Alan Benson was raised in Palm Springs, California, which he calls “a very polarized city.”

“There are a lot of rich and famous people who retire there, but there are also a lot of disadvantaged people,” he says. “Few people from my high school had the chance to go to college and few had the ambition. And yet, I would see golf courses and mansions on the mountainsides. I was so aware of the inequality, and I just wanted to know why.”

The inequality drove Benson — who was the first in his high school ever to be accepted to an Ivy League school — to study labor economics to find the answers.

Now the 22-year-old graduate student is pursuing a Ph.D. in management in the Institute for Work and Employment Research at MIT Sloan. Last year, he graduated with honors from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor’s in industrial and labor relations.

In 2005, he spent a year at Oxford University’s Pembroke College, where he studied economics and management and earned first-class distinction. He was also invited last year to Izmir, Turkey, for an international students conference, where he made a presentation at Izmir University of Economics.

At MIT, his research interest is determining the cause of the current nursing shortage, which he first learned of from his parents, both medical doctors. A recent study, he says, estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of about 300,000 registered nurses, and the number is growing every year.

“One of the best rewards of the Presidential Fellowship is the social aspect,” he says. “The program offers a seminar series during the year, where you can meet the other Presidential Fellows, who are bright, analytical thinkers, and you learn about their research.

“The program has enhanced my life because now I feel much more connected socially at MIT than I would otherwise. I’m very grateful. An opportunity like this is so extremely rare that it’s really the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Benson’s dream is to become a professor at a large research university. His own academic experiences, he says, have helped him to clarify his future.

“My graduate experience has changed me. MIT’s worldview helped me to grow. I’m not just thinking about theory and isolating myself in an ivory tower anymore. Now, my aspiration is to produce research that will really help others.”