Whitman Parents Create Fund to Support Experiential Learning
Debbie and Ajay Nagpal
We hope that students can have an opportunity to access internships that provide them with the best experience, regardless of financial need.
On a rainy day in fall 2019, Debbie and Ajay Nagpal and their son Alec visited the Syracuse University campus for the first time. At the time, Alec was beginning his junior year in high school. He was interested in Syracuse because of the School’s size and spirit, as well as the real estate and finance programs at the Whitman School.
Despite the rain, the visit confirmed everything that had drawn Alec to the University in the first place. Alec committed to early decision and came to campus as a first-year student in fall 2021.
“Alec was never indecisive in choosing Syracuse,” says Debbie. “He really knew from the moment he stepped on campus that it’s where he wanted to be.”
“It all just clicked for him,” says Ajay.
Since then, Ajay and Debbie have created their own Syracuse experience. They are active members of the Syracuse University Parents Council and regularly participate in events on campus, online and in the New York City area.
The Nagpals recently created the Nagpal Family Opportunity Fund, and they support other initiatives at Syracuse, primarily with the goal of making experiential learning accessible to all students.
The Value of Internships
With his interest in the field, Alec follows in the footsteps of his parents, both of whom have worked in finance. Ajay is president and chief operating officer of investment management firm Millennium Management. Both Debbie and Ajay went directly from earning their undergraduate degrees to master’s programs in public policy. Their internships and early work experiences helped to shape their ideas of what they wanted to do after graduation. For example, Debbie developed her interest in public policy by working at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She used that experience to land a position in municipal finance at Goldman Sachs, where she worked for a decade.
“I think our early professional experiences were really important in helping us figure out what we liked and what we didn’t like in order to pursue our careers,” Debbie says.
Debbie and Ajay recognize that students often can’t afford to take unpaid or lower paid internships, even if those will open doors in the long run. So when the Nagpals began discussing how they could support Syracuse financially, they knew they wanted to help make internships and other experiential programs accessible to more students. The Nagpal Family Opportunity Fund supports student experiences like stipends for unpaid internships and Whitman’s career exploration trips to various New York business sectors.
“We hope that students can have an opportunity to access internships that provide them with the best experience, regardless of financial need,” says Debbie.
Ajay appreciates how the Whitman Career Center helps facilitate internships that provide students with substantive experiences at the companies where they intern. “You can see how many Whitman students, through the interactive aspects of their internships, are having robust experiences over the summer,” he says.
“When you combine those experiences with the classroom, it positions students to make better decisions about what’s going to drive and motivate them,” Ajay says. “They make better choices about the direction they want to head, and they become more focused and directed regarding what they want to accomplish when they go back to Whitman. It creates better outcomes for everybody, for the students, for the School and for the institutions that they end up joining.”
In addition to the Nagpal Family Opportunity Fund, the Nagpals have given to established funds at Whitman, including the Dean’s Fund. They selected the Dean’s Fund in part because of their confidence in the priorities of the administration and the belief in the greater mission and purpose of Syracuse. “It’s a good way to ensure that our philanthropic energy matches the specific initiatives of the institution,” says Ajay.
Outside of the University, Debbie and Ajay have a broader interest in philanthropic support for higher education. They have donated to their own alma maters, schools that their other children attend and other institutions. Ajay has served on multiple university boards and committees.
The Nagpals take a holistic view of engagement with higher education institutions. More than simply a way to connect with their children’s schools, there are personal and professional incentives for giving.
“One element of engagement is that it is a way to stay close to your kids’ experiences, to relate to and connect with what they’re going through. But I think it goes beyond that,” Ajay says. “We are both attracted to academic environments, the resources and interacting with faculty. That engagement is something that fuels both of us. From a professional perspective, forming a connection with universities such as Syracuse helps establish positive relationships, whether that’s bringing talent into an organization or being able to teach classes to students.”
The couple’s intellectual curiosity comes through as they talk about parent engagement with Whitman and the larger Syracuse community. For example, during an event in spring 2023, Debbie recounts attending lectures by professors from around the University. She particularly enjoyed a talk on artificial intelligence given by University Professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Hamid Ekbia, director of the Autonomous Systems Policy Institute. “That is such an amazing way to engage the parents and keep us connected with our kids in the school,” she says.
Ajay occasionally guest lectures at universities, he is on the Board of Trustees at a university one of their children attended, and is active in other ways with the educational institutions that the family supports. He enjoys sharing everything from a practitioner’s perspective on finance to career guidance and mentoring.
Not surprisingly, Debbie and Ajay have been involved with their children’s education from an early age, serving on parent-teacher association boards beginning in grade school. But it is clear that they want their children to feel empowered to make their own decisions about their education.
According to Ajay, their children have each taken ownership of their educational choices and decisions about the future. “At the end of the day, we take the position that each of our children should find the best fit for them and so we tried to give them space to make that decision,” says Ajay. “Alec made the decision to attend Syracuse, and that empowers him to own his decision.”
Debbie says that Alec appreciates his parents’ interest in his University and likes that they’re busy engaging with other University activities when they’re in town.
As a first step for other parents who want to engage with Syracuse, the Nagpals recommend getting involved with the Parents Council. According to Ajay, it can be especially meaningful for parents who are not Syracuse alumni to build a connection with the school. “You have a bridge to form your own relationship with the institution and form your own points of connectivity, which complements everything that your student will bring,” he says.
For families considering philanthropic support, Ajay notes that philanthropy is deeply personal. Before donating to any institution, it’s important to believe in its mission and the commitment of its leaders to carry out that mission. With Syracuse, he and Debbie are aligned with the priorities and initiatives of the administration, he says.
“It’s been very rewarding for us to become connected to the school and the other parents,” says Debbie.
But as parents, the most rewarding aspect of the Nagpals’ Syracuse experience is how their son has loved being at the school. As Ajay says, “We’ve been happy because he’s happy.”
By Suzi Morales