Earth and Mineral Sciences

EMS alumnus establishes $500K Open Doors Scholarship

Penn State alumnus Jon Benesch (second from right) and his wife, Deborah (third from right), who created the Jon and Deborah Family Open Doors Scholarship in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, attend an event on the University Park campus. Also pictured are Lee Kump (right), dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and Jon Benesch's father, James Benesch and his wife Norma.  Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When Jon Benesch left his family’s rural homestead to attend Penn State, he never imagined the worlds that would open to him.

After graduation, the Penn State alumnus embarked on a long career as a petroleum engineer that took him to far-off places like jungles, deserts and the Arctic in journeys that spanned six continents.

“Those are the kinds of doors that a good education from this University opens,” Benesch said. “Now I’m hoping I can help others have similar experiences of their own.”

Benesch and his family will accomplish precisely this with the $55,000 gift they made to establish the Jon and Deborah Benesch Family Open Doors Scholarship in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Benesch retired after a 37-year career with ExxonMobil, and the company is matching his donation 3:1. A University match of 2:1 will further increase the fund to more than $500,000.

The Open Doors Scholarship Program aims to address the financial, academic and personal challenges undergraduates face earning their degrees. Donors create scholarships for students with financial need who are enrolled in one of five programs Penn State has created to help undergraduates succeed academically. Beneficiaries of the programs include students from low-income areas, those who are transferring to the University Park campus from another Penn State campus, those who are at risk of not graduating due to unexpected hardships, and others who may benefit from extra support. While the 2:1 University match has concluded, the University is still seeking support for Open Doors Scholarships.   

“While I was here as a student, I saw from time to time people wash out financially,” Benesch said. “It wasn’t a real easy thing for my parents to fund my education either. As I did well in college, the University saw a way to grant me some scholarship money. And that’s part of the reason I thought I’d give something back.”

Benesch received his bachelor’s degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences in 1980. That experience prepared him for his career and allowed him to become a world explorer and traveler.

“I wanted to see the world but was short of money,” he said. “Petroleum engineering was a good opportunity for that and to contribute to other societies and their peoples. Penn State worked hard to make sure people got plugged into jobs that counted both to benefit the graduates themselves and the areas to which they became deployed in their work assignments.”  

During his career, Benesch traveled to nearly 80 countries, worked in 33 and lived in 20. Along the way, he learned languages, experienced different cultures and even met his wife, Deborah, who is from Malaysia. They raised their son in several of these countries and he now attends Penn State.

“Lack of change is a stress factor to me,” Benesch said. “I love going to new places and learning.”

Benesch often helped establish new exploration drilling operations in far-flung frontier areas through a range of tasks, from finding office space and hiring staff to building the necessary infrastructure like airstrips and ports.

“They’d put an X on the map and say, ‘here is where we want to drill,’” he said. “The engineering starts to become a small scope. You basically run the whole project.”

Benesch said the department, now known as the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, helped prepare him for the challenges he faced during his career.

“It was a small enough department that it was very family oriented,” he said. “The faculty were very supportive, and they were real-world focused in what they taught. They showed you how the material relates to what you are going to see when you go out and get a job, plus use it.”

Benesch said he hopes the scholarship allows students to focus their attention on academics while at Penn State and to find their own fulfilling career paths.

“Penn State enabled me to have a very fulfilling life,” Benesch said. “I’d like to help students so when they are looking back later in life they feel the same.”

This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

Last Updated March 13, 2019