Ivy Leaf - Winter 2010

Making the world a better place through the free exchange of ideas


Cardinal Newman famously remarked that "growth is the only evidence of life." In our often complex and fast-moving contemporary world, there are few better places to nurture that growth and foster genuine change than higher education. Universities afford us with vital proving grounds for not only creating personal development, but for challenging the limits of our imaginations and allowing us to explore the capacity of our ideas to impact the life of our communities.

The university provides us with an evolving forum for engaging in free and open discourse - for shaping and challenging our ideas in a respectful and caring environment that encourages the expression of divergent, intellectually stimulating perspectives. These concepts are crucial to the central philosophy of the university as an unfettered space for intellectual debate where ideas, as opposed to the denigration of opponents with dissimilar views, reign supreme. This environment has provided our students with a valuable bedrock for taking their ideas into the world - and more specifically, into their communities - through their social activism and achievements.

There are few better examples of this kind of idea transformation than our college's proposed Rail and Transit Engineering four-year degree program. This bold new venture finds Penn State Altoona at the vanguard of seeking solutions for our nation's transportation challenges. By tapping into our community's railroad heritage, we are on the precipice of sharing in the development of new technological inroads.

Our college's green initiatives are yet another illustration. Through sustainability and eco-friendly programs, we have not only shaved a whopping quarter million dollars off of our utility expenses, we've succeeded in investing in a more environmentally sound future for our tiny corner of the planet.

Perhaps even more impressively, students like Becky Diehl, a senior English major from Warriors Mark, are taking their knowledge into the world through social activism in their communities. A volunteer for Blair County's First Book program, Diehl is fighting on behalf of literacy by making books available to underprivileged children in our service area.

Adrianne Brown, a junior Human Development and Family Studies major, and Jessalyn Kenner, a senior Human Development and Family Studies major, are taking their classroom experiences at Penn State Altoona and putting them into action in the world outside the University. They are making a difference in our community by offering parenting classes for women in Blair County Prison to assist them as they prepare to embark on new lives beyond the prison walls.

And then there's senior Communications major Cecilia Houser's recent campaign for political office in Ebensburg. Campaigning from door to door throughout her community, Houser shared her vision for making a difference in her borough. Houser's moving story vividly reminds us that we must dare to enter the world and engage, face to face, with our community.

As we reflect on such moments of social activism and interpersonal accomplishment, it is paramount that we remember the university's role in fostering the free expression of ideas and the wisdom for imagining changes that might yet make the world a better place. In this spirit, we might recall the prescient words of the late Dick Caram, retired associate professor of Theatre Arts at Penn State Altoona, who dared us to seek out new knowledge and experiences through language. "Only art," Caram wrote, "can accomplish the reformulation of experience into an artificial beauty composed of words and images and patterns of action which disclose, like a surgeon's knife, the magic beneath the skin of existence."

It is indeed through learning that the nature of our existence becomes even more evident. And when we better understand ourselves, we are eminently more prepared to embark upon lives of great meaning in which we can truly make a difference.