AS A 12-YEAR-OLD, HE WENT TO COLLEGE CLASSES WITH HIS MOM
“I got to go to the cafeterias and basketball games, and I actually sat with her in some of her classes,” he recalls. “I could observe the dynamic and the discussions, and it really had a lasting impact on me and the way I thought about these academic communities. I was able to witness the transformational effects of her experience.”
His mother would not only get her undergraduate degree in biology, but then went on to medical school to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine. When the family moved to Missouri, Peña attended a high school in Kirksville, a small town in the Northeastern part of the state, where, he says, “college was not a foregone conclusion.”
When I was in high school, I didn’t have good guidance about applying to colleges and universities. So I was navigating the admissions process without the support of guidance of college representatives or community members. Given this limited exposure, I was incredibly fortunate to be admitted to a university that was life changing for me. I realized I was really a positive outlier and the majority of students with limited access don’t end up having the same good fortune to find a community to grow and flourish.”
‘AT ITS CORE, ADMISSIONS IS COMMUNITY BUILDING’
For Peña, that realization led him to put great value on college admissions. “I believe the most important work is not selection or providing application guidance or opportunities to visit campus. Those are all important, but at its core admissions is community building. It’s about creating opportunities to connect prospective students with current students, alumni and faculty who can demonstrate the spirit and the culture of a community and help students understand if that is a place that can best challenge and suport them in their growth.”
Those beliefs were solidified, adds Peña, during the four years he worked in admissions at the Annenberg School at USC. “Many of my mentors were extremely passionate about the mission of higher education and yet did not have the same depth of understanding of human resource management and financial planning that I hoped to have as an aspiring leader in the field. So this motivated me to come back and not just to study education but to get the business training. My intention was absolutely to return to higher education. I am passionate about this work. I love this work. I love getting up every day to do it and so I knew that was the path.”
So the doors that opened to more lucrative jobs in finance and consulting once he got his Stanford MBA held little sway for him. “All of the great business schools are places that encourage people to apply leadership training to every area of passion,” he says. “Every single industry can benefit from good leadership and good management and in fact many of the industries and workplaces that can benefit the most are ones where MBAs are represented the least. The opportunity to take an MBA to the world of higher education may not be especially common but it’s somewhere I thought I could have a great impact and could also elevate the impact of the work we do.”
CREDITS BOLTON WITH HIS OWN PROFESSIONAL & PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT
Former MBA admissions chief at Stanford, Bolton, hired Peña and has been an important influence on him. “I credit him for being someone who knew how to challenge me in ways that made me work harder and smarter but also combining that with a sense of empathy to know when support was the most effective tool,” says Peña about Bolton. “I owe him a great deal in terms of not just my professional growth but also my own personal development. I have incredible fondness and affection for Derrick and will always count him as one of my most formative mentors.”
Since he attended Stanford as an MBA student and over the course of his four years on the admissions side at the school, Pena says he has seen an evolution of thinking about the degree on the part of applicants and students. “Candidates now are seeing an ever widening range of ways to apply leadership education to all different types of work,” he says.
“They see the MBA as an opportunity to develop self-awareness and a set of tools and skills that are applicable to areas of impact that stretch far beyond what has been traditionally associated with business school. Do we have students who are coming through the community who are passionate about financial careers and consulting careers? Of course we do and that’s a wonderful thing. But the range and breadth of the reasons that people have for coming to business school has widened enormously and diversified enormously.”
In a statement accompanying the announcement of his appointment, Peña said that “Tuck is unparalleled in its commitment to creating and cultivating a distinctly immersive, intimate, and collaborative environment for leadership development. As a community builder, you dream of partnering with alumni, students, staff, and faculty who invest in supporting and challenging one another, and in advancing Tuck’s mission to better the world of business. I am enthusiastically looking forward to deepening relationships with current and future members of this community.”
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