Robert Penman
Executive Director, Undergraduate Admissions
University of California, Davis

What drew you to the world of college admission counseling?
I think like most of us in this profession, I didn’t go to school to enter the world of university admissions work. I came upon it by accident: first as a tour guide, then as my first job out of college. As a tour guide and first-generation college student, I enjoyed telling the story of my seemingly underrated alma mater; what I enjoyed even more was sharing my journey as a first-generation college student in the hopes that others could learn from my mistakes. I found the same joy in admission counseling, and that is what has kept me here for twenty years. My role has changed several times over the years and I’ve now worked at five different institutions, but the motivation remains the same.

What is your favorite part of the job?
I suppose my favorite part of the job has shifted over the past 10 or so years. Though my role doesn’t always allow the opportunity, I still find a ton of joy in working with students, parents, and counselors directly. Though, now that I’m in my 40s, let’s be honest: students usually don’t want to talk to me as much as they’d rather talk to another student. Still, I maintain a small territory, participate in holistic review, evaluate transfer applications, and so on. It keeps me connected to the core of what we do.

Today, I really enjoy working with my team at UC Davis. I see in them what I’ve always hoped others saw in me—passion, tenacity, creativity. My job today is to guide them as best I can through any situation we might face—whether that be budgetary, policy changes, shifting goals, or even emerging from a pandemic—and to help them grow in their careers (in whatever way that might be). As someone who is an introvert by nature, I often let imposter syndrome get the best of me. I never thought I’d find joy or excitement in the portions of leadership that require the most emotional intelligence, yet here we are.

How has NACAC played a role in your career?
I joined NACAC about 10 years ago and attended my first conference in 2014 (Indianapolis). I joined because I’d heard that it was the organization for college admission professionals and it was the place to expand your horizons and develop new knowledge. And, if I’m being honest, it was the first time I was allowed to join. My first conference was overwhelming (introvert!). I didn’t attend again until 2019 (and haven’t missed one since). What I learned between those years is that NACAC is so much more than an annual conference. NACAC delivers insight into the national political environment and advises on policy. It connects those of us who find this work rewarding, and helps us navigate the career path to leadership if we want it, and without pressure.

NACAC has really helped me get out of my own comfort zone. At our annual conference in Baltimore this year, I was surprised at how much my own network has grown over the past five years—and each of these are folks I can call on for advice and insight, whether they be in California, Colorado or Georgia, or anywhere in between.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our profession today? 
Younger staff jumping ship (and for good reason). The cycle is just so demanding. It used to be a badge of honor to have been a “road warrior.” But the world has changed, and younger staff are not taking it anymore. Over the past year, I’ve said “this is one of our busiest times of year” more times than I can count, and I’ve said it with all sincerity in every single month of the year. If every single month of the year is one of your busiest, when do we take a break? That’s not to say newer staff aren’t hard workers—I think UC Davis has one of the hardest and smartest working admission teams in the field. But folks are drawing lines and if institutions can’t adapt, we’re going to lose exceptional talent and leadership potential to other related professions that pay so much better and don’t require the amount of overtime required in admissions.

When you aren’t working, what do you like to do?
I love to cook and bake and spend time with my husband and our two dogs. We live close to the American River, so we take our dogs for a walk along the river a few times a week. I’ve also realized that I love to create, and that’s so far shown up in the form of knitting and quilting.

What five words would you use to describe yourself?
Analytical. Responsible. Accountable. Compassionate. Reasonable.


Published Dec. 11, 2023