Comprehensive scholarship program graduates first class of engineering leaders

May 3, 2024

By Tessa M. Pick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a high school senior preparing to enter an engineering program at a university yet to be decided, Summer Walker had applied to numerous scholarships to help supplement the cost of a degree and was anxiously waiting to hear back. Sitting in her dining room, skimming through emails, Walker didn’t know the trajectory of her collegiate journey was about to shift. 

Walker opened an email to find she had been accepted to the A. James Clark Scholars Program at Penn State. With that came a full scholarship to cover a four-year degree from the Penn State College of Engineering.  

“I let it settle for a minute before yelling in excitement to my older sister then running to tell my mom and dad,” Walker said. “We were all just jumping up and down, and my dad was running around. It was such a surreal and life-changing moment, one that will stay with me forever.” 

Fast forward four years and Walker, a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in electrical engineering, is part of the first graduating cohort of Penn State Clark Scholars.  

In 2020, the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation committed $15.5 million to create the A. James Clark Scholars Program in the College of Engineering to support high-achieving engineering students with significant financial need. In addition, Penn State matched $10 million, the largest University match to a private philanthropic gift in Penn State’s history.  

Established at 10 other universities across the U.S., this program represents the values of the late A. James Clark, who built Maryland-based Clark Construction Group into one of the nation’s largest construction companies and established the Clark Foundation to enact his philanthropic vision of investing in people. The Clark Scholars Program at Penn State builds upon four thematic pillars: business and entrepreneurship, leadership, social equity and global citizenship and community engagement.

"In the spirit of Mr. Clark’s legacy, we celebrate not only the academic achievements of the first graduating class of Penn State Clark Scholars, but also their embodiment of leadership, innovation and social responsibility,” says Natalie Grandison, director of higher education and strategy at the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation. “We look forward to seeing all they accomplish in their careers and communities.” 

Each year, a cohort of incoming Penn State engineering students is selected based on their academic merit, extracurricular leadership and demonstrated commitment to civic improvement. These students receive a scholarship that provides funds for tuition, fees, room and board during the four years of earning an undergraduate degree.

However, the program offers more than just financial support for its scholars. It provides academic and professional resources to help students succeed while at Penn State and in their future careers. Clark Scholars engage in cocurricular programming surrounding alumni engagement, peer mentoring, events with leaders in the engineering field, research and internship support, career and graduate school exploration, leadership and professional development and academic skill development and support. 

“The Clark Scholars Program prepared me to succeed academically and professionally while ensuring that I make an impact on the community that is around me, no matter where I am,” said Matthew Cimafranca, a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in mechanical engineering and Clark Scholar. “The program has given me different opportunities to succeed in earning my degree while also being a mentor to future engineers as well.”

In addition to Walker and Cimafranca, the graduating cohort of Clark Scholars includes fourth-year undergraduate students Emily Baker, mechanical engineering; Alexis Collins, aerospace engineering; Emmanuel Hernandez, computer engineering; Leeann Runkle, biomedical engineering; Jimmy Sek, industrial engineering; Khalil Stroman, computer science; and Gisselle Zuniga, civil engineering. The scholars will graduate this spring. 

“Watching this first cohort of Clark Scholars get ready to graduate feels surreal,” said Lauren Griggs, director of the Multicultural Engineering Program and the Clark Scholars Program. “I see the strength in them. They all have such special talents and love and support for one another. I can’t wait for their futures and to see the positive change they bring to the world.”  

The A. James Clark Scholars Program offers financial support for its scholars, as well as academic and professional resources to help students succeed while at Penn State and in their future careers. Credit: Tyler Henderson/Penn State

The Clark Scholars are provided with opportunities and resources in professional development, global competencies, mentorship, interpersonal development, research and more.  

“We want these students to be role models when they enter the workforce,” Griggs said. “We want them to be able to change the landscape and make things more equitable and help create a sense of community, no matter where they are.”  

As part of the first year of the program at Penn State, Clark Scholars participate in Engineering Summer Bridge and one of the engineering orientation programs to help broaden their community and aid in the transition from high school to college. Each class of scholars is also enrolled in a seminar course every semester, co-taught by Griggs and other engineering faculty, that helps prepare them for life after graduation.  

The scholars are active across campus, participating and pursing leadership roles in numerous student organizations and initatives, including the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, Engineering Ambassadors and the Engineering Peer Adviser Leaders, to name a few. 

“Since the start of my first year, I’ve felt extremely supported and empowered to chase my dreams,” Zuniga said. “This program has opened many doors for me, and without the Clark Scholars Program I would not be the student and leader I am today.” 

As part of the program, Clark Scholars travel to Peru after their first year at Penn State, where they study Peruvian culture and connect with students from the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria. During this trip, students are led by Julio Urbina, professor of electrical engineering and faculty adviser to the Clark Scholars. 

“I have been exposed to experiences that I would not have had the opportunity to participate in otherwise,” Zuniga said. “From cultural experiences like traveling to Peru to being exposed to amazing organizations, through which I have built a network of amazing peers.” 

To build on the four pillars of the program, the Penn State Clark Scholars are required to pursue one of the minors from the School of Engineering Design and Innovation (SEDI), which are focused on entrepreneurship, leadership development and engineering design.  

“We really tried to cultivate the elements of the program around the pillars of the foundation, so everything we do speaks to the vision, values and spirit of Mr. Clark,” Griggs said. “We want students to develop business acumen, be ready to enter the workforce and understand engineering not only from the technical side, but also the business side.” 

Obtaining a minor from SEDI gave these students a competitive edge when applying for internships, research experiences and career opportunities, according to Griggs. Many of the scholars have jobs or graduate school plans for after graduation. Kiewit Infrastructure, Pepco Holdings, DOW Chemical, Pratt & Whitney, Intel and Accenture are just a few of the companies where the students have secured jobs, and one scholar will attend graduate school for biomedical engineering at Penn State. The graduating scholars will celebrate their accomplishments with friends, family, program leaders and Clark Foundation representatives at the Clark Graduation Reception on May 4.

“The Clark Scholars Program 100% changed my life in ways I could never see for myself,” Walker said. “Not only has a significant financial burden been lifted for my family, but I have been able to connect with engineering students nationally and globally, gain student leadership experience, obtain internships, travel to conferences, study abroad and better my networking abilities, all with the support and resources provided by the program.”


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College of Engineering Media Relations

“This program has opened many doors for me, and without the Clark Scholars program I would not be the student and leader I am today.”

— Gisselle Zuniga, fourth-year civil engineering undergraduate student