Julia Lesko’s personal journey at Penn has been a truly expansive one, allowing her not only to figure out her true intellectual passions, but to explore through research and internship experiences the complex underpinnings of what makes our economy tick and keeps it stable. Academically, when she entered Penn’s College as a freshman, Julia was attracted to the idea of majoring in Mathematics, a field that always intuitively interested her and in which she readily excelled. But she was drawn as well to energy and environmental issues, and in her second semester took two Environmental Studies courses, which put her onto a different trajectory. Julia subsequently spent the summer after her freshman year interning for the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance (KEEA), an advocacy group that works at the state and regional levels to support the growth of renewable energy industries in Pennsylvania. Working for an advocacy organization exposed her to the ways in which political action, and the political climate more generally, could make or break business concerns, and thus carry implications that can ripple through entire sectors of the economy.
Julia returned to campus after her KEEA internship with a new academic plan in mind: to dive into exploring this symbiotic relationship between business and politics by doing a dual degree combining a Political Science major with a Wharton concentration in Statistics. “I realized a Political Science degree would help me more broadly connect how politics and markets interact to affect all industries—from energy to whiskey to financial services,” Julia explains. “The combination of a political science background with a statistics concentration allows me to analyze and understand events both in how they measure by the numbers, as well as how they fit into a larger political landscape.”
The dual degree also fit neatly with another of Julia’s key interests. “Growing up, I saw firsthand what effects the 2008 Financial Crisis had on real families” such as her own, she recalls. “This sparked my strong interest in understanding why the crisis occurred, and what kind of regulations could prevent the same from happening again.” She consequently pursued the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Cary Coglianese, Professor of Law and Political Science and Director of the Penn Program in Regulation. The projects she has supported aim to identify the cost of bank failures to the U.S. economy over time, and to quantify the savings generated by banking regulations. Julia says, “By doing this research, I’ve learned about why regulation is necessary… . The American economy is as strong as it is only because of the integrity of our markets and the faith that investors, both on Wall Street and Main Street, put into it.” And that level of integrity doesn’t happen all by itself.
While working for Professor Coglianese, Julia applied for and earned the opportunity to spend the summer interning at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and to thus immerse herself fully in the world of financial regulatory oversight and enforcement. She worked there in the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, which examines registered investment advisers to ensure they are following the law and don’t abscond with their investors’ money. What attracted her to the SEC was the opportunity to put her statistical training into action, and apply the quantitative data skills she has been cultivating at Penn to analyze company filings in the public interest. “Directly helping my team at the SEC make sure that bad actors are held responsible is what I love the most about my internship,” Julia states. And living in Washington for the summer came with many other perks too. As she put it: “There’s always something to do in DC and you can really feel like you are in the middle of where everything happens. Living in DC has shown me how fortunate I am to go to Penn, because so many alumni work in the city and are willing to share their experience in public policy with me.” One of them, Jeff McLean (WG’16) also helped make it possible for Julia and several other students to take a tour of the West Wing of the White House—an experience that Julia counts among the highlights of her summer.
When she gets back to campus in the fall, Julia looks forward to continuing her leadership roles within student organizations that align with her political and public policy interests. After having served as Executive Vice President for the Wharton Undergraduate Energy Group last year, Julia will assume the position of President in the fall. She also has been Vice President of Programming for the Government and Politics Association, Penn’s largest nonpartisan political club, which fosters dialog among students of all political affiliations. “I really enjoyed putting together fun events that brought together students of different backgrounds and ideologies, because, in the end, constructive political discourse is better when all sides see each other eye to eye,” observes Julia. “Penn can be self-segregating when it comes to political views, and giving everyone a chance to put aside politics and just get to know each other as Penn students is refreshing.”
With two years to go yet until graduation, Julia is glad to still have plenty of time to delve more deeply into her statistics and political science courses, as well as into the RA work with Professor Coglianese, while continuing to explore possible career paths that speak to her varied interests. And no less importantly, “I’m also just looking forward to grabbing Greek Lady with my friends when we all get back on campus!”