New scholarship assists first-generation architectural engineering students

Mariah Chuprinski
July 22, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Growing up in a rural, working-class town, Gary Brennen dreamed of becoming an engineer and worked hard to piece together funds to make that happen. Brennen, a 1982 architectural engineering alumnus, said his education at Penn State changed the course of his life completely.

Brennen and his wife, Claudia, recently established a $150,000 endowment, known as the Brennen Family Scholarship in Architectural Engineering, to help first-generation college students overcome financial hurdles that Gary faced in his early years.

“We wanted to provide financial help to these particular students so that they would have the chance to realize their ambitions as they face similar challenges and opportunities that I did,” Gary Brennen said. “And hopefully, with their degree in hand and a healthy career, they will also consider giving back to others to complete the circle.”

The scholarship will be awarded to three undergraduates majoring in architectural engineering per academic year, with preference given to students who show financial need and who are the first in their family to pursue higher education. 

Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and head of the Department of Architectural Engineering (AE), said low-income students are entering engineering majors at much lower rates than those coming from higher-income families.

“We need the best and brightest minds – from all income groups – educated and engaged to solve our nation’s engineering challenges,” she said. “Thanks to the generosity of the Brennen family, Brennen Scholars will obtain a world-class education in architectural engineering and enter the workforce with the utmost preparation.”

As Brennen was growing up in industrial St. Mary’s, his father worked as a maintenance supervisor in a pressed-metal company, then known as Keystone Carbon Company, while his mother worked the night shift at a Sylvania lamp factory. 

“My mom graduated from high school and my dad only completed 10th grade,” Brennen said. “My parents supported my desire to go to college and encouraged me to do so, but they did not have the financial means to help.” 

Brennen visited all of the factories in St. Mary’s, applied and interviewed for their various scholarships and secured several awards. With the scholarships combined with state grant money, financial aid, loans and working full- and part-time jobs every summer, he was able to make his education budget work. He graduated with his bachelor of architectural engineering degree in what was then known as the environmental option. 

Now, Brennen is co-president at Syska Hennessey Group, a global consulting engineering firm for the built environment, where he has worked in various roles for 38 years. As his first and only job after receiving his degree, Brennen progressed in the company from an entry-level engineer to a project engineer, project manager, principal, office manager, regional manager, and finally, as co-president beginning in 2008.

“From the beginning, the company gave me opportunities to lead and expand on my skills, setting me on a fulfilling career trajectory,” he said. “And the AE program gave me both practical and academic skills that made me immediately employable and valuable upon graduation. One of the biggest opportunities was when the firm asked me to relocate from our New York headquarters to help rebuild our Los Angeles office.”

Claudia met Gary in the summer of 1985 playing volleyball in Central Park when the two were working in New York City. She is a 1983 graduate of the University of Southern California, where she also was a national champion volleyball player for the school. Claudia worked in marketing research for Claritas in New York and Santa Monica, as well as for the Los Angeles Times. 

The couple has two grown sons, Tyler and Patrick, who work in mechanical engineering and business, respectively. 

This gift will 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 the support of alumni and friends, “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


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Last Updated July 22, 2020