Through GradFUTURES, students find advice on studies, career paths

This is an illustration of an alum pulling back the trees in a forest like they're a curtain, to show a student a path through sunlight on the other side.
Davide Bonazzi

Two years ago, Jonathan Aguirre *22 was a Ph.D. candidate studying Spanish and Portuguese with a desire to move into the tech industry. Seeking advice, he signed up for a mentorship program that pairs current students with graduate alumni, run by GradFUTURES, which supports Princeton graduate students’ professional development. 

He was matched with Amar Gandhi *96, a project manager at Google who received his Ph.D. in applied and computational math. Before their first virtual meeting, Aguirre was nervous, but his nerves faded once he connected screen-to-screen with Gandhi.

Aguirre said he felt comforted by Gandhi, who had “such an immediate impact [on] my life, just from the very first conversation.” 

For nearly two years, Gandhi answered Aguirre’s questions about how to land an offer in tech. They agreed Aguirre should leverage his fieldwork in the Amazon, where he studied the effects of sustainable development projects, as well as his role as co-founder of a research agency, Logische Phantasie Lab. 

The two dozen conversations paid off: Aguirre is now vice president and user-experience research lead at JPMorgan Chase.

“I learned so much — so many things that I did not expect,” said Aguirre. He credits Gandhi with giving him confidence in his own skills, despite his nontraditional path to tech.

Aguirre and Gandhi are among 290 student-alumni matches formed through the GradFUTURES mentorship program. What began in the summer of 2019 as an in-person pilot for Princeton students interning in Washington, D.C., now encompasses mentors and mentees from 37 of Princeton’s 42 academic departments, with connections formed both in person and online.

It all started when Drew Harker *81 retired in 2018.

“As I was thinking about my career, I was thinking about how important mentors were to me and to my development,” Harker said, reflecting on his professional path, which began with internships at the U.S. Department of State while he was an undergraduate at UC San Diego, and later, as he worked toward his MPA at the School of Public and International Affairs. He then became a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, earned his law degree from Georgetown, and, after more than three decades at the law firm Arnold & Porter, retired as a partner. 

He contacted the graduate school with his D.C. idea during what happened to be Eva Kubu’s first few weeks as associate dean and director of professional development at the graduate school. She had coincidentally already been thinking about starting an initiative that would include alumni.

“One of the goals of the program is really to create the same multi-generational networks of alumni and students that have existed, largely for decades now, as part of the undergraduate experience at Princeton. We want to build the same for graduate students,” said Kubu.

Seraya Jones, a molecular biology Ph.D. student, said, “I am first-gen, so I thought it would be great to have some guidance or mentorship from someone who went through the graduate school at Princeton and knew … what it took, what to expect.” Jones’ mentor, Kelsey Hughes *15, earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton and is now a senior media editor at Macmillan Learning. Jones said that, among other things, Hughes taught her to value and nurture relationships, stay organized, and pay attention to mental health.

“I feel like it’s helping the next generation,” said Jones. “It’s paving the way forward for someone else.”

Any graduate student or alum can register for the program, though there’s currently a shortage of alumni volunteers, so students may spend time on a waiting list. After filling out a survey, preliminary matches are made through a third-party vendor and then finalized by GradFUTURES staff. 

Princeton provides orientation trainings and resources, but it’s ultimately up to the mentors and mentees to determine when to meet and what to talk about. 

Based on GradFUTURES surveys and PAW’s interviews with participants, it’s clear every relationship is different. Some students come with defined goals and questions, while others simply want to meet an alum and form a relationship. And while some have credited their alumni mentors for helpful career guidance, others seem more thankful for the emotional support.

“It just offers so much more than I expected,” said Sophie Jiang *22, who earned her master’s in architecture and, like Aguirre, found out about the program through her GradFUTURES fellowship. Her conversations with her mentor, Marc Brahaney ’77 *86, co-founder and president of Lasley Brahaney Architecture and Construction, became all-encompassing. “We just talk about life in general. … It’s just more casual and it actually feels more helpful,” Jiang said. Since being matched in May 2020, Brahaney and Jiang have met about a dozen times; he’s even taken Jiang to meet with a potential client and attended her thesis review. 

“It’s more than just mentorship now,” said Jiang.

The same could be said for Gandhi and Aguirre, who, after a year’s worth of conversations between New Jersey and California, finally met in person when Gandhi visited Princeton with his teenage son. Aguirre acted as a tour guide, and then the trio went out for pizza.

Harker is glad to see the steady growth of the program, which has helped students understand the various employment options available to them after graduation. 

“It’s an alternative, very personal way of giving back, and the students really appreciate it. And the students need it.”