Jay Vaingankar

Class Year: 2020
Target Language: Spanish
Current Role: Office of Policy, Supporting Department of Energy in the White House

A Conversation with Jay Vaingankar (Huntsman 2020)

By: Defne Onguc ’23

What did you study at Huntsman (Target Language and any minors if they had them) and when did you graduate?

My name is Jay Vaingankar and I graduated from Huntsman in 2020 as a Spanish target with a BEPP concentration in Wharton, and an International Studies major in the College. 

What do you do now and where are you based? What was your first job after graduating from Huntsman and how long did you work there? 

Upon graduation, I started working as a Field Organizer for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania. My role began virtually in May 2020, where I was working with the community to reach out to voters, and eventually transitioned to in-person work in September, to be on the ground in Bucks County. After the campaign ended in November 2020, there was a lull where I was trying to figure out my next role. In early January 2021, the incoming Director of Management and Administration at the White House reached out to me to be her assistant. On Inauguration Day, I went into the White House to help set up the administration, focusing on bringing back the office post-pandemic. The Department of Management and Administration mostly revolves around operations, so my job consisted of anything ranging from personnel and technology to COVID-19 safety. In the White House, every little detail can feel like it’s of utmost urgency, so I had to learn to develop the right instincts to prioritize situations. My role eventually morphed into COVID-19 operations for the White House, where I helped oversee data management and principal protection to keep the spread of the virus under control. In the summer of 2022, I transitioned to the Department of Energy to help implement the Inflation Reduction Act, which had just passed Congress as the largest climate investment in US history. I work in the Office of Policy, which operates as the domestic energy policy advisor for the Secretary of Energy. It is almost like a combination between a think tank and a management consultant. Throughout my roles the last couple of years, I have had the privilege to work on crises that were the center of the attention for the country, in 2020 I worked on a presidential campaign, in 2021-2022 I worked on COVID operations, and in 2022-2023 I’m focusing on how to implement legislation to tackle the climate crisis. 

How do you think the Huntsman Program impacted your professional and personal development? 

When I was applying to Penn from high school, I knew that I wanted to receive a well-rounded education, which is what drew me into Huntsman. On one hand, a business education could help me gain management skills and help me understand the economy, and on the other hand, an international studies education could equip me with a political and global perspective.  It was extremely rewarding to carve my own path at Penn, from learning sustainable growth strategies with the Public Policy Initiative, to learning political rhetoric in the Annenberg School. After my time at Penn, I got to apply the business management and economic perspectives that I learned in the classroom towards sound policy-making in the real world. 

In terms of personal development, the Huntsman community has candidly been one of the best things to have happened to me. To this day, my Huntsman friends are people I talk to everyday, almost 3 years out of graduation. The Huntsman lounge was my safe space at Penn where I knew almost everyone in the room, and if I didn’t, there was always a new friend to be made. The lounge was such a reliable place for all sorts of information, ranging from class advice to career advice and perspectives about current events. It allowed me to build meaningful relationships with upperclassmen, and once I became an upperclassmen myself, I gained leadership skills as a mentor to my peers. Penn’s environment places such a great importance on learning how people think, and understanding what gets people excited, because these are such important skills when navigating the real world. This was definitely the case in the political environments I’ve been in, where using the diverse perspectives of learning that I have gained through the Huntsman program has been crucial towards my development. 

What was your favorite part of being part of Huntsman? 

The easy answer is definitely the community. The network and friendships I have gained through Huntsman have been incredibly important throughout my journey after college. My abroad experience, however, might be the more in-depth answer. Learning about who I was in a completely different environment was really beneficial for my early 20s development. I went to Barcelona in my sophomore spring with this one overarching goal of becoming fluent in Spanish. After immersing myself with locals and the Spanish culture, I was really proud to walk out of the experience feeling like I accomplished my goal. My fluency has been helpful to this day with the campaigning I helped organize as well as with the work I’ve been doing back home in New Jersey. I am extremely grateful for the language immersion opportunities that Huntsman has gifted me.

