‘I Collect People’: A Penn State Student’s Winding Journey Of New Experiences
Have you ever met someone who is so accomplished and on top of their game that their sheer determination and the success they’ve achieved makes you want to be a better person?
People like this are rare, but they exist, and they’re among the 46,000 undergraduate students at Penn State. Soon-to-be alumna Deanna Spaniel is one of these people.
Spaniel’s road to success was not an easy or expected one. In fact, she didn’t even arrive at Penn State until she was a couple of years into her twenties and had already earned four degrees at another institution.
After high school, Spaniel attended the California University of Pennsylvania to study secondary education. Spaniel grew up in Newton, Pennsylvania — just 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh — so attending Cal U, located in a Pittsburgh suburb, was a natural choice for her.
However, Spaniel’s career as a Cal U student didn’t last long. After finishing her first semester, like many, she returned home for winter break feeling unfulfilled and confused about her career trajectory.
“I watched an entire season of Top Chef in two days and I looked at my mom and I said ‘I think I want to bake cookies for the rest of my life,” Spaniel said.
Two days later, she went back to her dorm at Cal U, packed up her things, and dropped out.
Spaniel ended up taking the next semester off to research culinary programs before going back to school at West Mooreland Community College, a reputable culinary school. After receiving a free ride to the school because her father was a culinary chef there, she spent the next few years working on an associate’s degree in culinary arts.
She ended up getting her associate’s degrees in baking pastry, restaurant management, and dietetics management. Despite her academic success, Spaniel still felt as if she wasn’t making the most out of her potential, and began planning her next venture.
At age 22, she opened her first restaurant. Spaniel worked the restaurant for a year, while also her completing her dietetics degree’s clinical trials, and working a full-time management position. After about a year, however, she finished her fourth degree and sold the restaurant to another owner. By now, it was 2014, and she was ready to take on her next venture: earning a degree at Penn State in food science.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with college majors, Spaniel soon figured out that food science was not the right path for her.
“My plan was to go to school for food science, but I realized pretty quickly that chemistry and I are not friends,” Spaniel said. “I found out I was very bad at science, and for food science, you need a lot of that.”
Instead of bemoaning the loss of a career path she had been certain was right for her, Spaniel shifted her energy to find something that would be a bit more fitting. Eventually, she stumbled upon a minor in entrepreneurship and bio-innovation and decided to start taking the required classes for the degree until she figured out what she wanted to do.
Within two weeks of her first entrepreneurship class, fortune stumbled upon her. Mark Gagnon, Spaniel’s professor, approached her regarding a project he had been hoping to complete.
“He was like, ‘Hey, I heard about your food background and I was curious if you wanted to research potato chips.'” she said. “At first, I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means.'”
He explained to her that he had dreams of starting a company at Penn State based around sports-themed colored potato chips that could be passed down from students to students over the years. Luckily for Agna, food-related start-ups were right up Spaniel’s alley and she agreed to work on the project.
After Spaniel spent about a semester researching the project, university officials told her that they didn’t want to take the project on, because it was too much of liability. There were too many questions regarding who would be responsible for the money involved, how much it would take to start up a facility, the risk of passing it from student to student and it running seamlessly, to name a few.
Despite the lack of reassurance, Spaniel wasn’t deterred by the setback. Blue and White Chips, as she had named the company, had taken on too much meaning for her to let it go by the wayside.
She teamed up with another student, and the pair spent the next few months developing the start-up on their own. They began getting involved with any Penn State groups that would take their product and catered events like Homecoming, TEDxPSU, and 3 Day Startup.
As the hype around her product began to build, Spaniel entered the chips in the annual Ag Springboard competition in 2016. To her amazement, Blue and White Chips won, and she finally had the funds necessary to partner with a potato chip facility in York. Though York is a three-hour drive away from State College, Spaniel was determined. For months, she woke up at 5 a.m. to drive and supervise production in the morning before driving back in the afternoon to attend classes.
Unfortunately, soon after the product took off, her partner graduated and left Spaniel alone. She decided to put the company on the back burner until after she graduates and can give it the attention it deserves.
But she didn’t let her partner’s absence hold her back. Throughout her time at Penn State, she’s worked as the TEDxPSU executive director for two consecutive years, been a part-time role consultant for four different startup companies around the country, and served as the student coordinator for the entrepreneurship department’s minor in food and bio-innovations, among many other positions.
For Spaniel, getting involved in this way and assuming so many different roles and positions has been a blessing and something she couldn’t have found anywhere else.
“I’m thankful for the opportunities Penn State’s given me, especially with a start-up company (Blue and White Chips),” she said. “Students don’t realize that there are so many opportunities here and ways to get money and start something.”
Spaniel still has a few classes left to finish up over the summer before she officially graduates, but the breadth of opportunity and experience that Penn State has provided her with has led her to places she never knew existed. The networking connections she’s made here introduced her to the world of restaurant consulting, a direction she hopes to follow as a career path.
“A lot of people focus on money whereas I ‘collect’ people, like learning people’s stories and what they’re doing. I dabble in a lot of things, but you can gain a lot of experience from them and the people you meet,” she said. “I like putting myself in crazy situations, but I get a lot of experience from seeing what bounces off of that.”
Spaniel’s biggest piece of advice she hopes to impart to students before she leaves this school for good is to get out and follow your passions no matter where they may take you. After all, you never know what opportunity might introduce you to people who can change your life.
“I don’t have any problems with pushing boundaries. I’ve realized that’s helped me get to where I am now.”
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