From door knocking in New Hampshire, to campaigning for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to helping oversee budget and personnel in the White House, recent Penn graduate Jay Vaingankar is taking his interest in public policy to new heights.
A 2020 graduate of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, Vaingankar is now working in President Joe Biden's administration as a staff assistant to the director of Management and Administration. Vaingankar spoke to The Daily Pennsylvanian about his new role and how his experiences at Penn prepared him for it, as well as his journey into political activism.
In the White House, Vaingankar provides aid to the Office of Management and Administration, where he helps handle budget and technology issues, works closely with new hires and other government employees to ensure their work experiences are successful, and oversees COVID-19 testing and safety precautions.
“A lot of what we've been driving forward is trying to make sure that the White House staff is diverse and inclusive and reflective of the country, and I've been learning a lot that personnel is a form of policy, and that who we hire is important," Vaingankar said. "Operationally, I work to make sure that the building is safe, in terms of making sure that [White House employees] are regularly getting tested [for COVID-19]."
Vaingankar said it has been wonderful to work with the "community of other White House assistants," whom he described as young adults coming from diverse backgrounds who "are trying to find their place in public service, and very ready to do the work."
As a former student in the University's Huntsman Program, a dual degree program that places a strong emphasis on advanced language training, Vaingankar said he chose to pursue Spanish as a means to further “connect with other immigrant communities,” as his family is from India.
Outside of the classroom, Vaingankar served as a student organizer for Bernie Sanders for President and was involved in Penn for Bernie, for which he coordinated the group's relations with local media stations and campaigned door-to-door in New Hampshire for Sanders ahead of the 2020 Democratic primary.
Vaingankar said that his upbringing in a diverse town in Central New Jersey inspired him to attend Penn and pursue politics as a career, especially after witnessing racial and socioeconomic inequality in his high school.
“On student council, I got to witness firsthand how students of color were written up for defiance more often or how students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had to come late to school more often because they were staying up late working extra jobs,” Vaingankar said. “That’s what brought me to Penn — I wanted to study that and figure out how to tackle inequality on the basis of race, gender, and class.”
Vaingankar said that when he arrived on campus as a first year, he was surprised by how many people were geared towards finance and consulting. Social justice seemed like a "side gig" for many students, he said, which led him to seek political organizing opportunities off campus.
In the summer of 2019, Vaingankar joined Organizing Corps 2020, a program to recruit and train 2020 college graduates — specifically young people of color — and place them as field organizers in key states. Vaingankar's experiences with the organization prepared him for his position at the White House, he said.
Prior to this role, Vaingankar organized for the Pennsylvania field team that led the state to elect Biden as president. As a Pennsylvania field organizer, Vaingankar said he worked directly with Pennsylvania State Asian American & Pacific Islanders Director Harinee Suthakar to engage the Asian American community by distributing in-language literature and creating ethnicity-based phone lists, reaching over 1700 voters.
If he could give advice to Penn students looking to follow a similar path, Vaingankar said he would recommend getting off campus and getting involved in local organizing, which he believes teaches important lessons not only on how city and state politics function, but also the importance of being a good listener.
“There’s this saying that goes, ‘The ones that are closest to the suffering will be the ones with the most expertise,’ and I think that’s really real,” Vaingankar said. “It’s important to realize that having an Ivy League education doesn't necessarily qualify you to handle all the struggles that you’re trying to tackle [for students looking to go into public service]. You actually have to listen to people who are directly dealing with those issues in order to do that.”
He said that students should not feel discouraged immediately when a job opportunity does not work out, adding that just a year ago, he never expected he would end up at the White House.
"Every day I walk through the [White House] doors, I just can't get over how lucky I am," Vaingankar said.