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Student Body President Laura McKinney’s Love Letter To Penn State

Dear Penn State,

I have been staring at a blank page for the past few days trying to wrap my head around how I could possibly write about how much this university has meant to me over the past four years. I knew if I wrote it down, I would need to face a lot of emotion, therefore making everything seem so real. I’m glad I did.

This one is for you, Penn State. I love you.

My four years are ending just as they began — unexpectedly. My Penn State journey started in 2016 when I moved from South Florida up to Pennsylvania, not knowing anyone and only bringing a light sweater for the winter. If that doesn’t tell you how unprepared I was for what was to come, I don’t know what will. All I knew for sure was that when I stepped foot on campus, I got one of those supernatural feelings you get in the pit of your chest. A sense of purpose and understanding beyond anything I have ever felt before. A soul feeling. I knew to my core that the next four years were not going to be average, something extraordinary was going to happen, and I was going to follow that feeling until I arrived at it.

I did what most do the fall of their freshmen year, I bonded with my floor in East Halls (shoutout, Stone 3), went to the involvement fair, signed up for just about everything, tried rushing a sorority, did service opportunities, explored downtown State College, had my first meal at the Corner Room, ventured to the fraternities on the weekend, experienced my first football game in Beaver Stadium (and was taken by surprise when I started to get lifted in the air after a touchdown), had my first chicken basket, and of course rushed the field when we beat Ohio State.

In just my first month, Penn State gave me so much, and I knew I not only wanted but needed to give back to it. I asked myself, “How could I ever give back to a place that is so giant? Could I even make a difference?” So I went on a search of how I could, and it landed me standing outside the door of the University Park Undergraduate Association…literally.

The UPUA is Penn State’s undergraduate student government at University Park, and its office is on the third floor of the HUB-Robeson Center. It looked pretty fancy compared to the other offices surrounding it, so I was nervous. I timidly knocked on the door, and when someone answered, I said with a shaky voice, “Hello, how can I get involved?” I was told that the application to join the Freshman Council had just closed and that they were no longer taking other applications at the time. I swiftly thanked the person and ran back to my dorm.

A day or two passed, and I still was thinking about the UPUA, so I emailed them, asking if there was any chance I could still apply. I got a response early in the morning saying that if I could get my application and resume to their office by noon, they ~might~ consider me. So naturally, I sprinted to the HUB and left my application on a desk in the office.

I was not expecting to hear anything back, but they offered me the opportunity of a phone interview that day, and by that evening, I was a member of the UPUA. So, really, I wasn’t even supposed to be here. Again, an unexpected twist to my Penn State experience.

Fast forward four years and that barely 18-year-old girl who was sprinting around campus stressed, confused, and excited is now 21 and the president of the University Park Undergraduate Association. If you were to tell that girl that she would now be the student body president, she would not have believed you.

Nothing could prepare a person for becoming a student body president, even when you serve as vice president beforehand and think you may have it figured out, it still has its own shock to it. You walk into a position that allows you to hear first-hand what 46,000 people are passionate about.
Then, it is up to you to try and determine how to make sure all of the opinions, thoughts, and ideas of those people are accurately represented and heard.

Working as student body president has humbled me beyond this world. I have had conversations with students about financial struggles, food insecurity, diversity and equity, free speech, academic rights, mental health and wellness, sexual violence awareness and prevention, career success, student journalism, university philanthropy, health services, women empowerment, library resources, transportation, and Greek life, just to name a few. I have cherished and learned from every single one of those conversations.

There is a moment of gratitude each time I sit down with a student in which I can see in their eyes how much they care about what they are talking about. Whether it comes from a point of pain, frustration, or excitement, there is nothing in the world like witnessing a person pour themselves into something that is important to them.

And the thing that stands out to me the most? That students protect, care, and value one another.

Often, students meet with me to raise issues for not just themselves, but a group of students. This has shown me how powerful the Penn State community is and how impactful our generation is going to be. After watching students over the past four years, I am certain that our generation is going to be the one that saves the world. We may be underestimated, but we are strong. Just wait.

While I have been trying to understand students to the best of my ability over the past few years, I have also been trying to figure out who I am like any other 21-year-old. I don’t have it all figured out, in fact, far from it, and it is important to note that anyone could have done this job.

However, after these years here are some takeaways or words of advice:

  • Never let anyone tell you being kind is a bad thing or a weakness. Kindness is power.
  • You will fall down. Many times. But that is a good thing, and college is time to embrace those falls.
  • There is always more to learn. You will never know everything.
  • Say yes, more than no.
  • Listen to first-year students. They are far smarter than you think.
  • If you want something, don’t take no for an answer. Try again. Who knows where it will land you.
  • Treasure the small moments with your friends. Whether you are walking to class together, eating Canyon Pizza at 2 a.m., having a late-night study session in the library, sharing a tray of Phyrst fries on a Wednesday night, making your way to a gameday tailgate that seems like it is five miles away, sitting on a sunny HUB Lawn after a long winter, or taking a walk around the Arboretum. All of it matters. Every single second. Savor it.

To my peers and fellow members of the student body, I know this is not how we wanted to end our respective academic years. This is a painful time for many. It hurts to know that people around the world are hurting. There are moments of feeling helpless and hopeless. Questions are probably swirling around your head about what this means for life from here on out. Things are going to be a bit different, and that takes adjustment. Trust me. I have felt all of this too.

Through it all, however, I have seen our Penn State community rise up and be incredibly brave in the face of everything. I see students tackling the challenge of switching to online courses, I watch as friends reach out to one another to check on each other emotionally, and I see Penn Staters using
their connections through the community to support those in need around the globe facing this pandemic. The unity I am witnessing is unlike anything I have ever seen. I have never been more proud to be a Penn Stater.

To my fellow seniors, I know this time, especially stings. The need for closure and ownership over our Penn State experience is stronger than ever. However, one thing that cannot and will not be taken away from us is the time we had. I may be a bit biased, but the collective impact that the
Class of 2020 has made on Penn State is astounding. We have watched national champions be born in athletics, brought forward scholars in research, seen entrepreneurs create and take their businesses to whole new levels, flourished the arts, seen dance, theatre and music breathe new life into not only our community, but the world, and helped lead students to raise $11,696,942.38 to fight against childhood cancer.

Although many accomplishments, that’s not even close to covering all of it. We have so much to be proud of. We have always been unique, bold and unconventional as a class. And that is how we are going out. Uniquely, boldly, and unconventionally. No one will have had the same experience as us, and that is worth something.

Students, I can assure you we will all meet again. When we do, the cheers in Beaver Stadium will be a bit louder, the ice cream at the Creamery will taste a bit sweeter, the Lion Shrine in the moonlight will shine a bit brighter, the gentle hush of the library will even be a bit more peaceful, laughs and smiles will look a bit more beautiful, and the bells in Old Main will ring a bit truer.

Until then, all I can say is thank you. Thank you, students, for the opportunity of a lifetime. It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve you. See you soon.

Love Always,
Laura McKinney

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