McNair Scholar David Pena at the right place, at the right time

5/14/2009 | By: Jon Fortenbury  |

David Pena never intended on signing up for the McNair Scholars program. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time and hasn’t regretted it since.

“McNair for me came right at the time where it made a difference,” said Pena, a 22-year-old who’s graduating on Saturday with degrees in women’s studies and philosophy. “It was perfectly timed.”

While at a GRE prep course, McNair Scholars Assistant Director Marsha Dupree invited Pena to join McNair after reviewing his resume and GPA. A program geared toward assisting low-income and first-generation college students in preparing for graduate school, the McNair Scholars Program fit Pena’s needs perfectly.

The McNair Scholars program provided Pena with a variety of useful resources. One of these resources was paying for his graduate school applications. This allowed him to apply for more graduate schools, giving him a higher selection of schools to choose from. He applied to 17 graduate school programs. He’ll be attending Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., in the fall on a full-ride scholarship, seeking a Ph.D. in philosophy.

“McNair streamlines the process of going to grad school and makes sure you have all the resources,” Pena said.

Pena chose Emory University over the other schools because it provided him with the best financial aid package, a minimal teaching commitment, a strong program and prestigious faculty in his field. The first and fourth year of the program, he’ll have no obligation to serve as a teaching assistant, allowing him to focus more time on his own studies. In his final year of the program, he gets to teach a class on his own, which will benefit Pena as he’s striving to become a philosophy professor at a research school.

“Emory’s program is pretty closely aligned (to what I want) in terms of interest,” Pena said. “Their department is highly interdisciplinary…and these are professors that I’ve been interested in for a while.”

Pena also thinks that presenting his research paper at the University of North Texas (UNT) — an opportunity funded and guided by the McNair program — improved his resume and helped him get a full ride scholarship (including an annual stipend) to Emory University. He likes that McNair also paid him to take three weeks off work during last summer to work on a research paper that he subsequently submitted to Emory as a writing sample. The McNair Scholars program also helped Pena by paying for his GRE prep course and for the GRE test itself.

Through the McNair program, Pena was able to see speakers, attend conferences and get involved in graduate school preparation workshops that organized and simplified the process of applying to graduate school.

“I think whoever is eligible should apply,” Pena said. “They’re very flexible and work around your schedule and financial problems. It’s well structured … and they remind you of deadlines, places to apply, scholarships and workshops.”

Moving from Overton, Nev., to Reno in the summer 2005, Pena has had many accomplishments since arriving at the University. In 2007, for his academic achievements, Pena received the Griffin Santini Award and was an Iris Marion Young Scholar. Last month, Pena was recognized for his academic achievements and community service by receiving the 2009 Dean’s Exemplar Award from the College of Liberal Arts and the Promesa Award from the Latino Research Center.

While on the University debate team, he’s done incredible things. In 2005, Pena was the Berkeley Champion in oratory speaking at the Golden Gate Invitational. In 2006, he earned third place at the World Debate tournament in China.

This year, at both the National Parliamentary Debate Association Champion Tournament in Stockton, Calif. and the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellent in Berkeley, Calif., he was awarded the national debate championship. He also won first place at the Whitman College National Parliamentary Debate Invitational.


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