Ivy Leaf - Fall 2013

Finding the Servant Leader in All of Us

Penn State Altoona launches its newest student enrichment program, Leadership for Life.

By Sherry Fugitt Sullivan


I remember those hot and dry Oklahoma summers of the 1970s, riding with my grandmother in her Datsun station wagon to the diverse neighborhoods of the city.

Once we had arrived at each destination, she would hand me a Styrofoam food container, give me the name of the recipient, and tell me what money I should expect in return—often no more than a quarter or two. At only 7 or 8 years of age, I would walk to the door, somewhat hesitantly, to deliver a meal to a senior who was hungry and anxiously awaiting a nutritious lunch or dinner. And, quite honestly, it was a very good feeling to know that I had played a part in helping someone.

This is an experience that my grandmother’s four children and twelve grandchildren share. What we may not have completely understood at the time was that, as one of the founders of the Oklahoma City Mobile Meals program, she was working then to leave behind a legacy of service and volunteerism. Grandma Ruth Fugitt—“Mēmo” to most of us—went on to be chosen by President George H.W. Bush as one of the nation’s Thousand Points of Light, an honor that recognized “citizens aiding their communities through volunteer work.” From an initial donation of sixty dollars from the Neighborhood Services Organization in 1970, the Oklahoma City Mobile Meals program has grown to serve senior nutritional needs across sixty-eight churches.

“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good,” spoke President Bush in his 1989 inaugural address. “We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding … I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light … The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment …”

It is a message that prevails beyond political parties, religious beliefs, socio-economic conditions, cultures, lifestyles, gender, and age. And it is timeless. In 1970, Robert Greenleaf affirmed the idea in his essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Here, he describes the theory that “if a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant …”

Thus begins the mandate of the Penn State Altoona Leadership for Life (LFL) Program—a charter that has produced fifteen new community leaders this year. With impressive momentum behind the program, plans are being developed for the 2014 class and the graduation of another generation of service-minded citizens.

The Plan

If we step back a few years, we will find the real beginning of this story: the 1998 graduating class of Leadership Blair County. Here, the incubation began for a program that would give college students the opportunity to network and really understand how they—in their youth and with their untested enthusiasm—can contribute within their communities after graduating. Leading the way was Leadership Blair County graduate Shari Routch, better known to some as the Penn State Altoona Director of University Relations.

“There is the perception that no one wants to listen to you when you are in your twenties,” Routch explains. “But the reality is that they do. And, more importantly, they want the passion behind the idealism of those who are just graduating and ready to take on critical issues in their communities.” Fueled by the passion of students she sees everyday, Routch began to move forward with what student Meghin Kerila would call “a program that truly opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of giving back to not just the community but possibly to others who may not have a mentor to push them to pursue their hopes and dreams.”

Working with Eric Wolf, fellow Class of ’98 Leadership Blair County graduate and general manager of the Altoona public transportation system, AMTRAN, Routch began preparations for a non-credit course that would meet for five hours every other Wednesday for the spring semester and would give students access to speakers able to support and inspire the program’s premise that “once you graduate, wherever you go … whatever you do, you will be part of a community.”

“As we went through the process of developing a similar program for high school youth with Leadership Blair County,” Wolf reveals, “Shari always had this kind of college program in the back of her mind. When I got a call from her to help create Leadership for Life at Penn State Altoona, I knew I had to be involved. And we couldn’t have asked for a better group of students this year. They have been fully engaged since the beginning. The idea here is that in many cases, when students graduate, they take some time off from participating in organizations because they really are not sure how they should bridge that gap between the college involvement and civic involvement. Shari’s vision was to give them those tools and the perspective to stay engaged immediately following graduation.”

The Influence

Getting “whatever you need” support from Penn State Altoona Chancellor and Dean Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry was Routch’s first step in moving this program from a blueprint to a firm agenda for the spring of 2013. Launching with an all-day retreat, the LFL program quickly moved into a full schedule of presenters who left students with a more structured understanding of how they can participate to make an impact in their local communities.

One of those speakers, Penn State Altoona alum and Sheetz Inc. Chairman Steve Sheetz, spoke to the group about his personal experiences within the Altoona community and was impressed with the time each student is dedicating to the LFL program. “Given the time commitment these students are giving without receiving any credits, I know they are all very driven,” Sheetz says. “They see the program as being helpful for their development and are committed to succeed. I feel certain we will see a lot of successful people coming out of this program over the next few years, and it will be fascinating to look back in ten years and see what has become of them.”

Another speaker invited to share her experience with the group was Penn State Altoona alumnae and serial public servant Cecilia Houser. Involved in politics at a very early age, Houser ran for mayor of Ebensburg at the age of 21, while a student at the college. While she was not voted into office, her platform and involvement as a young professional attracted the attention of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania where she went on to be an assistant victory director for the Tom Corbett and Pat Toomey races. Additionally, she was chosen as one of fifteen women from Pennsylvania to take part in the Anne Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series, a program designed to give Republican women the skills needed to become political leaders. She was then selected for the position of executive director of the Republican Party of Cambria County and was ultimately relocated to Pittsburgh to serve as victory director for the Romney campaign. Today, at the age of 26, she is beginning the second year of her first term as a councilwoman for the Ebensburg Borough Council.

“I think the Leadership for Life program is an awesome way to encourage young people to get involved in public service, politics, and roles of leadership,” Houser explains. “It’s something that I would have really appreciated when I was younger. Sometimes you know you want to do something bigger than yourself, but when you’re young, it can be hard to figure out how to even get started. The Leadership for Life program does just that.”

