re proud to have a graveyard for our failed efforts, too.

WSII exists first and foremost because of student demand — we keep this in mind every day. Penn and Wharton students offer a wealth of energy, good intentions, skill, knowledge, and creativity. We have seen and will continue to see many incredible students pass through our office, and building a robust student engagement model that is responsive to their needs, interests, and feedback will continue to be a critical priority for us in the coming spring semester.

stephaniekimStephanie Kim, MPA ’16, is the Manager of Community Impact for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, managing student engagement, community partnerships, and anchor institution work across Wharton, Penn, and the city of Philadelphia.

For more information about the Social Impact Fellowship, visit our Fellowships page or email Stephanie Kim at