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Paying it forward: David Coven on generosity in engineering

By Chelsea Yates
January 3, 2017

ME senior David Coven shares why he chose to study engineering and how he finds opportunities to practice compassion and generosity — two of his guiding values — everyday on campus.

David Coven by Drumheller Fountain

Mechanical engineering senior David Coven has worn many hats since starting at the UW in 2012: In addition to being a full-time student, he’s held research positions in cell biomechanics and materials science labs on campus as well as internships at Boeing and Tesla. He’s co-organized Dubhacks, the Pacific Northwest's largest hackathon, and currently directs aerodynamics and structures engineering for the UWashington Hyperloop team. And, since 2013, he’s led Scholarship Junkies, a nonprofit that helps students nationwide secure scholarships through essay writing advice, editing assistance and access to a comprehensive online scholarship database at no cost.

He recently sat down with us to discuss why he chose to study engineering and how he finds opportunities to practice compassion and generosity — two of his guiding values — everyday on campus.

Mechanical Engineering (ME): Tell us about what led you to the UW…

David Coven (DC): I grew up in Seattle’s Central District and went to Cleveland High School. I did pretty well in my classes despite some difficulties at home, the biggest among them being the periods of homelessness my family experienced. Even though I liked learning things in school, I was frequently absent from class because of homelessness. No kid wants to show up at school if they haven’t been able to shower for a few days, or sleep. It makes you feel really embarrassed and unworthy.

However, with support from friends and an amazing high school teacher, I was eventually able to secure housing, which allowed me to really focus on schoolwork and attend class regularly. I wanted to go to college but didn’t think it would be possible for me financially. But then I learned about Scholarship Junkies, and things began to change…

ME: How so?

David Coven standing with fellow Scholarship Junkies volunteersDavid Coven (left) with fellow Scholarship Junkies volunteers at a 2016 Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship event. Photo credit: Matt Hagen

DC: In high school, I participated in Math Academy and Samson Lim, Scholarship Junkies’ founder, visited our class. Sam shared great insights about applying for scholarships, a process that can be really overwhelming for students. Thanks to his advice, and the encouragement from one of my teachers, I applied for a bunch of UW scholarships and was fortunate to receive a few, like the Costco Diversity Scholarship and the Washington State Diversity Scholarship. Because of them, I could attend the UW. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to entirely fund my education thanks to scholarship support.

You know, being homeless was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. But it taught me that the true value of success should be measured by the happiness we find, and can cultivate in others, rather than material possessions.

ME: What made you want to study engineering?

DC: Honestly, mostly because of Iron Man! As a kid, I was fascinated not just by the cool Iron Man suit and devices that Tony Stark built but more by the ideas they represented. Tony Stark had the ability to imagine something in his mind, work through it using math, science and engineering, and actualize it. When I realized that, as far as superhero abilities go, his were actually somewhat attainable, I set my sights on engineering.

ME: And you also started working with Scholarship Junkies not long after starting at the UW, right?

DC: Yes, I started volunteering with Scholarship Junkies shortly after I came to the UW. I loved that it gave me a space to actively participate in ‘paying it forward’: I was getting a UW education thanks to the help of others, and instead of feeling like I had to repay them, I became more interested in extending generosity to those who could use it. When Sam moved to New York for grad school in 2013, I was asked to take over leadership. How could I say no?

ME: How do you apply ‘paying it forward’ to your everyday life as a mechanical engineering student?

DC: Every day I try to work on the world around me as much as I work on myself. Mechanical engineering has been a great fit for me because of its intersectionality with so many areas. It’s giving me a strong set of skills in analysis, mechanical design and problem solving. I’m particularly interested in aerospace, renewable energy and sustainability, and in projects that have a large, meaningful impact. Because of mechanical engineering, I’ve interned with companies whose values align with mine: Boeing, which is committed to making the skies safer, and Tesla, where advancements in renewable energy are revolutionizing transportation technologies.

Building community is also really important to me. Most UW engineering undergrads start as pre-engineering students; they don’t have a home department until they apply and are — hopefully — accepted after their first year. So there’s not always a built-in structure or sense of collective identity for students from the start. But we often do our best work and are our best selves with a supportive community! I strive to find ways to connect with others, help people when I can, and also look to them for the support I need.

ME: You hold leadership roles with Scholarship Junkies, on the UW Hyperloop team and with Dubhacks. How have your experiences in mechanical engineering helped you cultivate the skills necessary to be a leader?

DC: Mechanical engineering has taught me to see through a dense layer of information to analyze the underlying issue, then build an understanding, and move into problem-solving. I’ve learned how to navigate multifaceted projects and how to divvy up responsibilities based on experience, specialties, interests, availability and so on.

ME: This is your last year as an undergrad. What advice do you have for students — both current and incoming?

DC: Don’t be afraid of failing, and know that it happens to all of us. When it happens to you — and it will — try to understand what you can learn from the experience. Ask for help and advice when you need it. People like to help! School — particularly engineering — can be a very intense space to exist in. It seems that a lot of students focus their time here solely on coursework and getting the best grades they can. And when they don’t make the best grades, they’re crushed.

I wish more students took advantage of alternative and experiential learning opportunities. For me being involved with UW Hyperloop, Dubhacks and Scholarship Junkies have been invaluable in this respect. And, if you can, put some time into researching and applying for scholarships! There’s so much scholarship money out there that goes ungifted every year — it’s pretty amazing. Take advantage of resources like Scholarship Junkies. If we can help more students access scholarship funding, perhaps this means more students will be able to take more time to focus on creating their own unique Husky experiences, instead of feeling like they have to plow through classes in four years to keep their student loans down.