First-generation IST student earns two degrees, charts his future

Jessica Hallman
April 26, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If anyone exemplifies a true Penn State success story, it’s Maurice Saunders. The senior will earn bachelor of science degrees in security and risk analysis and information sciences and technology this spring, and has accepted a cybersecurity consulting position at Accenture to begin his career. But his journey to this point wasn’t so easy.

A first-generation college student, Saunders clearly remembers that late August day in 2014 when his mom dropped him off at campus. He hasn’t left since.

“When I say I never left, I mean summer, Christmas, and spring breaks,” he said. “I did whatever it took to stay in State College.”

Saunders explained that he didn’t want to go back to his home in inner-city Philadelphia, mostly for fear of not returning to Penn State. “I’m talking about neighborhoods in the city of brotherly love where it’s often hard to see the love,” he said in his speech accepting the Student Speaker Award at the Multicultural Resource Center’s 27th Annual Senior Awards and Faculty/Staff Diversity Recognition Reception on April 4.

With a home he felt he couldn’t go back to, his parents going through a divorce, a close family member being sentenced with a hefty prison sentence, and a surgery following a sports injury, Saunders was desperately seeking a strong support system at Penn State. He found it — and so much more — at the University’s Multicultural Resource Center.

“The staff at the MRC have been my fuel to keep going even when I was at my lowest point,” he said. “They saw that I didn’t have it figured out or know it all, but I was determined to be successful. The positive energy and the faith they put into me is incredible. Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

The power of networking

Saunders came to Penn State with a vision of becoming a doctor. But, during an introductory biology course, he quickly learned that his high school math and science courses didn’t adequately prepare him for the rigorous pre-med curriculum. Considering his long road ahead and the setbacks he was already facing, he decided to focus on his other passion and changed his major to information sciences and technology.

“That biology class was the toughest course that I took at Penn State,” he said. “But it taught me work ethic and time management. It taught me the skills I needed to succeed in other courses.”

Olivia Lewis, student advocacy specialist for IST’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity Engagement, has watched Saunders flourish during his time in the college.

“Maurice has spent the past four years carving out a path for his future in spite of his obstacles,” she said. “He has exemplified the definition of an engaged student, throwing himself into academics, taking advantage of the resources available to him, and giving back to other students.”

“He bounced back from a tough first semester to complete two degrees in four years,” she added.

Saunders didn’t just focus his attention to his classwork. A natural conversationalist, Saunders particularly recognized the value of networking. He attended career fairs like IST’s Future Forum and Pro Expo to develop relationships with recruiters not just for his own personal gain, but to share his knowledge with his fellow students.

“Some students might underestimate the power of career fairs,” he said. “But you get out what you put in. I was never a super scholar, and never had a 4.0 GPA, but I researched companies and took a networking course to learn job skills. It showed when I went to the job fairs; I got multiple offers.”

He explained that he would tell his classmates his strategies, encouraging them to emphasize their skillsets to impress recruiters.

“I just want to share my knowledge to help someone get a better job,” he noted.

His skills also helped him to land an internship at a major consulting firm during his junior year, which resulted in a full-time job offer. While most students would have gladly accepted, Saunders declined.

“I loved my internship, but I didn’t want to become complacent,” he explained. “A lot of people there ... had the same skill set [as me].”

It would be harder to be a standout, he explained, so when he was offered a job at Accenture, he felt it was a much better fit.

“I’ll be working with engineers,” he said. “My cyber degree is so diverse. The courses that I’ve taken have prepared me for security plus certification. That is going to take my career to the next level.”

Paying it forward

While Saunders says that he found his Penn State home at the Multicultural Resource Center, Diane Farnsworth, the center’s assistant director and counselor, says that the MRC likewise found something special in him.

“He didn’t let any obstacles get in his way of losing focus,” said Farnsworth. “He’s really good with using his resources. He listens to advice. He follows up with recommendations. He doesn’t let things get in his way. He’s a very caring person.”

That’s why Farnsworth relies on Saunders to help inspire other multicultural students who need support at Penn State. As a recipient of the Brook J. Lenfest Scholarship, which recognizes highly academically-motivated students with high financial need from the Philadelphia area, Saunders had the opportunity to share words of wisdom with underclassmen, giving them tips on how to get involved and how to network.

Farnsworth clearly remembers two messages that Saunders conveyed to younger students.

“Find a group of friends who are competitive in the classroom,” she remembered him saying. “Surround yourself with those friends. It’s helpful to compete with students who are as academically focused as you are.”

She was also especially moved by Saunders’ advice to “not let a summer go by where you’re not doing something that will help with your career.” Whether it’s through an internship, a part-time job, or volunteering, Saunders stressed to the students the importance of always improving one’s skills.

“Maurice is helping to show other students like him that they do belong at Penn State and that they can achieve their goals,” said Lewis. “He is able to help other students who may have been struggling or homesick. At the very least, he served as a role model, letting other students know it is okay to ask for help and that everyone needs a support team.”

While Saunders’ time as a student worker with the MRC will come to an end when he graduates, his drive to give back will continue. He hopes to instill some of what he gained into other kids growing up in low-income communities.

“I want to do something big where I can make an impact,” he said, talking of a potential future initiative for groups of students from his hometown — perhaps distributing book bags or coats, sitting on panels, or endowing a scholarship. “I want to do something more than just speak to them. When your stomach is rumbling, it’s hard to listen to words.”

“He is so likeable and approachable, and has come from the same background as some of these kids,” said Farnsworth. “He can relate to them and truly inspire them.”

Those traits, along with his attentiveness, problem-solving, and professionalism, are why Saunders was chosen to receive the Student Speaker Award at this year’s MRC Annual Senior Awards and Faculty/Staff Diversity Recognition Reception. Farnsworth explained that while the other five recognitions presented at the banquet are nomination-driven, the winner of student speaker award is decided upon by the entire MRC staff.

“We knew that Maurice would share his experience and inspire others through his story,” she said. “He’s one of a kind, and I will truly miss him when he graduates. I’m so proud of him.”

Last Updated May 03, 2018