UW News

November 20, 2014

UW undergrad’s early life challenges become a hectic schedule of opportunity

UW News

David Coven’s Google calendar is a chock-full splash of colors.

On his weekly list are various speaking engagements, his class schedule, volunteer events, lab time, and meetings with the boards of his startup company and a nonprofit he heads.

David Coven in the lab.

David Coven works in an engineering lab on campus.Mary Levin, UW

But though Coven’s schedule looks frenzied and chaotic, his demeanor on a typical Tuesday afternoon is calm and collected. The University of Washington mechanical engineering undergraduate chats easily with a friend while entering yet another colored box in his online calendar.

For Coven, 20, this is all about making the most of opportunities.

“Work hard, work smart and ask people for help,” Coven likes to tell others who ask about his motivation. “People who are successful spend hours, days, months and years perfecting their craft.”

From starting his own company – and recruiting 11 friends to join him – and running a successful nonprofit to doing research in the lab and taking a full course load, Coven is an expert schedule juggler. He also has managed to entirely fund his education by earning a number of scholarships, including the Costco Diversity Scholarship and the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.

Coven last month got first place in the university category at the Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch competition in Seattle for his five-minute speech about Scholarship Junkies, his nonprofit that helps students secure scholarships by providing editing assistance and writing advice. UW bioengineering graduate student Alex Jiao won second place at the pitch competition for his team’s idea for a stem cell bank.

Last year, Scholarship Junkies – a group of about 25 undergraduates, doctoral students, and young professional volunteers who successfully earned scholarships in the past – helped about 200 current undergraduates around the country polish nearly 900 essays for various scholarship applications. Their efforts helped secure nearly 40 scholarships for students who now attend 17 different colleges.

“Our organization was on a budget of $1,300 for the entire year and we generated $266,000 in scholarship money for students,” Coven said. “Our message at the pitch competition was that the results are there, we just need to scale it up.” He plans to use the money to set up regional chapters, offer more workshops and events and recruit more volunteers to help read student essays.

Coven enrolled at the UW in 2012 as a freshman in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He had participated in the College of Engineering’s intensive Mathematics Academy the summer before his senior year of high school, which he says built the foundation for his later opportunities.

Mathematics Academy led to Coven’s selection for the National Science Foundation Research Experience & Mentoring Program in clean energy research, then the UW STEM Bridge Program, where he worked in a mechanical engineering cellular biomechanics lab.

“David hits so many of the criteria that we wish for in our UW students, all in one dynamic, optimistic and truly amazing person,” said Eve Riskin, engineering’s associate dean for diversity and access, who worked with Coven in Mathematics Academy.

Now, Coven is pursuing a mechanical engineering degree with a mathematics minor. He likes the flexibility the department offers and the range of topics he can learn.

In addition to his classes, Coven works in the lab of Christine Luscombe, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, creating materials for use in flexible solar cells to make them more lightweight and transportable, and to be potentially woven into fabric.

“David has a bubbly, outgoing personality and his enthusiasm is contagious,” Luscombe said.

Working in the lab alongside doctoral-level researchers is “intense,” Coven says with a smile. His experiments often turn out differently than expected, forcing him to start at square one again and again. But he says the experience is valuable.

“The thing I love about undergraduate research is you come in knowing nothing or very little and you learn a ton and get a lot of responsibility. You end up coming away day after day with Ph.D.-level analysis, techniques and understanding, no matter what year you are,” he said.

Coven’s company is Engineering Expectations, started last May with 11 of his friends and roommates. They focus on several different areas, including helping students find research and internship opportunities, teaching innovation through microlending, a home-sharing-like concept for storage, and even buying and selling specialized parts for longboards – a sport they are passionate about.

“The idea was to find something you can do and build with people you really care about and enjoy being around,” Coven said.

He grew up in Seattle’s Central District and went to Cleveland High School. Coven excelled in school despite a difficult childhood that included periods of homelessness. He finds exhilaration and escape in longboarding and still returns to the Interstate 90 pedestrian tunnel for a good ride with his best friend from childhood.

Coven said his close friends and a high school teacher were crucial to helping him succeed despite these difficulties.

“Being homeless was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he said. “It taught me the true value of success should be measured by the happiness we find, and can cultivate in others, rather than material possessions.”

He’s applying to the McNair Scholars program and hopes to go to graduate school when he finishes at the UW. But, depending on how his startup business takes off, he could pursue that.

For now, Coven appreciates being a student with a calendar full of opportunities.

“I always tell people, don’t be afraid to fail and understand failure is going to happen whenever you’re looking for something new,” he said. “If you never fail, you never understand and push the boundaries of who you are. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my entire college career.”