Young alumnus, Google executive creates scholarship in liberal arts

Susan Burlingame
January 13, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— Understanding how people interact with one another and “what makes people do what they do, especially in large groups” has always interested Jay Yonamine, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in political science at Penn State and now leads the data science and operations team in the global patents organization at Google.

Yonamine, 35, recently created the James Yonamine Undergraduate Scholarship in the College of the Liberal Arts to, in his words, “pay Penn State back for all it did for me.”

“Some people are interested in protons and electrons or astrophysics or fluid dynamics, but I just didn’t find those topics interesting. I was interested in understanding relationships and interactions between people, so I decided to study political science in college,” said Yonamine, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College.

A desire to gain more technological skills and to use data to understand people, predict behavior and forecast political unrest prompted Yonamine’s decision to attend graduate school. He made it clear when applying that he wanted a career outside of academe once he finished. However, he was surprised to learn that faculty members at many other universities would not be interested in working with someone who wasn’t planning to be a tenure-track professor someday.

“Penn State was different,” he said. “They welcomed me with those conditions and were very helpful in setting me on the path for a career outside academia.”

Yonamine was particularly interested in a program now called Social Data Analytics, which became the focus of his studies at Penn State.

“I sort of double-minored in computational methods — what we now call machine learning,” Yonamine explained, adding that he believes social data analytics, which focuses on computational methods, machine learning, and applied statistics as it applies to social data, is “the direction most social science graduate school programs will go in the future.”

Yonamine said the technological training he received at Penn State was “top notch” and the political science faculty members supported his career path by giving him the flexibility to take classes outside of the department. Acknowledging that he may not have attended graduate school at all if not for the stipend and tuition support he received, Yonamine said he thought about how he could help undergraduate students, especially those from underrepresented groups, afford to study social data analytics at Penn State.

“Given that my education was free and given how much the department supported me, I felt very indebted to give back,” said Yonamine, who opted to create a $50,000 scholarship endowment by taking advantage of a 1:1 matching program offered by Google and many other large companies.

“My hope is to provide support for someone from an underrepresented group who maybe doesn’t even know these options are out there.”

“Jay has been as exceptional a Penn State alumnus as he was a student,” said Marie Hojnacki, acting head, Department of Political Science and associate professor of political science. “The department is extremely thankful not only for his generous gift, but for the thoughtful way that he has tailored it to the needs of students from underrepresented groups. And as busy as Jay is with his work at Google, we’re very grateful for the time he devotes to helping and advising our current students and to serving on the department’s Board of Visitors.”

As a member of the Political Science Board of Visitors, Yonamine will advise, advocate for, and support the department as well as its programs and students. Widely recognized as a pioneer and thought leader in the data analytics field, he received the 2019 Penn State Alumni Achievement Award, which recognizes alumni 35 years of age and younger for their extraordinary professional accomplishments.

While his current position is not directly involved with political science, he said there are many parallels between what he does at Google and what he learned at Penn State.

“The methodologies I once applied to political data can also be applied in other domains including intellectual property and patents,” he said. “Would I have been competitive in this industry without it? Probably not.”

“It’s nice to know I set something up that will last forever and that I can continue adding resources to,” he concluded. “People who are successful almost always underestimate how others have helped them. I know how lucky I was. I just hope this scholarship helps someone.”

The Yonamine scholarship endowment helps to advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With support from devoted philanthropists who believe in Penn State and its mission, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

Last Updated January 13, 2020