Name: Stephanie Wu
Major: Business Economics and Public Policy (BEPP), Statistics
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Activites: President of Penn Debate Society, Penn International Impact Consulting (PIIC), Turner Social Impact Society (TSIS), TA for BEPP233 and BEPP280
34th Street: What was it like growing up in Sydney? How does it compare to the US?
Stephanie Wu: I get asked this a lot, and I think my experience is super defined by the bubbles that I grew up in within these two places. In the US, everyone I know is from Penn; all my interactions are at Penn. In Sydney, I would describe my bubble as a very Asian, magnet school, immigrant family bubble. When I say Asian, I mean Asian. In my high school, there were only one and a half white people and everyone else was Asian. My parents immigrated from Shanghai, China to Australia. When I was little I didn’t understand how much of a sacrifice that would be. I am incredibly grateful. I can’t even begin to imagine how lonely and — it’s hard. People are racist, you’re financially struggling. My mum would tell me stories about how she would go on a train every day to try to find jobs, and if she didn’t find a job that day, she’d feel so bad because she just wasted the train fare. So I don’t think I can make an accurate comparison between Australia and the US. But that being said, coming to Penn I had to learn to be a lot more assertive, especially in Wharton classrooms.
Street: Why did you decide to come to Penn?
SW: To be honest, I don’t have a very good answer for this. In Australia we don’t think that much about U.S. schools, so I applied quite last minute and generally just applied to schools I knew of. Penn was the only school that accepted me, so I was like ‘Here we go!’ I was really interested in economic policy, and I actually wrote my one essay on Econ policy — which now I know is not business at all. The thing I do like about Wharton, or I guess Penn, is that there are so many resources for everything, so I definitely explored a lot of interests through the Public Policy Initiative in Wharton and the Turner Social Impact initiative. I really like economics, and I think the framework, even though they are problematic and need to be questioned, it’s a really rational and logical way of thinking about the world.
Street: Why did you decide to get involved with Penn International Impact Consulting?
SW: I was pretty confused my freshman year, and coming in, everyone at Penn knew exactly what they wanted to do or become, and in Australia we just didn’t think about the long–term. Freshman summer I had a lot of time and I watched a lot of different documentaries, a lot of Al Jazeera documentaries, about different things that were happening around the world, and I just got a lot more interested in international development. I didn’t really know what that meant until I joined PIIC and took a class on development economics (BEPP233). That really sort of introduced me to that discipline. In PIIC, we provide consulting for NGOs. We've worked with educational NGOs for both years in Guatemala and Costa Rica. It was valuable to be on the ground and see first–hand just how difficult it is. The circle of people I am friends with strongly believe in effective altruism. There are a lot of great arguments for that, but a lot of the time they sideline these smaller NGO operations. These operations still are changing lives and making a difference. They may not be the most sexily–marketed or sophisticated, but they are incredibly impactful. Those experiences were important to illustrate to me the human impact and practical impact that a lot of these things make and it's not just about the clinical numbers and measurements of the impact you're making. Just listening to the director of the NGO in Costa Rica — she had been there for ten years — and hearing how it was such a difficult operation and how they were close to dying out so many times, but at the same time they were providing so many crucial programs for kids who were just not getting enough education at school. She is changing lives but she's just not getting the funding and attention that she deserves just because she's not an anti–malaria foundation, or she doesn't have fancy research and isn't doing an RCT [randomized control trial] to prove her method, but she still is making a huge difference in the community. Because of a lack of government funding in rural Costa Rica, the children only get three to four hours of school a day, so she supplements that with English lessons and art lessons. Beyond the education it’s also social bonding for the kids as well.
Street: What have you done over your summers?
SW: Freshman summer I was an RA at Penn. I was working with Professor Sarah Light, one of the kindest mentors, really the kindest women, I have ever met. I learned about business ethics and corporate governance literature, particularly related to environmental law. Sophomore summer I was at Shahi Exports, and they're one of India's largest garment exporters. It was amazing. I think that was the summer where I really connected the dots from my past and realized I was really passionate about gender issues. It's always been something that's made me really angry. You know, I was called 'bossy' a lot as a kid — I've been that person who's gone to a Model UN conference and has been called 'aggressive' by a male who's probably been acting, objectively, much more aggressively. At Shahi, I was trying to see how we can get more women into positions of leadership. When you give women more power in households, kids are more likely to get to sent to school or they spend more on kid's healthcare. If women are in politics, they'll spend more on access to water. Putting women in power doesn't just have benefits for women, but also for children and all of society.
Street: Why did you decide to join Penn Debate Society?
SW: PDS was my first family on campus, and it has been my core group throughout. The two biggest mentors for me in the grade above me were from PDS. The best moment was probably senior send–off last year. The senior year above us was a revolutionary class in the sense that they truly made it into a competitive force as well as just a family. It was a wonderful mix of tradition and beautiful speeches thanking the seniors. We all sang “Someone Like You” by Adele in a circle — you got to, right? If you didn’t sing Adele, did you even send off the seniors? I don't think I would have gotten involved in development or policy without that. Sometimes the Wharton curriculum, it's very practical, but a lot of the times you don't consider normative questions of 'Is this good?' and you also don't consider questions that don't have a clear answer. This is a generalization, but I think you're not encouraged to be uncomfortable with the uncertainty, and constantly thinking, and questioning. Debate has really allowed me to exercise those parts of my brain.
Street: What is the top song on your playlist right now?
SW: Oh haha “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. Always.
Street: If you lost this item you would be unable to live your life. What is it?
SW: It’s boring, but earphones.
Street: What is the most interesting thing you’ve debated?
SW: “Has Givewell done more harm than good?”
Street: There are two types of people at Penn...
SW: Those who overthink things and those who go with the flow.
Street: If you were a building on campus, which would you be and why?
SW: Oh that’s hard! Probably Huntsman but wishes she was cool enough to be Williams.