What are some challenges you faced shifting from being a student to having a full time job? Was it easier or harder than you expected? 

School was a very systematized environment where I had a schedule to adhere to during the day and extracurriculars or meetings to attend at night, with a multi-year curriculum to guide my decisions. When I became an adult in the real world, my schedule became less rigid, and I had to focus on forming a cohesive path on my own. After the campaign ended in November, I felt really demoralized –  I was living off unemployment checks, trying to figure out what I was going to do next with my life. I definitely doubted if it was worth not going through a more traditional path, especially when I was struggling to find work after graduating with 2 degrees from Penn, but the lesson I learned was to embrace the uncertainty of a more unconventional path. Even when I was doing OCR at Penn, and certain consulting interviews didn’t work out, I learned to embrace the uncertainty that everything will work out in the end. I learned that life is not a linear progression like school – you may not always know what the next step is going to be, and that’s okay.. 

Another challenge was working in the field of government and campaigning where there was such an intense sense of urgency in the work that we do. At school I could make tradeoffs on how I spent my time, dividing it between work and social life. In the real world, if you don’t do your work, there will be major consequences. As a result, a lot of the time, especially at the junior level, work can feel so much more overwhelming, where it’s no longer merely the difference between an A or a B grade, but rather the difference between whether a policy gets passed, money goes out the door, or if the President’s event goes smoothly. The work is obligatory to get done, especially in the intense environments that I’ve worked in. This consequently restricts free time and requires a lot of personal organization. I still don’t believe that I have conquered this challenge completely, and I work on figuring it out every step of the way. 

Lastly, the whole point of a first job is to learn from failure, battle through struggles, and improve as a professional. I needed to remind myself that it was okay to not be perfect, and it was in fact good for my development to struggle and feel challenged. The goal should be to continue improving oneself, not to be a 100% perfect person all the time.  It can be tough to develop that mindset after 4 years of  the Penn mentality of wanting to excel at everything you do. I still struggle with this sometimes but I try to remind myself of how important it is to give yourself some grace sometimes. 

What advice would you give to current Huntsman students or what is something they wish they had known when they were students themselves? 

Something that took me a long time to realize is that the most important aspect of your college experience is the friends you make. There is no environment like Penn, where you are surrounded by brilliant people from all around the world. The semesters where I prioritized my relationships with people on campus were the semesters where I grew the most as a person.

Similar to my earlier point about failure, I used to think that happiness is some destination that you achieve after battling through all the obstacles in life, but happiness is something you achieve through engaging those battles themselves. Instead of focusing on eliminating all your problems, I have learned that it is more effective to optimize for the battles worth fighting. This line of thinking has allowed me to allocate my time efficiently, where I always consider whether an obstacle will actually help me grow as a person or whether it is a product of something petty. Asking myself these questions as an adult has helped me think productively through challenges, and determine what problems are worth dealing with. 

Lastly, don’t be transactional – life is a lot easier when one is not as fixated on getting something in return. There are a lot of people in this world who will try to take advantage of your generosity, but with time you will learn to develop the skills to avoid such people and ultimately prove them wrong. The people you have helped through tough times and challenges, without expecting anything in return, are the ones who will be there for you no matter what. That level of devotion and loyalty is an atmosphere that everyone deserves to be a part of at Penn. 

What’s your favorite part of your job? 

What I love most about my job is that I rarely feel like I’m doing “busy work”. I feel like every assignment I do will have an impact that will be felt decades years from now. Whether I’m helping edit text in a regulation or I’m listening to stakeholders with perspectives on how to implement tax credits on clean energy technology, I know that I get to work on projects that will not only produce jobs, but help make our energy sector more accessible for disadvantaged communities, and make the air cleaner for future generations. I feel really privileged to work in a field where I know I’m having an impact every moment I’m working on something. Even though every job has administrative aspects to it, I feel that even those tasks help build towards impactful work. Throughout my job, I’ve been lucky to not only think about how I personally can learn from something, but also think about how I’m contributing to the impact the government is making on the world at large.