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‘Penn State Forward’ Board Of Trustees Campaign Aims To Lend Voice To Younger Penn Staters

Last summer, three young, progressive, and determined Penn State alumni were hard at work. Running for Penn State’s Board of Trustees never even crossed their minds until an email from Penn State senior Nora Van Horn hit their inboxes.

Through those emails, they learned that Van Horn was trying to recruit forward-thinking and diverse candidates to run for Penn State’s Board of Trustees, a task surely very few students, if any, have ever considered doing in their free time. Through the hard work, Dr. Edward Smith, Dr. Christa Hasenkopf, and Dr. Farnaz Farhi now officially have their names on the ballot for this year’s Board of Trustees alumni election set to begin on April 10.

Van Horn says these candidates are critical to the future of the university.

“The Board of Trustees needs to be responsive to issues that students, alumni, faculty, and staff care about,” Van Horn said. “We’ve seen student enthusiasm about climate action, racial justice, queer and trans equity, sexual violence, and so much more. To tackle these issues, we need institutional decision-makers to be interested in championing sustainable, holistic solutions and have professional, educational, and research experiences that make them equipped to do so.”

Smith, a 2006 graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts, devotes his life’s work now to educational equity for all. He’s had more than a decade of experience in education-policy research seeking to learn about opportunities that make a college education more obtainable for marginalized groups. During his time at Penn State, Smith was the president of the Black Caucus and still values and uses what he’s learned from his experiences at Penn State in his professional career.

Hasenkopf, a Penn State grad from the Eberly College of Science, is a first-generation college student who says coming to Penn State was a natural decision for her. Hasenkopf studied astronomy during her time here, and unbeknownst to her at the time, chose one of the top schools in the nation with an astronomy program. It’s certainly helped contribute to her success today, as Hasenkopf is a leader and innovator when it comes to global environmental equity.

Farhi, also a grad from the Eberly College of Science, is now an obstetrician and gynecologist at George Washington University. She’s advocated for victims and survivors of sexual violence for more than 15 years while also working to address racial inequities and disparities in healthcare fields. She wrote her honors thesis on sexual violence at Penn State, and through her work and this campaign, she hopes to make the university more transparent about campus safety.

For all three alumni, that one email from Van Horn last summer asking them if they’d be interested in running was shocking, humbling, and a true honor. They had never considered running for a position like this, but given the opportunity to give back to a university that provided them with so much, it was hard to turn down.

“I was floored to be considered and to be asked to apply for a nomination, and extremely humbled,” Smith said. “Running for the Board of Trustees was not in a career plan of mine. While I knew of the tremendous power and influence Penn State’s trustees may have on-campus functions and mission, it was not something I ever saw for myself. When I learned about what Penn State Forward was organizing and what my co-candidates have brought to the table, I feel a tremendous sense of honor, responsibility, and service. I’m inspired by everyone included in this process.”

Farhi said she was blown away by how prepared Van Horn was to start the process of collecting candidates to run for the Board of Trustees. Separately in their own work and ways, both Farhi and Van Horn are strong advocates for matters relating to sexual violence and transparency. Both together, they are an unbeatable force.

“The reason that I felt so strongly about participating in this campaign is that I felt like this was an incredible opportunity to give back to a university that had given me so much and, also, to be able to accomplish a lot more than I would in my clinics day-to-day,” Farhi said. “This is a great opportunity to reach more people and to work on causes that are really important to me.”

Hasenkopf says her professional work mostly aligns with Penn State Forward’s campaign pillars relating to climate change, clean energy, and environmental equity.

“I think the piece of our platform around getting Penn State to be carbon neutral by 2035 is extremely urgent and practical,” Hasenkopf said. “But what also really speaks to me is the fact that the climate action platform we have is built around stuff derived from what students and faculty have suggested, and already has momentum going at Penn State. Working with those groups of people really means a lot to me.”

As a first-generation college student, Hasenkopf believes Penn State Forward’s commitment to educational equity is pivotal in transforming the lives of students just like hers was by coming to Penn State. Smith, also a first-generation college student, leans on his own personal experiences from throughout college as motivation for wanting to help current college students who may be facing similar adversities.

“When you’re considering, for example, the cost of higher education and how that has exploded in the last several decades, and the changing recognition of what it takes to be successful, to not be food insecure, to not be housing insecure, I believe there should be resources in place to ensure that school doesn’t disrupt any of those responsibilities or factors,” Smith said. “That’s a recognition I bring to the college affordability discussion, and for example, how tuition might be decided upon with those things in mind.”

Hasenkopf also said that she believes Penn State Forward’s campaign and commitment to trying to get more alumni voting in the Board of Trustees election is critical to the future success of the university.

“One thing that caught my attention in this process is that about 3% of Penn State alumni vote in the Board of Trustees alumni election, and I think this campaign is an opportunity to bring a lot more people together and to address issues close to their hearts in a new way,” Hasenkopf said. “I think there’s a lot more potential to engage the Penn State alumni community on these issues, and to me, that’s one of the most powerful parts of this campaign.”

The three alumni running under Penn State Forward have been working for months to secure a nomination, and now, they’re looking forward to the future and the upcoming election. Being a part of a campaign run by students and young alumni has provided the group the unique perspective of receiving firsthand information about the most pressing matters affecting students and faculty at Penn State today.

Van Horn says that students and young alumni deserve to have a voice in this election and a voice in their university’s future.

“We deserve a voice in institutional decision-making. I am really, really tired of administrators and institutional decision-makers implying that students and young people don’t care about institutional decisions or the Board of Trustees elections,” Van Horn said. “Candidates typically don’t bother to listen to what we’re concerned about. Many students and young alumni don’t even know the Board exists because of the way decisions are made. A lack of youth participation is not a result of apathy. Penn State Forward presents a way for the Penn State community to harness the tremendous insight and wisdom of students and young alumni.”

All candidates are equally committed to stepping up to the role should they be elected, and acknowledge that what originally seemed like an unexpected path to go down, has allowed them to have the honor to continue to serve Penn State and make it a better institution for years to come.

“I think the Board of Trustees has an opportunity, as well as an obligation, to serve the students as well as the members of the Penn State community, including faculty members and alumni to the best of their ability,” Farhi said. “At the end of the day, our shared experience is that we have been a Penn State student at some point. When I was a student, I, of course, thought the board members had impressive CVs, but I questioned and wondered, ‘Are they going to listen to me?’ Again, actually listening to students and community members is what really excites me. This whole process started because of Penn State students, and I hope at the very least we are approachable and can amplify student voices to the highest level.”

Visit the Board of Trustees’ website to learn more about the upcoming alumni trustees election.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at ryengailey@onwardstate.com

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