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Wharton Commitment Project Draws a Third of the Class in Debut Year

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A Personal Mission Statement, of Sorts
“We thought, ‘What if every person decided what his or her commitment should be beyond the MBA program and in their career and their community and their work?’…” says Sarvari. “The Wharton Commitment is personal and customized to every person. It’s not one fixed thing that applies to everyone.”

Once they’d arrived at an idea for the format it would take, they set out to get classmates involved. “We sent out a school-wide email inviting classmates to take an online WCP survey,” Sarvari explains. “Basically, we invited them to share five personal commitments for their life beyond Wharton.” The survey received 263 responses in its first week, and in total, 301 students in the Class of 2017 participated, or roughly 35 percent of students.

The WCP Final Ceremony and Personalized Metal Business Cards

Wharton Commitment ProjectAt a May 11th ceremony, just days before Wharton’s graduation, participating MBA students gathered for a ceremony where they reflected on the personal commitments they had made for their life beyond Wharton.

Participants were urged to find a commitment partner at the ceremony and share their five commitments with one another. “We invited participants to share why their commitments mattered to them and how they were planning to follow up on them,” Sarvari says. Not only that, commitment partners were urged to set an annual date on which they promise to follow up with each other and reflect on how things are going. “This will help increase personal accountability,” Sarvari adds.

Students at the WCP ceremony, sharing their commitments in small groups.

In addition to pairing into commitment partnerships, participants also sat within larger groups at tables of eight to 10 people, where they each took one or two of the most important items from their cards and explained why they mattered. “Some people were taking notes—I may say something that my classmate hasn’t thought of before and they may find value in doing that,” Sarvari recalls.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, each student was presented with a customized brass business card displaying his or her personal commitments, which he or she can carry as a constant reminder.

What the Data Show
Though the point of the WPC is to give individuals the latitude to be reflective and arrive at personal commitments that are and will continue to be meaningful to them over the course of their careers, taken together, the commitments that the group as a whole settled on provide a fascinating data set to examine. And what Wharton student doesn’t like data?

“It is actually very interesting—there was a very wide range of commitments,” says Sarvari. “We asked people to start with a verb and limit each commitment to no more than 50 characters so it would fit on the back of the card and be memorable,” he says. But from there, students took them in any number of directions.

“Some were as broad and general as ‘leave a legacy.’ But others were very specific, from ‘have a weekly date night’ to ‘take my family on vacation once a year’ to ‘run two marathons a year,’” says Sarvari. “I like this diversity of thought—we wanted to leave this up to personal interpretation and give students the flexibility to treat this opportunity in the way it is most useful to them.”

Getting beyond the anecdotal, WCP co-founder Huang dug through the roughly 1,500 commitments, categorized them, and identified common themes. The results? About about half of participants had commitments focused on family—some version of “care for my family.” Second up was “invest in personal relationships.” And third was some form of “do good/serve others/give back.”

“I really appreciated getting to know what other people around me prioritize as they think about the rest of their lives,” says Sarvari. “When you think of a group of MBA students at Wharton—sometimes even I find myself thinking about some stereotype—this is a good way to show that a lot of people think about many of the same things I consider important.”

Room to Grow
“I was very happy and very surprised with the participation that we got this year,” Sarvari says. He notes that he and his colleagues spent the vast majority of their time conceptualizing the project—which left little time to get the word out. “We didn’t do a great job at marketing it inside the school—we hadn’t started reaching out to people until March of this year because we were trying to finetune all the details,” he says. He learned the hard way that it is extremely difficult to get people’s attention within an MBA program in the last couple of months, when they are busier than ever with even more events than usual. In future years, Sarvari hopes more students will have heard about its first year and earlier marketing efforts will spread the word even farther.

Shell, too, was impressed with the success of the WCP’s inaugural year. “Siamak had a year and a half to try to figure out how to get a team together and come up with some concepts. He worked with the administration, asked me to be an advisor, and just a couple of weeks ago they had a ceremony and got a third of the class to participate,” he says. “I thought that was pretty amazing for a first year of anything at Wharton.”

Shell was able to help get the word out himself as part of the course where the idea was born. In the same week in course when he’d raised the issues that got Sarvari’s wheels turning, this year he shared that current Wharton students were exploring the idea of a Wharton Commitment Project. That mention spurred the three first-years who ultimately became part of the inaugural team to get involved. In subsequent years, it will continue to provide a perfect opportunity for Shell to invite more interested students to take part.

Sarvari and his team have also taken steps to help institutionalize the WCP within the school. Working closely with faculty, including Dean Howie, they set out to find a home for the WCP within the school’s leadership program. “They were happy to take this on,” he says. “So now it has a home within the McNulty Leadership Program, and every year a group of students from the graduating class will be running the process, doing the analysis, getting the word out to students.”

Shell, for his part, thinks the WCP could well have staying power, thanks to these efforts but also the ways in which the students designed and refined the concept. “First, there is the specificity of writing something down; second, there’s the accountability of saying it out loud in front of at least another person; and third, there’s doing it within a ceremonial context where others are doing it, too, so you see the consistency of the behavior as being culturally acceptable,” he says. “All that together still doesn’t guarantee it, but makes it much more likely that it will be memorable.”

He also praised the decision to hold the WCP ceremony on graduation weekend. “I think the opportunity to associate it with the degree itself will also lend it some legs—this wasn’t just some random Saturday afternoon, it was the very last 48 hours of their time at Wharton.”

More than 300 students filled out the survey, but a smaller number, between 70 and 80, showed up for the ceremony. “I was really gratified that number could make it and actually took it to the final step,” Shell says. “Everything at Wharton grows—it’s incremental.” Assuming there’s a good transition next year and tweaks are made in terms of the timing of outreach to students and the publicity of the final ceremony, he thinks subsequent years’ ceremonies could draw 150, then 300 students to take part in person.

“Maybe someday it will be something where students will feel that they are missing something if they don’t participate,” he says. “Then you’ve really made a kind of cultural declaration.”

Any members of the Wharton Class of 2017 who didn’t take part in the Wharton Commitment Project but would like to should email [email protected].

Pictured at top from left to right: Prof. Howard Kaufold (“Dean Howie”), Suzanne Kauffman DePuyt, Abdul-Hakeem Buhari, Prof. G. Richard Shell, Carol Huang, Siamak Sarvari, and Lynn Krage