Peeling Back the Onion - Spring 2010 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Spring 2010

Peeling Back the Onion

By Sherry Sullivan

The timing of this article could not have been more perfect. You see, I had just watched the recent Academy Award-winning movie, "The Blind Side." Now, for any of you college football fans who haven't seen it, let me take this opportunity to pass on my recommendation. As the daughter of a former Nebraska Cornhusker center and left tackle (sorry, Nittany Lions fans), I get the whole college football thing. I really do. So, this movie made quite an impact.

And it made an impact for reasons beyond just the passion and tradition underlying the world of college football. The protagonist in this story, real-life NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher, had been dismissed through much of his life as nothing more than a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Memphis, Tennessee. However, a remarkable family, the Tuohys, saw beyond that one perspective and started to, as they called it, "peel back the layers of the onion."

I suppose it is human nature. We quickly judge, and we quickly dismiss without always taking time to understand the separate components of a person, a situation, or - as relates to this article - a university. Today's universities face challenges in ensuring the safety, well-being, and academic progress of each student. Unfortunately, in many cases, universities and colleges are judged on their failures rather than successes. I began thinking about the adage, "no news is good news." Switch it, and you get, "good news is no news." It was time to begin peeling back the layers to find the good news.

And while there is good news to be found on each Penn State campus, my focus was set on the incredible things happening to guide the lives of students at the Altoona campus. I began my search by speaking with Sean Kelly, director of Student Affairs at Penn State Altoona.

Kelly, in describing the realities of student life, states, "Ninety percent of the students are making the right decisions and positive lifestyle choices. For those students making high-risk decisions, we cannot always be there to protect them. Anything can happen at any time. Our role is to educate these students and support them in finding a healthy and safe living-learning environment."


One of those special living options designed to support students in both their academic pursuits and personal growth at Penn State Altoona is a special on-campus living program called, quite simply, L.I.F.E. (Living in a Free Environment). In existence for nearly a decade, L.I.F.E. offers students a unique residence hall experience where all members promise to abstain from the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco products at all times. Presently located in Spruce Hall, L.I.F.E. provides a wide range of amenities in addition to a solid program agenda in leadership, socialization, and friendship opportunities for each member.

"Students have to make this a personal choice," explains Residence Life Director Kathleen Shupenko. "L.I.F.E. is a purposeful environment built around commitment and personal accountability. We are working to tap into that group of students who have made a similar commitment to their communities at home, and we are bringing that to the Penn State Altoona campus. And while this is a campus initiative, it is the students that are making the commitment and living it. It is not just a pat on the back of those who have created and are running the program. The credit really goes to the students. They are the champions."

Erika Frey is one such champion. A sophomore from Germansville, Pennsylvania., majoring in geosciences, Frey is following in her sister's footsteps as a L.I.F.E. resident. "My sister warned me that there would be parties out there," she admits, "but she told me that there were options to do other things and just have fun with my friends. And she was right. There is the stereotype that all college kids drink and party. The first semester sets the tone, and if you start off on the wrong path, it is much harder to get back on. For me, the decision was to put school first."

The decision to live in the L.I.F.E. special living option is often a family decision. Heidi Desmond, a freshman and resident assistant-in-training from Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, received input from her parents who thought this would be a good option for her. "When the information arrived in the mail, my parents wanted me to take a serious look at L.I.F.E. But the decision was mine. It really does help keep us on track, and I know that without it, some of the L.I.F.E. members would have been tempted to get off track. There are things to do every weekend — things that are fun. We are never bored."

In fact, L.I.F.E. is the antithesis of boring. Students have the benefit of numerous programs and events that give them an outlet for socialization while fostering individualism, a sense of community, civic responsibility, and an appreciation for diversity. On March 17, the Office of Residence Life joined with the Health and Wellness Center in hosting a "Friends for L.I.F.E." St. Patrick's Day social event. An alternative to other more traditional and high-risk parties and drinking opportunities, this celebration offered students food, dancing, a Wii tournament, and other activities that showcased the alternatives that college students have for productive and safe entertainments and interaction with friends.

