On Sunday, May 16, 2004, hundreds of newly minted Wharton graduates received their degrees at a ceremony on Franklin Field, about to start prestigious first jobs throughout the business world. Those graduates, now in their thirties, have risen to top positions at investment banks, earned Ph.D.s and founded their own companies.
One of them is about to become the most powerful first daughter in American history.
Ivanka Trump played a major role in her father’s campaign and recently announced she would stay on as an unpaid White House employee in a West Wing office, protected by the Secret Service. She’s painted herself as a polished, professional woman, balancing her high-powered career with her family responsibilities. Her advocacy for women in the workforce — which she has continued during her father’s presidency — has often stood at odds with President Donald Trump himself, who has been lambasted for making offensive comments about women.
According to interviews with several of Ivanka Trump’s classmates, her professional demeanor dates back to her time as a Penn undergraduate, where she kept a low profile but worked hard in class and appeared ambitious. Over 600 Wharton graduates from the Class of 2004 were reached out to for this article.
Members of that class who remembered Trump generally described her as polished, hardworking and nice. She transferred to Penn from Georgetown University before her junior year, and she wasn’t particularly involved in Penn’s social scene. On campus, she lived in the Left Bank apartments, located near 31st and Walnut streets.
“I think she was always a good student — well prepared, poised, et cetera,” Jared Work, a 2004 Wharton graduate, said. “My sense was that she was a little removed from the typical bar scene in college, but I feel like she always handled herself with a lot of class and dignity.”
Roland Oliver, a 2004 Wharton graduate, recalled his first encounter with Trump, a former model who had already graced the cover of Seventeen.
“The first time I saw her, she came into class late,” he said. “She walked very confidently ... there was an air of, ‘I am someone.’”
Trump’s penchant for real estate was already clear by the time she got to Penn, her classmates said. Rishi Bhutada, another classmate from the Class of 2004, said in an email that she often heard Trump was “exceptionally good in real estate classes.” Miriam Diwan Mitra, who used to do homework with Trump, said in a Facebook message that Trump “deserved her 4.0.”
As a child, the first daughter was involved in her father’s business, often visiting work sites with him. She took on an official role in the Trump Organization shortly after her graduation, eventually rising to the role of Executive Vice President of Development and Acquisitions. She was involved in many of her father’s business dealings, including hotel in Azerbaijan, now under fire for links to corrupt oligarchs.
During her time at Penn, Trump’s Wharton courses, which often required group work, frequently brought her into contact with other students. Raj Dedhia, a 2004 College and Wharton graduate, remembers facing down Trump in a negotiations exercise — and beating her.
“I distinctly recall beating her in the negotiations, which is kind of funny to me,” he said. “She was very gracious the whole time.”
Even though Trump is now over a decade removed from college, Dedhia said she hasn’t changed. Though he jokes about having beaten the first daughter in negotiations, he said his interactions with her were always pleasant.
“When I see her on TV, she’s very similar to how I would expect her to be based on my past encounters with her,” he said.
While the classmates interviewed for this article had mainly positive memories of Trump, some expressed skepticism of her now that she’s emerged as a major supporter of an embattled president with relatively low approval ratings. Particularly, her willingness to actively promote her father despite his controversial statements throughout the election cycle has rankled some Penn graduates.
Eric, a 2004 Wharton graduate who declined to give his last name, said “most college-educated people were a little offended” by Trump’s complicity in some of her father’s controversial behavior.
Eric added that Trump “didn’t seem all that super intelligent” but that “she seemed nice enough.”
While Trump was at Penn, her father was establishing himself as a major reality-television star. In 2003, he became the executive producer and host of “The Apprentice,” while remaining a longtime owner of multiple beauty pageants, his name splashed across buildings and golf courses around the world.
Though her classmates generally knew who she was, most don’t remember Trump being particularly active in Penn’s social life. One 2004 Wharton graduate, Roman Galas, wrote in an email that he “saw her at Smokes’ once, sitting across from me at the bar, sipping her drink peacefully and gracefully.”
“I don’t think she had a whole lot of activities at school,” Oliver said. “She came to the school, and did her part, and left.”
Oliver, who took a legal studies course with Trump, said she was always “nice and professional,” and that there “wasn’t a lot of fanfare” about her being a Penn student.
Several classmates also recalled that she smoked cigarettes while at Penn.
Although Trump’s picture doesn’t appear in the 2004 yearbook — seniors can choose whether or not they want to be photographed — a page recording the pop culture trends of the year pictures the elder Trump with his then-fiancee, Melania.
After graduation, Trump worked at Forest City Enterprises, a real estate management and development company, before moving to the Trump Organization. She owns a line of fashion items as well as a lifestyle brand aimed at empowering professional women.
Trump's company and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
While Trump’s presence at Penn was understated, her classmates said she appeared ambitious, and they aren’t surprised that she ended up where she is.
“I think she was destined for success,” Dedhia said. “You got that sense from her that she knew what she needed to do, she had a very clear vision of what she wanted to be and she was at Wharton to get a good education.”
Along with her husband, Jared Kushner, Trump is now a federal employee, and has participated in meetings with business leaders focused on women in the workforce. Next month, she’ll attend a women’s empowerment summit in Berlin.
“I think it’s impressive, but I would say I’m not shocked,” Work said. “She came across as always very professional ... clearly, she was always ambitious when she was in school, and I think that’s carried on.”
In many ways, Trump’s cool, measured professionalism balances her father’s brash, aggressive approach to campaigning and governing. But it’s been widely reported that the two have a close relationship, and that the president relies heavily on his daughter for advice.
Many have speculated about the eldest Trump children’s political futures — her brothers, Donald Jr. and Eric, do not have roles in the administration, but were deeply involved in the campaign.
Oliver sees Trump’s influence far outlasting her father’s, and ascribes her unwavering support for him to something besides just familial loyalty — her own personal ambitions.
“With everything that’s going on, there’s a bigger game at play,” he said.
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