SPAA Graduate Rebecca Pena Seeks to Make a Global Impact

Less than a month after graduating with her Master of Public Administration in May, Rebecca Pena will head to Cape Town, South Africa, for two months of research with fellow Rutgers University-Newark students for her third USAID fellowship in the country.  

Shortly after she returns to the United States, she’ll be back in the classroom as a doctoral student in global affairs, the latest in her pursuit of a career in the international nonprofit sector.

“Nonprofits and their workings and how to better improve services have always guided my interest, and that’s what has brought me to this point,” Pena said. “From there, the USAID fellowship brought me into more of a global comparison realm, which is why I’m going into global affairs so I can combine the public administration side of things with the global aspect.”

Pena’s investment in nonprofits began years ago, back when the Illinois native traveled to New Jersey with the Red Cross to secure temporary housing for people displaced by Superstorm Sandy. Her participation in the relief effort and other assistance programs throughout the years solidified, not only her commitment to public service, but also her interest in organizational efficiency and improvement.

It is this interest that led Pena to the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), where she sought an education that would allow her to supplement her passion with experience and skills to successfully evaluate, measure, and improve social service programs and nonprofits.

In her time at the university, Pena has established herself as a strong researcher and employee – a reputation that has led to a busy schedule as a program associate for the Graduate School-Newark, travel coordinator for the USAID fellowship, and course assistant for statistics at SPAA, all in addition to her coursework.

“Rebecca took Applied Statistics with me previously and did great in the class,” said Yahong Zhang, associate professor at SPAA. “I recommended her to be my course assistant for Fall 2016, and for Spring 2017 to other professors teaching applied statistics. Rebecca is very diligent and self-driven. She frequently discussed how to help students who might be left behind and made arrangements for students whenever needed. She was a great helper for my class indeed.”

In South Africa, Pena will apply her skills to her work with Community Chest, an organization devoted to social change and community development initiatives.

“Studying overseas allows me to see a similar, but very different scenario, and how the Community Chest manages funding and other aspects of its organization,” Pena said. “Everyone else does external research projects looking at specific concept areas, but I work directly with Community Chest on measuring their impact, their reporting systems, and how they evaluate the grants they award to better inform future decisions.”

As a master’s student, Pena says she has developed confidence and skills that previously eluded her as she describes her former hatred of math and a timidity that once would have prevented her from applying to the USAID fellowship. Despite her growth, Pena holds on to lingering disbelief regarding her pursuits.

“I’m still surprised that I’m going for my PhD because that’s something I’d never put on the books as something I would do, but I was really interested in the global comparison aspect and from there I’d taken a couple of courses which further sparked my interest in continuing my studies,” she said.

Although her schedule is demanding, Pena says she is fortunate to have a special support system with her husband Chris Pena, whom she married in March.

The pair met several years ago while working for the Superstorm Sandy relief effort, and while neither was from New Jersey (she was from Illinois and he was from Texas), they stayed in touch and began dating soon after. They moved to New Jersey together when Pena began the MPA program.

“He spends most weekends with me at a coffee shop for about five hours doing homework, and he does the laundry during the week and all that stuff – he’s a trooper,” Pena chuckles.

Pena is unsure of her future dissertation topic, but looks forward to where her doctoral studies will take her as she strives to make a global impact.

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