Triumphing over Adversity: John Perna’s Journey to Academic Excellence

RIVERSIDE, CA - John Perna has a story to tell, and it’s not one many undergraduates share.

It’s an underdog tale that would have warmed the heart of author Horatio Alger who, two centuries ago, wrote stories about underprivileged youth that triumphed over adversity through diligence and hard work.

“I grew up very poor,” says Perna, who is set to graduate from UC Riverside this spring with a degree in Environmental Sciences and then enter graduate school at UCR. “My mom was a single working mother who worked three jobs at a time, and we lived in multiple homes that were condemned. All I remember from most of those situations was how kind of dangerous everything around us was. ‘Don’t play in that puddle! Don’t touch that dirt!’ It was like we were always living next to a Superfund, site because that’s where it’s cheap.”

The adversity didn't stop there. Perna graduated from high school with a 1.6 GPA, far below the 2.0 benchmark needed to be seriously considered for college placement. What’s more, that was back in 1999, making Perna 42 years old right now.

“In 1999, I swore off school,” he says. “I was never going back. I hated it! Me and school never clicked. So I got out and started doing odd jobs; pizza delivery, forklift driver, electrician, porter at a Mercedes dealership. I did that for four or five years. My girlfriend at the time got me to apply to the county and I ended up working there.”

John Perna

That job, as an office support “gofer”, happened to be in the Department of Environmental Health, and it was there that something clicked with Perna that harkened back to his hardscrabble boyhood. “I really gelled with their mission statement,” he says. They were the agency that inspected restaurants, tattoo parlors, hazardous materials sites and handled the application process that concerned septic systems and the like. “These people’s jobs were to go out and make sure that someone doesn’t do something that poisons the next family that lives there. I felt that I could get behind that!”

Trouble was, by Perna’s own reckoning, he was basically uneducated, so he went back to night school at Cal State San Bernardino – for nine years. “I went to school at night while working full-time during the day,” he says, “and found out while I was doing it that I really liked school!”

According to Perna, what were previously missing were the academic fundamentals. Although his reading comprehension was off the charts (he was voraciously reading Michael Crichton and Stephen King novels in 5th grade), it was mathematics that had been the stumbling block. “I never put the time in I needed to in order to excel,” he says. “That’s really what killed so much of school for me, [because] so much of the sciences are based on math.”

It was during night classes that Perna took an algebra course to test whether his theory that he was a math dunce held any real weight. “I had just broken up with my girlfriend at the time, and I had nothing else going on in my life,” he says. “So, instead of going home and going to bed after my work shift, I started with elementary algebra at night school and worked my way up from to calculus, micro-biology and biochemistry.”

Question answered.

But if you think that it was smooth sailing for Perna from that point forward, you’d be as wrong as he was about his aptitude in math. “Towards the end of my night school period I told my supervisor that UCR was my dream school,” he says. “I was born and raised here in Riverside but I didn’t know until I was 17 that we had a UC here! When I found out I was, like: ‘Whoa! I would never go, but that’s really cool that down the block is a world-class institution.’” At that point, Perna had worked for the county for 16 years.

On a whim, Perna applied to UCR with the proviso from his boss that on the off-chance he was accepted, she’d “back his play,” as long as for the year or so that he attended UCR he use all his vacation and sick time and come into work early and leave late.

A bargain was struck and, to Perna’s astonishment, he was accepted into UCR. That’s when adversity reared its head – again. Perna’s boss reneged on their bargain and told him to choose work or school. “I thought, I’m older, I should know that a verbal contract is only worth as much as the paper it’s written on. And it was Christmas weekend when she told me that!”

Perna did some calculating .He owned the house in Riverside where he had grown up, and started to cut his bills which kept “catching up” with his income. As a government employee, Perna says he had been “topped out” of his maximum earning potential for about seven years. “After quitting, the way I made it work was that I had the county cut me a check for all that vacation and sick time I had accrued,” Perna says. “They had to cut me a $20,000 check. I guarantee someone had one helluva meeting when I left. ‘We have to cut John, gulp! how much?’”

In addition to the financial cushion from the county, Perna works three jobs on campus; he’s a research assistant in the morphology, hydrology and plastic pollution lab, a STEM Connections Peer Mentor (link) and a CNAS Science Ambassador (link). He also quickly points out that he takes loans. “My thought process on it is that I will take every dollar given to me through grants, scholarships and loans and I’m putting it all into a banking account. I use what I have to use and when I get out of school, I’ll take all that money and dump it back into my loans and see how much I have to pay back.”

Perna says it would not be understating the case to say that UCR has altered the course of his life. “I was barely making ends meet, staring down the fact that I was going to have to get a second job if I was to keep my house,” he says. “Then I took that leap and quit my government job with retirement and benefits and came here and I just got accepted into graduate school here for a PhD program. UCR provided every opportunity possible to me. All I had to do was work hard and seize them!

“I always hear people say when they talk about UCR that the college will give you what you put into it,” he continues. “I truly believe that. I put in the work and am on the board of three different clubs here. I have three jobs. I took full class loads. It was a lot but in the end I’m going to be getting a free PhD. That seems well worth it.”

For incoming students, Perna says that they should resist the feeling that they might not belong at UCR, that in essence, they’re not good enough. “The ‘imposter syndrome’ is a real thing here,” he says. “I would tell them: ‘You got in. UCR chose you. You are here now and you belong.’ Feeling like you’re failing or that you’re not good enough is human and it’s how we all are wired, but you were chosen and you belong.”

Perna says that he has seen some students at UCR who feel the need to overcompensate because they think they aren’t doing enough and that can lead to burn-out. “Taking on too much becomes a self-fulfilling ‘I don’t belong here’ prophecy because they’re getting Ds and Fs. No, just take a breather. You don’t have to prove yourself, just get through it.

“I always had this image in my head about colleges – like an image from the movies – that sure, you have a couple of friends, but you mostly don’t know anyone and none of the administration cares about you,” Perna continues. “Faculty are doing their research, they don’t care about you, a lowly student. Instead, I’ve come here and I’m friends with administrators, deans, professors. I’ll walk down a hall and run into a professor I had eight months ago and he’ll stop me and say: ‘Hey, John, did you get into grad school? Why do you remember me, Dr. Porter, I don’t understand! And how did you know I was even applying to grad school?’”

After graduate school, Perna says he wants to stay local. “I don’t want to leave California. I love this state. I’m a SoCal boy,” he says. “What I want to do one way or the other is focus on remediation and mitigation of contaminants in disenfranchised neighborhoods and communities. I have a personal issue with the idea that there are people out there who are OK with this happening. It bothers me. So, that’s what I want to aim for.”

For the self-effacing Perna that journey might include teaching environmental science at UCR which he says is “not a lock.” But as one who has faced down adversity time and time again, we wouldn’t be surprised if Perna found a way to make it happen.



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