University of Pittsburgh

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Make it Your Own

Legacy Scholarship launches research career

Written by Niki Kapsambelis

Legacy Scholarship launches research career

Jennifer Humensky was at a loss. Walking through Wimbledon, the London neighborhood where she had lived for a semester as a Pitt undergraduate, she realized that in little more than a decade, it had become nearly unrecognizable.

january2010-0071Everything around her was familiar, yet unfamiliar: Buildings had gotten taller. Traffic had swelled. Gone was the village from which she commuted on the Tube to her job in the heart of London’s political scene: In its place was a city neighborhood whose population was growing. She didn’t even recognize the street where she had lived with an elderly couple: “I literally walked past it and saw the street sign,” which caused a double-take, she says.

In many ways, that five-day trip to London in the summer of 2009 reflected Humensky’s own journey. Were it possible to ask the city, it probably wouldn’t recognize her, either. Now, with a PhD degree and a job as a postdoctoral researcher with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, Humensky has done some growing up of her own since interning with Britain’s Conservative party in the days just following Tony Blair’s rise to power.

Yet Humensky (A&S ’99), who graduated summa cum laude with a double major in economics and political science, can still vividly recall her days as a budding undergraduate.

She was known as Jennifer Kettren when she arrived at Pitt, her mother’s alma mater, in fall 1995. As late as May of her senior year in high school, she hadn’t been sure whether she would be able to attend. It was a stretch financially, and although she had earned one scholarship to pay for roughly half of her fees, it wasn’t until she learned she would receive the Pitt Alumni Association’s Legacy Scholarship that her academic future was secure. “For me, it was such a miracle,” she says of the scholarship. “It was what allowed me to go to Pitt. It opened up a lot of doors.”

Academics were never a barrier. From the beginning, Humensky had a game plan. “I sat down with the bulletins at the beginning and said, ‘I want to be a double major; I want to study abroad. How do I do this in four years?’” she recalls. Her only boundary was the scholarship: When it ran out, her coach would turn back into a pumpkin, so she decided to fit everything she wanted into the time she had available.

Humensky worked as an office assistant in the Department of Epidemiology, getting copies of articles from different sites around campus. That type of pre-Internet legwork came in handy when she arrived in London, where the Conservative party’s research department had just one computer with dial-up access, leaving Humensky to look up briefs and other materials the old-fashioned way.

Back in Pittsburgh, as part of the Christian Student Fellowship, she met her future husband, Brian Humensky, now a research scientist in Chicago. The two were married in 2001. During the intervening years, Jennifer attended graduate school at Georgetown; worked at Mathematica, a nonpartisan policy research firm; and entered a PhD program at the University of Chicago.

It was Brian’s job that took Jennifer back to London for a visit in 2009, and the couple rented a car and drove throughout England and Scotland. They also return to Pittsburgh occasionally to visit family—Jennifer’s mother still lives in Latrobe, Pa.—and for friends’ weddings.

Currently, she is using reams of government data to study the effects of substance abuse on employment outcomes for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She sees her future in researching health services to formulate domestic policy and is excited about the opportunities available at the VA.

A life member of the Pitt Alumni Association, she says she will always be grateful for the scholarships that gave her those early opportunities and for the campus that allowed her to forge her future.

“Pitt’s a huge campus, but once you find your niche, you have really good, close friends,” she says. “There is a lot of room to make it your own.”