David Chen is a natural empath; he is always putting himself in others’ shoes. One of our outstanding graduates from the 2020 class, Chen has leveraged his unique skills to create communities and mentor many first-generation students in their journeys through college.
Being a first-generation student himself, Chen wasn’t initially sure he would be able to attend college.
“Education was always a priority to me, but I didn’t really understand how the process worked,” he says. “My peers had parents and siblings that they could ask for advice, but I didn’t have that. I had to rely on myself to reach out to others because my parents could only do so much for me.”
Chen received a substantial scholarship as part of the Dell Scholars program, enabling him to pursue his dreams at The University of Texas at Austin. He says it provided him with the financial agency and individualized support he needed to navigate through a school as big as UT. He was greatly humbled and started on his path majoring in human dimensions of organizations (HDO) and minoring in Chinese.
HDO in the College of Liberal Arts teaches students to use the disciplines of the liberal arts — the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences — to understand human interactions and how organizations function best to serve individuals. Chen strove to do just that.
But when he first stepped foot on the UT Austin campus, he felt lost and anxious.
“Feeling a sense of belonging at the start was my biggest challenge,” says Chen. “I saw all these students coming in, and they’re building apps, there’re starting organizations, they’re writing magazines. It was all very overwhelming to me because I was just coming from a little suburb of Houston with no prior expectations in mind.”
Chen hesitantly joined a few student organizations.
“At first, I thought, Oh my God, I’m never going to make friends here. But then I went to an org’s event and got invited to an officer’s apartment.” Chen laughs, recalling the story, “I’m like, what? I just met you! We hung out and it was such a good time, and it really dictated the rest of my college experience.”
As Chen became more involved, he realized that he shouldn’t compare himself with others. “Be happy for other people’s achievements and use that to empower you,” he says.
Chen has always been passionate about building strong community relationships, so he quickly joined the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective, supporting diversity and cultural awareness; and the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association, a humanitarian volunteer group.
Chen wanted to empower other students in return, and his newfound confidence fueled him to become a Dell Scholar Ambassador for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
This is the role in which Chen helped other first-generation students navigate through college — a highly individualized and time-intensive process — but nonetheless one of his “most invaluable and memorable experiences” during his time at UT.
“Serving as an ambassador opened my eyes to how other students are affected and how to communicate and help them, given their diverse backgrounds,” says Chen.
In addition to listening and advising on personal concerns, Chen also assisted students with their financial aid packages, helping them through every step of the process and making sure they had access to the right resources.
Though the cases may differ from student to student, Chen witnessed within all of them a resiliency in the face of obstacles and enthusiasm to achieve their goals — closely mirroring his.
“I’ve come to learn that education is so important because it opens so many doors, and being at UT, that’s what we pride ourselves on — our quality of education and our access to it,” he says. “It’s amazing to see that we all want to achieve, and we all hope to make our parents proud.”
Chen says he is thankful that he has had this opportunity to be a mentor for other students like him.
After graduation, Chen will work at a technology firm in Austin, with plans to eventually transition to an educational nonprofit.
Chen is now finishing his last final exams and papers while at home. He says he misses participating in many of the UT student organizations he’s joined, particularly the more active and volunteering-based ones.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s changed,” he says. “A lot of my orgs are very social and in-person. We have meetings every two weeks, and we just get together and do stuff. Now, I feel like I’m just going through rounds of online classes and lectures.”
Chen looks forward to graduation, though. “I do have ideas for celebrating,” he says with a chuckle. “I really want to relax and enjoy time with my friends, and — if it’s safe then — maybe even have a little housewarming party because I’ll be moving back to Austin soon.”
Chen’s advice for incoming and current students? “Stop being so critical of yourself, and don’t put yourself down just because you feel like you haven’t done anything compared to others. Getting into UT itself is a great achievement, and that’s the start of something remarkable.”