The Next Generation of Leaders

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Increasing access fosters opportunities for Penn students to lead us forward.

By Amy Gutmann

As the economic crisis has deepened, we have strengthened our commitment to increasing access. Why commit more resources to financial aid at a time of great economic uncertainty? Because providing a transformative Penn education to talented students of all economic backgrounds has grown ever more essential in the face of daunting challenges that confront our nation and world.

The principles of the Penn Compact are not luxuries that become expendable when the stock market falls. By upholding our commitment to access through good times and bad, we are producing the leaders—including scientists, teachers, and entrepreneurs from all walks of life—that our society will look to for solutions to the complex problems of our time. 

One emerging leader is Elizabeth Wayne C’09. Liz faced her share of adversity as a sixth-grader in small-town Mississippi. Her science class was on their sixth substitute teacher in four months. But Liz refused to be discouraged by a lack of resources, training, peer support, or any guidance from teachers. Her fascination with physics drove her to win a science fair, using pool balls and marshmallows to demonstrate nuclear fission and fusion.

As a Harry Siegel Memorial Endowed Scholar, Liz has vigorously pursued opportunities at Penn to do independent research and attend biophysics conferences around the country. Invariably the youngest one at these conferences, and often the only African-American female present, Liz creates a buzz in biophysics circles with her research presentations and her compelling life story. Liz’s success demonstrates to other young, disadvantaged students that the pursuit of their intellectual passions can be rewarded. 

The passions of Oscar Benitez C’09 range from economics to international relations and urban studies. Oscar grew up as the only child of a single mother who emigrated from El Salvador to give her child a better opportunity than she had. While his mother paid the bills with domestic work, Oscar made her sacrifices worthwhile by excelling in his studies and was rewarded with scholarships endowed by Ann and Dick [C’65 WG’67] Costello, Elizabeth S. Hadley, and Howard S. Marks W’67.

Oscar is driven by the question “What can I do for my mom and people like her?” This led him to pursue research opportunities with Penn’s Institute for Urban Research. Pairing himself with Penn professor Domenic Vitiello, who teaches in both Urban Studies and the School of Design, Oscar won a grant to study the domestic economy of a fledgling immigrant Mexican community in South Philadelphia and produced a 90-page thesis. Wanting to share this knowledge and apply it to a greater, practical purpose—Ben Franklin would be proud—Oscar talked to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter W’79’s office. 

It turned out his research furnished City Hall with valuable information about the needs of immigrant entrepreneurs in the Philadelphia area.

Oscar plans to work in finance for several years to sharpen his business skills and then return to his hometown of Los Angeles to share the knowledge he has gained at Penn. Oscar intends to use the untapped potential of market forces to solve social problems, promoting entrepreneurship within the community and teaching everyday people about financial literacy and how to generate wealth.

For graduate and professional students, financial aid supports exciting avenues of research in areas of vital importance to the future of our country. Graduate students like Shannon Andrus, in the third year of her EdD program at the Graduate School of Education, are using their Penn education as a launching pad for service. Shannon’s focus as a researcher and future college professor is on teacher education. Preparing new teachers for the challenges of today’s increasingly diverse and often under-resourced schools is of critical importance.  

A Penn fellowship supported Shannon’s work as a mentor to first-year “Teach For America” teachers in Philadelphia who are getting their teaching certification at Penn. For her own research, Shannon conducted two studies on single-sex education—her area of focus—in a public all-girls school in North Philadelphia. She is currently nominated for a Liebmann Fellowship to allow her to focus on her dissertation research at that school.

The importance of our commitment to financial aid in difficult economic times is underscored by the accomplishments and passions of these Penn students and thousands more like them. Together, they will soon become the next generation of leaders. Enabling more students like Liz, Oscar, and Shannon to pursue their civic-minded passions, we are reinforcing our commitment to eminence through educational opportunity at the highest level and our legacy of service to society. As the global impact of the financial crisis continues to make itself felt in unforeseen and unexpected ways, it is clear that it will take a multitude of these talented, well-educated, and service-minded leaders to meet the challenges of the future.

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