In addition to regularly scheduled speakers, LFL offered students various networking opportunities. One of these was a speed networking session with members of GRYP, the Growth and Relationships of Young Professionals group within the Blair County Chamber of Commerce. In one of the final sessions of the semester, students were asked to debate the “for” and “against” positions of different issues including privatization of the social security system, the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports, and the use of social media in the hiring process.

Facilitating each week’s class was Tom Baker. Currently the chief community affairs officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, the president of Baker Leadership, the author of three books, member of the North Hills School Board, and the founder and chief program officer of Get Involved!, Inc., Baker, 34, has quickly built a resume of service that rivals that of a seasoned professional with a gold watch. In May, he won his party’s nomination in the primary race for District 1 representative to the Allegheny County Council. The son of altruistic parents, Baker learned the value of service at a young age.

“My dad was a special education teacher,” Baker says. “He was always very involved with Special Olympics, and we were always going from one event to another. He passed away when he was 39. I was only 12. My mom quickly became coach, teacher, and pretty much everything. This inspired me to carry on this tradition. There are so many ways to be involved. And, at Penn State Altoona, it is easy to get access to those people who can really educate and motivate. For those who are already involved, it can be an easier step to find growth and development beyond college. For others, it doesn’t have to be difficult. I have spent the last several years speaking on college campuses, and I know there are students eager to contribute after graduation. Penn State Altoona is one campus that showcases the opportunities they have.”

The Value

For Routch, creating the LFL program has had impact beyond what she expected. “I may have gotten the most out of this among everyone,” she admits. “Really, this has been a life-changing experience for me as I have watched the future unfold for many of our students. And that future is a very promising thing, in part due to our program. Even my children see it. There have been nights at home, after I have had a bad day, when one of my kids has said, ‘Mom, I bet you wish you had your leadership program tonight.’ Just in the first five months of the program, they can already see how much it has inspired me.”

This transformation extends beyond individuals and into the life of the university at Penn State Altoona. An institution that at times suffers from “brain drain” as high-potential students seek opportunities in other cities after graduation, Penn State Altoona is now the benefactor of students who are choosing to finish degrees in Altoona and live and work in the community due to the relationships they are building. One of those students is Diego Wu.

A student of Chinese descent who was born and raised in Mexico City, Wu moved to New York City in 2001 to live with his sister and grandmother. Though distanced from his parents, Wu remained on a track to complete an undergraduate degree in chemistry and advance to medical school with plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. Little did he know that in the fall of 2012, his life would change.

“Last year, Shari approached me about this program,” Wu explains. “She handed me this brochure, and she said, ‘You have to do this.’ I checked it out and realized that it was five hours every other Wednesday. I thought, ‘There is no way I can do this my senior year. It is too much time.’ I even handed in my application at the very last minute. Now, looking back, I cannot imagine what life would be like if I hadn’t participated in the program. It was flat out amazing.”

A former chemistry major who had already shifted his area of study to biology in order to complete his degree at the Penn State Altoona campus, Wu had become very involved in campus activities as a resident assistant. With the help of Maria Trego, the director of Residence Life, Wu turned in his application and was quickly given access to those who would help him solidify his trajectory. “For so many years, my life’s purpose had been med school, med school, med school,” Wu describes. “However, through my networking with Steering Committee member Brittany Solomon, I met Dr. Carroll Osgood, a neurosurgeon at Altoona Regional Hospital. He talked to me about how the medical world has drastically changed over the past years. He made me aware of other opportunities I might have.”

As of this writing, Wu is in Mexico City making plans to return to Altoona where he hopes to work over the next year while preparing for law school. And about his original concern that the LFL program would take too much time, there are many days when he wishes they were still meeting … every day.

Meghin Kerila is another student opting to remain in the Altoona area. A junior from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Kerila is studying communications and the media. “The LFL program taught me a lot about myself and answered a lot of questions I had about how I can volunteer my time after I graduate,” Kerila states. “I would love to be a part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters campaign to do just as their motto states: ‘to change a child’s life for the better, forever.’ Our facilitator, Tom Baker, was a huge inspiration to the program and really made an impact on me as he had countless stories of his experiences as a big brother.” This summer, she is serving as a legislative assistant to Pennsylvania State Representative Jerry Stern in neighboring Hollidaysburg.

The culmination of the seven LFL sessions was a graduation ceremony where students were given the opportunity to recount how the program transformed their lives. For Jessica Lattanza, the director of operations for Blair Medical Associates and LFL Steering Committee member, graduation was a watershed moment. “The stories, as told by the students, of their journeys through the program truly defined the success of Leadership for Life and were a testament that the vision had not only been met, but had been redefined by the students themselves,” she explains. “The impact and positive outcomes of the program were overwhelming. For many, the experience had truly become a game-changer for their futures.”

Sargent Shriver, an innovator behind the development of the Peace Corp., once said: “It’s the most rewarding thing to be a civil servant.” He was right; it can be very rewarding. In reflecting on my own family, I see the influence of our grandmother on the choices of many of us to pursue ways to be involved. That is the key: actively looking for ways to make a difference. For Penn State Altoona students, the idea of becoming a serving community member is no longer just for those who have waited for the opportunities to come to them. Seeking out their own passions, these fifteen students—through the LFL program—have set a new standard for what it means to be a leader.