Steadfast supporter and role model for students earns Payne alumni award

Energy alumnus using decades-long career at Chevron to open doors for others in the petroleum field

David Payne, who has seen countless young professionals enter the petroleum and natural gas field, said Penn State graduates tend to stand out. They love to travel, advance in their careers and take on new challenges.

David Payne, who graduated from Penn State with a degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering in 1981, has worked around the globe for Chevron. He recently earned an award for giving back his time to the Penn State community. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

The same can be said about Payne.

Payne, who earned a petroleum and natural gas engineering (PNGE) degree in 1981, spent his 40-year career traveling the globe in search of energy hotspots to locations including Trinidad and Tobago, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. After decades in drilling operations, he shifted from vice president of drilling and completions for Chevron Corporation to corporate vice president of health, environment and safety within the company.

His work at Chevron — and his outreach in support of Penn State students — recently earned him the Graduates of Earth and Mineral Sciences (GEMS) Alumni Achievement award. The EMS Alumni Society gives this award annually to a graduate of the college who has excelled in their field. 

Payne was instrumental in securing the large gift made by the company to support the college’s Chevron Drilling Laboratory and providing funding to support the work of new faculty in that area.

Payne spearheaded this effort after a visit to Penn State where he discovered the lab facilities were in need of an update. He didn’t know then, but his efforts directly benefited him later when his daughter, Danielle Payne, earned her PNGE degree in 2014.

“I feel like I have an obligation to give back because I don’t think that I would be where I am today without my experiences at Penn State,” Payne said. “I was able to make mistakes in a safe environment and that taught me a lot. I feel like I owe Penn State something in return for allowing me to have what has been a career for which I have no regrets.”

Payne spent his career focused on advocating for Penn State students, improving opportunities for underrepresented people and increasing access to affordable energy.

Importance of Penn State students

Payne said his efforts at Penn State — where he’s also heavily involved in Penn State Chapter of the Society for Petroleum Engineers — are important to his employer as well as his alma mater.

He said Chevron relies heavily on Penn State’s caliber of graduate and leads efforts to ensure students begin their careers ready to contribute and grow.

“There are multiple reasons that Chevron would be interested in helping Penn State,” Payne said. “There are few universities where we recruit as broadly as we do at Penn State. Having access to some of the top talent is important.”

Because his field is always evolving, Payne said it’s important to find students who are able to adapt. That’s something that served him well in a career that shifted several times due to new techniques and technologies, the most recent being the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — to achieve secondary oil extraction of existing wells.

“You can’t prepare students for everything,” Payne said. “That’s why we want students who are inquisitive and are interested in figuring out how to learn as opposed to just doing something by rote memorization. Because things are changing all the time, this industry doesn’t look at all like it did for me when I started.”

Advocating for diversity

Payne learned early on the importance of showing people the wide-ranging potential for their career path. In fact, he was still a child.

Payne said his oldest sister once aspired to be a nurse at the age of 6. “Why not a doctor,” his parents asked before buying her a toy doctor’s kit. And, as an adult, that’s what she became. Another sister became an engineer. When Payne’s father — an elementary education teacher — attended Penn State for his doctorate degree, he encouraged his wife to do the same and took on some of her duties so that she too could earn her degree. She earned two master’s degrees after that. One of his two other sisters attended Penn State before earning her law degree and working as a consular officer.

These family values are what inspired Payne to double female representation in his field within the company. Despite his efforts, he struggled to do the same for black engineers, but he sees a path for the next generation to succeed on this front.

“Ever since I got into leadership positions, I've worked really hard to create opportunities for women and other underrepresented people,” Payne said.

Access to affordable energy

Payne said the next generation of leaders will be tasked with bringing affordable energy to billions of people who currently lack it. This, he said, will need to happen in a way that’s sustainable.

“In the U.S., our lifestyle has been made possible by access to affordable energy,” Payne said. “And people want what we have.”

As young professionals enter a business tasked with making fossil fuels sustainable in a low-carbon environment, their ability to adapt will be tested like never before.

But Payne said Penn State students will be up for the task.

“These are well-rounded, inquisitive students,” Payne said. “They come out of Penn State looking to take on new opportunities and meet these challenges.”

Last Updated December 14, 2020