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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Junior Pena Plunges into a Passion for Education


Psychology and Communication, 2014

About half way through his undergraduate degree, Junior Pena realized that he wanted a career in higher education when he sat down with his mentor, Sherrod Williams.
“I still remember it perfectly. We were having the one-on-one meeting. He asked me about what my aspirations and goals were, and what was my passion. I was focused on doing my psychology research and on getting my communications degree. At the time I wasn’t necessarily considering student affairs as a potential opportunity.” 
Already immersed in student activities, volunteering for community service projects and working in the office, Pena had developed an outstanding resume. 
“Sherrod provided me with an option. He said, ‘You don’t have to decide this, by no means, but it’s worth giving a shot.’ He recommended that I apply to the National Undergraduate Fellows Program (NASPA), which is an exploratory program for students in undergrad that are highly involved and could potentially be interested in student affairs to try it out.”
He signed up for the NASPA conference, and that summer he found himself interning with the Dean of Students Office at the University of Vermont. He loved it. Immediately after graduation he interned at Northwestern University just outside of Chicago, working on diversity programming in their new student family programs. 
“All of those different opportunities sent the message that this was my calling and my area of interest and expertise.” 
Now pursuing his masters of science in higher education, Pena works in student affairs as a graduate assistant at Florida State University. He advises several student groups including the Hispanic/Latino Student Union, and the Service Scholar evening coordinators. 
With excellent grades and test scores coming out of high school, Pena could have gone almost anywhere. 
“I know that you have a very trendy kind of campaign going on with ‘My First Choice,’ and it actually was my first choice,” he says. “UMass Boston provided me with a great opportunity to not only have access to the city, but also to be able to study at a much more affordable price tag, which ultimately was the deciding factor for me.” 
As a student, Pena worked for the Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement in a range of capacities. He collected donations for the Project Serve Initiative, volunteered for every service day, was a Peer Mentor, and became the Student Director of the Freshman Leadership Institute. The list goes on, but the activity that he enjoyed most was the Alternative Spring Break trip that he co-lead with Kenny Andejetski.
“We worked with the Chicago Youth Center in Brownsville, Chicago, helping them with their end-of-the-year synthesis project. Additionally we also did some park restoration during the day to be able to get a hands-on experience of what the physical spaces looked like.” 
Leading about a dozen UMass Boston students, he raised several thousand dollars over the course of a fall semester in order to travel to Chicago during spring break and learn about the state of public education nationally. 
“Rather than going into a community and assuming that we’re saviors of some sort, we provided the students with an opportunity to learn about the culture and community of the South Side of Chicago. It was a collaborative learning process.” 
While there, they studied the demographics and economics of the area. “We had a teacher’s union representative come in and speak to the students, to educate us on the closings that were happening rapidly in Chicago,” he says. “The students ultimately really got the point, and a lot of them left the experience emotional because they saw that there was a lot of urban injustice happening and these students were essentially becoming a product of their environment with very little to no leadership or role models to model better behavior.”
Pena returned from that trip with a passion for teaching.
“Education is a great opportunity for us to create a more equitable society, and I think particularly in Chicago there are a lot of folks that are running public education like a business and not understanding that their product isn’t a product; it’s people, and particularly students.”
The experience in Chicago got Pena thinking about the increasingly diverse population in America, and what makes a good education. 
“What interested me most about that was how much conflict and disagreement arises from just misunderstandings of communication interaction.” 
“Some cultures prefer a lot more context and information around what they are expected to do, while others prefer a lot less information and it’s more assumed through body language, and less information is provided. Simple things like that can create large conflicts. So how do students adapt when they have these unique cultural communication processes, and have to come to this completely different country, completely different way of thinking and way of communicating, and how does that influence their ability to successfully transition into college?” 
In classes with Gamze Yilmaz, Jesse Contaro Johnson, and Michael Millburn, he gained insights into intercultural communication which became a strong interest for him. 
“I by no means entered UMass Boston being the person that I am today,” he says. “As a first generation college student I had an immense difficulty navigating the institution initially. My advice to students is to continually put yourself out there; step outside your comfort zone. If you get nervous about something, it means that you care about it a lot. Take that plunge and hope for the best afterwards.” 
It took Pena time to acclimate to campus, and after his first semester he thought about transferring to the Dartmouth campus, closer to where he grew up. 
“What kept me on campus was the leadership opportunity that I got. I took it as a personal goal of mine to be involved and try out everything that the institution had to offer. I understood that this was something that I needed to take advantage of, because literally no one else in my family at the time had the opportunity or access to it, and so I understood that it was an immense privilege.” 
It took another full semester of work at the front desk in the Student Activities office for him to learn to advocate for himself. 
“At UMass, more so than anything, you really have to be comfortable asking questions. Because we have a commuter culture, you have to be able to transcend that to be involved, getting to know folks, and putting yourself out there in many ways. That lesson is huge for me, being a self-advocate, the value of being engaged not only academically but also outside of the classroom, and how that experience and practice outside of the classroom many times can supplement what you’re learning.” 
The opportunity to live and work in Boston turned out to be a great benefit. 
“The city is such a vibrant place with so many opportunities,” he says. “It’s unique as an opportunity to get to know yourself in a city that’s walkable. It’s accessible, and I would say more than any major city there’s so much opportunity per capita. The opportunity is just there for a young professional and a young student attempting to learn.”

About the Contributor
Caleb Nelson served as the following positions for The Mass Media the following years: Editor-in-Chief: Fall 2010; 2010-2011; Fall 2011 News Editor: Spring 2009; 2009-2010