On that night in March, Resident Assistant Cody Reid kept things moving as D.J., something he enjoys in his free time. A sophomore in communications from Queens, New York, Reid came to Penn State Altoona with help from SMART, the Student Minority Advisory and Recruitment Team, leaving behind what he calls "an educational system that wasn't all that great." In fact, Reid graduated from a high school that was recently ranked by the NYC Department of Education at number two in suspension rates out of all high schools in New York City. "I am not from the typical L.I.F.E. environment," Reid explains. "I am used to seeing drugs and alcohol around me. For some, parties and underage drinking are fun, but there are repercussions. In the long run, that direction goes absolutely nowhere. I have seen it. L.I.F.E. has shown me so many other ways that we can have fun while maintaining a clean lifestyle. I am heavily influenced by those around me, and I don't feel alone."


Another special living option, Discover, is exclusive to first-year undergraduate students, offering them a residence hall-based opportunity to explore several different academic programs and majors at Penn State Altoona. Similar to L.I.F.E. in its approach to working with students in a living-learning environment, Discover gives students focused, individualized attention with staff and faculty from the Office of Career Services, the Learning Resource Center, the Division of Undergraduate Studies Office, and all academic departments. Tanya Palovich-Scott, assistant director of Student Life, has worked directly in the development of the Discover program, which is a new opportunity for students this academic year. "Discover is meant to give students a place to explore the different majors and to help them make good decisions," she states. "It is definitely designed to help students stay on track during the first year — a time that is so critical in their academic lives and career development."

Rebecca Maguda is the director of the Career Services Office. In her work with the Discover resident assistants and residents, she is seeing a very positive impact on the lives of students. "Our goal is to provide these first-year students with intentional programming to get them focused on a major," she explains "We have seen that if they have a clear direction, they are much more engaged and have a higher rate of success. Currently, we have two floors of Maple Hall dedicated to the Discover program, but we are working towards making the entire building a dedicated Discover hall. Combine this with the small class sizes at Penn State Altoona, and I think these students are getting the best experience possible."

Affirming outcomes

While these living-learning options serve an increasing population of students, not all students can or desire to live on campus. However, they are part of the larger student body whose well-being and overall academic success is the focus of administrators, faculty, and staff. These priorities have shaped the development of a wide range of initiatives. From student clubs and organizations to FTCAP, the First-Year Testing, Consulting and Advising Program, Penn State Altoona is committed to involving students in ways that present affirming outcomes.

One very positive component of the Penn State Altoona experience is the focus on the safety and wellness of all students. The fall 2009 issue of Ivy Leaf covered the numerous programs offered by the Health and Wellness Center to address each student's individual set of circumstances and needs. Taking a very proactive approach, the Health and Wellness Center, along with the Office of Judicial Affairs, has developed and presented numerous programs focused on prevention and safety. On March 15 and 16, they sponsored an underage drinking and DUI demonstration on the grounds of Penn State Altoona. This gave students the opportunity to make attempts (though unsuccessful) at driving the DUI simulator. Additionally, this event featured the DUI Victims' Moving Memorial, a 25-foot wall printed with names of known DUI victims in Pennsylvania.

Ryan Service, assistant coordinator for Judicial Affairs, helped organize the event. "Safety comes from education," he states. "This is a college campus, and we cannot control all of the choices made. But it is not just about the use of these substances. While that is part of it, we try to help students understand the other things that happen as a result - the unwanted behaviors and events. We want them to be safe and to understand how they can be responsible in what they are doing. We want to see them succeed now and going forward."

Henry David Thoreau, an insightful commentator on the human condition and arguably one of America's greatest authors, would have, I believe, challenged us all to take time to peel back the layers in whatever we do. "It's not what you look at that matters; it's what you see," he observed. And the truth is that you really cannot tell a book by its cover. The story of Michael Oher is one of possibility and personal growth because the Tuohys took the time to really see. And here, as we take the time to truly see the support systems created for students at Penn State Altoona, it is good news. And that certainly is not no news.

For more information on student living-learning opportunities or other student support programs at Penn State Altoona, contact the Office of Student Affairs at 814-949-5053.