Penn student Dave Joseph succeeds with drive, determination and the support of others

If Dave Joseph becomes prime minister of his native Jamaica one day, he will have achieved a long-time goal despite experiencing tragedy there. He says the island is a vital part of who he is and that it drives him to succeed.

"He dreams of working on Wall Street, then returning home to Jamaica to work in government or the private sector," says friend McKayla Warwick, who met Joseph at New Student Orientation when they were both University of Pennsylvania freshmen. "All of these aims are not only to reach personal goals but to give back to his family and his community."

Joseph lived with his family in the former Jamaican capital Spanish Town, in the parish of St. Catherine, until he was just 13 years old, a few years after his father was murdered. His mother then decided to relocate him and his sister first to Kansas City, Mo., with his grandfather and later to his grandmother's West Philadelphia home.

When he and his family moved to the United States, he says he wasn't going to, "waste the opportunity I was given."

"It was really tough," he says of his father's death, "and to this day I still can't wrap my head around it. I haven't gotten any closure, but I used it to grow from."

And grow, he has. He attended Philadelphia's Lamberton High School and, when it was slated for closure, he joined protesters to advocate keeping it open. Joseph moved on to Carver High School for Engineering and Science and during the summers attended Upward Bound and other mentorship programs for high school students at Penn.

"It was the first university that I ever stepped foot on," Joseph says.

A Summer Mentorship Program at the Law School gave him training and background on how the law works, but that wasn't what drew him to apply to Penn.

"The next summer I took ‘Leadership in the Business World.’ That's the program that sold Wharton to me. It was a very powerful moment for me when people told me I couldn't get into Penn and I proved them wrong. I acknowledged that Penn was the place for me, and I got in by using the resources at my school, being proactive and doing everything I could to show that I was a strong applicant. All my hard work came to fruition."

Other friends, mentors and professors all agree that Joseph, a first-generation student, has what it takes to succeed.

"He's the real deal," says Dana M. Walker, his freshman writing seminar professor. "He's a great, great person with an amazing work ethic, a student who helped everyone else in the room to do better."

Taking “Leadership in the Business World” also introduced him to a fellow Jamaican, Justine Murray, who was a teaching assistant in the summer program.

"He came off as a very genuine person and he had a drive that made me want to see him succeed," she says. "We connected because we are both Jamaican; it's a small country."

The two are now members of the Black Wharton Undergraduate Association and catch up at meetings, where Dawit Gebresellassie, who became a friend and mentor, is BWUA president.

"I've known Dave since his freshman year," Gebresellassie says, "and I oversee the work he and others do on the Howard E. Mitchell Memorial Conference we host every year.

"Dave is instrumental on the team developing the content of the conference and making sure it all is going logistically. He's a good member of the team," says Gebresellassie. "I've seen him grow since freshman year. He's always open to feedback and has become a mentor for others."

Gebresellassie says Joseph is now a peer mentor doing a lot with freshmen.

"He's developed into that leadership role, paying it forward."

Joseph, now a sophomore, is concentrating in finance and marketing at Wharton, impressing peers and faculty alike with his work ethic.

"Dave is one of the few leaders who can connect with everyone," says Ernesto Rosales, who met Dave while serving as his cohort leader during Wharton Orientation. "I've seen him grow throughout his time at Penn, where he's worked to make as much of an impact as he can all while maintaining his honest and kind self.

"I've also had the opportunity to see his leadership style and commitment in the Wharton Undergraduate Finance Club at Wharton," says Rosales, who added that Joseph helped to create the club's Finance Courses Panel, in which upperclassmen talk about their experiences in finance courses. "He created this event knowing that one of the biggest difficulties for students is not knowing what direction to take.

"Dave's the type of person who not only makes you feel better if you're down but also makes you try to be more like him," Rosales says. "He's an amazing individual because of his optimism, humbleness and kindness."

Laura Flippin, his Spanish professor, says one of Dave's most notable aspects is his positive attitude.

"He consistently arrives to class with a smile and gives 100 percent, not only engaging wholeheartedly in the course material but also with his classmates through his enthusiasm and dedication. One day, when I walked into my classroom, Dave was even playing music in Spanish for his peers!”

When Joseph was in Walker's class, she says, "he took a lot of initiative for his own learning, always trying to make his writing better. He embraced everything about his education."

His friend Warwick went further.

"His work ethic is such that, after everyone has gone to sleep, he is still up revising problem sets and grinding out applications for future endeavors. I often wonder where all of that drive comes from, but I recognize that pushing himself is how he achieves personal fulfillment."

"That's what gets me up in the morning," Joseph says. "Everything is a new challenge."

"I've been fortunate, and I didn't do these things on my own," he says. "Lots of people don't get these opportunities and I'm not going to waste mine, not for myself but for all those who don't have these life-changing opportunities. I can have an impact or make a difference in someone's life."

Joseph detailed many of these thoughts in an essay he wrote for the Better Make Room section of the website Medium, titled “Investing in Reflection.”

"I found out about this opportunity from a friend at Columbia," he says. "They were looking for students to write their stories. I decided the most important thing I could share was how I made it up until now and encourage others to do so.

"It's the first time I was published; it's mostly dedicated to my mom and dad," he says. "When my father was alive, he helped me become who I am today."

His writing professor says that, though she did not help him with this article, she can see that "he applied to that piece what we'd been talking about" in his class assignments on scholarly works, opinion-editorials and other assignments.

"He worked really hard and it shows in that piece," Walker says.

But his is not a life that's just about work, drive and determination.

"Dave makes time for the people who are important to him," Warwick says. "Every day I hear him talking to his mom in patois or asking his little sister about school. He frequently checks in with his friends from in Jamaica, from secondary school here in Philly and people who took classes with him during freshman year. I think he makes families wherever he goes."

Family is what it all comes back to for Joseph.

"My mom is very strong; I'm really proud that she stepped up to do the single-parent thing and really kept pushing us," he says. "She always wanted the best for me and my younger sister."

Joseph puts as much effort into plans for the future as he does his daily routine.

"I hope to establish myself at a financial firm for some years. I want to go into law since its always been a dream, and then I plan to return home to Jamaica to help contribute to the development of infrastructure for my people.”

As Warwick sums it up: "Dave has revealed himself to be a mainstay, someone who dedicates himself to building lasting friendships that go beyond the surface."

Dave Joseph