Senior Column: A Family Found
Life’s funny. I never thought I’d end up here, writing to you all from my seventh floor apartment on Beaver Avenue. As a matter of fact, I never thought I’d end up at Penn State until my life took an unforeseen turn during my senior year of high school.
I’m a city kid, and I wanted to stay that way. Temple, Saint Joe’s, La Salle, and yes, even Pitt were on the radar. What was my main criterion when looking at schools? I wanted to be a part of something larger than myself. And you know, I’m sure I could’ve been a part of great student bodies at each one of those aforementioned schools. But after my mom and dad unexpectedly divorced, and being mentally torn in every which direction from family and friends, it became very clear: I needed to get away for a few years. I needed to go somewhere calm. I needed something different.
So after touring University Park, watching numerous Youtube videos about THON, and attending a couple Penn State games with my uncle, I decided Penn State was the place, not understanding half of the experiences that would await me in the next four years.
I enjoyed my first four semesters away from home, living in first East Halls as a freshman then in West Halls, where the chocolate chip cookies are heaven-sent, as a sophomore. I camped out for every football game at (what was then called) Paternoville, joined the Lion Ambassadors, and led a successful THON committee. Everything was going pretty well, but I didn’t develop that indestructible bond for this place until… well… you know what I’m talking about.
Ironically, while my first two years here were relatively tranquil, my last two years here have been anything but. I covered the firing of a university president, “riots,” preliminary hearings in sub-freezing temperatures, the firing, death, and funeral of a legendary football coach, a trial of national interest, the release and interpretation of an arguably shoddy report, the removal of a beloved statue, turbulent Board of Trustees meetings, the imposing of historic NCAA sanctions, and many other wild things that I couldn’t have even fathomed when fellow editor Dan McCool brought me onto the Onward State staff in September 2011.
Regardless, whether it was reading the horrific grand jury report, listening to Mark Emmert drop “culture” bombs on Penn State, following the media merry-go-round at the Lasch Building last January, waiting nervously for Jerry Sandusky’s verdict or desperately asking the football gods “why?” after Sam Ficken hooked his fourth and final field goal wide against Virginia, I realized we, the students, the alumni, the faculty, the people who make this place special, were in this together.
While I reported on the insanity around me, not once did I forget that I was a student — that I was a Penn Stater. How could I? To suppress my fondness for the university and its people would be inhuman and make me some sort of unconscious robot.
But even amidst that chaos, there was a sense of serenity and solidarity. There were candlelight vigils. There were fundraisers for the victims of child abuse. There was that awe-inspiring glow above Beaver Stadium the week after Joe Paterno died. There were Blue-Outs. There were students who continually broke THON records when many (including myself) thought it was impossible. There was a football team who played for the man to his left, the man to his right and nothing else. There was a community who did everything it could to make this situation better — and is continuing to do so.
And, from this tragic awfulness and preserving unity, I found something. I found out why alumni come back Saturday after Saturday, year after year. I found a family here — something that I hadn’t had in years.
I was mistaken before. Penn State isn’t strictly about football, THON, and nope, it’s certainly not about Joe Paterno. It’s about the fans you interact with on Twitter who often invite you to their tailgates. It’s about that professor who forwards your resume to a future employer. It’s about those alumni who invite you to their wedding, even though you’ve only known them for a year, because they cherish Penn State as much as you do. That’s what Penn State’s about — that sense of community with thousands of strangers who’ve endured the same high and lows with you.
So here I am, 1,467 days after submitting my initial deposit to Penn State. I’ve found what I was looking for in college. I’m now a part of something bigger than myself — far larger and more awesome than I ever could’ve imagined. I’ve cheered with you in the stands, I’ve sobbed with you during family hours, and I’ve disagreed with many of your viewpoints. But still, I cherish my loud, dysfunctional family who trolls me in Facebook comments and invites me to bar tours almost simultaneously.
As the eyes of the world fell onto University Park last year, I felt an increasing need to showcase the great people and organizations at Penn State, and thankfully, I was able to do so as a Lion Ambassador. On many occasions, I ran straight from covering Penn State-related court hearings in Bellefonte to the Shields Building to lead prospective student tours. I felt an obligation to defend myself, to defend you, to defend the greater Penn State community from being thrown under the wide umbrella of falsely stereotyped “child abuse enablers” and “rapists” — and this sensation of responsibility remains today.
But my time is unfortunately up. I must move on into alumni-hood. The torch is now passed to the 32,000 undergrads and 8,000 incoming freshmen to carry the blue and white shakers into Beaver Stadium, can for a cure on suburban streets, and achieve success with honor.
To my fellow seniors, the hundreds of thousands of alumni who came before me, and anyone who responsibly and respectfully represented Penn State over the past 18 months, I thank you. You will always be Penn State to me, and I hope I’ll always be Penn State to you.
Lastly, I thank you for reading, but more importantly, thank you for restoring my sense of family again.
…Gonna be just fine.
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About the Author
If you think your family is going to take cute pictures at the Lion Shrine, you might as well stop trying. Saquon Barkley’s family has set the bar exceptionally high for that.
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