10 Questions With Pollock Testing Center Legend Mary Wassel

If there’s one person who knows the ins and outs of the Pollock Testing Center and interacts with almost every student at Penn State, it’s Testing Services representative Mary Wassel.

For the last five years, Wassel has not only managed to check in students at the testing center with ease, but she also leaves a positive impact on the test takers she interacts with.

We sat down with Wassel to talk about her experiences at the Pollock Testing Center, her interactions with students, and more.

Onward State: What brought you to work at the Pollock Testing Center, and how long have you worked for the university?

Mary Wassel: I’m originally from Syracuse, New York. I went to school at Syracuse University, met my husband there, and then started working there. Flash forward 20 years later, my son got accepted to the University of Maryland and my daughter picked Penn State to study computer science. To help pay for their college, I applied for a job here and got hired.

I came out of retirement and got an apartment here at State College that I have Monday through Friday. On the weekends I go home to my four cats, two dogs, and husband. I’ve been working here for almost five years. After my daughter graduated, I loved the job so much that I decided to stay for another year.

OS: What is it like being a Penn State mom AND employee?

MW: So, my daughter graduated this past May and was a majorette here. I’m on all the Penn State websites as a mom, so I see everything the moms post — from tickets to the issues their children are going through. I feel like as a mom, having a daughter here, and knowing what she went through, I am very in tune when students are stressed or in need.

I had a student who came in struggling to put her paper in [the turnstile], and I was like, “that’s OK, I’ll help you,” and she started crying. So, I took her to the backroom to talk to her, and she felt like she failed her test, and I said, “It’s college. It’s a lot different than high school. My daughter never got below a 90 in high school and was grateful for her first B in college. It’s OK.” Then, I gave her water, and she asked for a hug. Now, she comes in weekly to tell me how she’s doing. I have about 10 students who come in just to say how they’re doing because I reached out to them when they were in need. I know it’s not a fun place to go, so I try to make it as welcoming as possible and give them some encouragement.

OS: What does a typical day look like for you?

MW: The night before, we go in and see how many people are coming per hour the next day. Some days we have 150 students come in and out each hour, so it can get pretty busy. It’s very fast-paced, but I love it when it’s busy. Somedays there’s a line out the door, but we’re able to get them in pretty fast. Before every exam, I do a walk-through and make sure everyone’s doing okay and they’re all signing in. I’ll see on my screen that there’s a seat that’s yellow, which means a student is in distress and something’s not working right.

OS: How often do you see distressed students during their exams?

MW: I think everyone’s pretty good. It’s stressful for students when they’re first coming in because they’re taking a test. Sometimes I get students that are upset when they leave because they get their scores back. I never ask them anything unless I see they’re in distress, and then I ask if they’re OK. If they’re not, then I get them water and talk it out with them. There are some people who come in who might faint or have trouble breathing, so I give them water. If I see a student coughing, I just place a cough drop at their station.

OS: What is the craziest thing you’ve seen in your five years of working at the Pollock Testing Center?

MW: Sometimes students come in dressed for Halloween. I’ve had Santa and the Easter Bunny come in to take their test, which was fun. Buzz Lightyear came in one time, too. It hasn’t been like that often because of COVID, but I hope more come in dressed up this year.

OS: What is it like being a face on campus that almost every student knows?

MW: I was talking to my husband one time and I was like, “You know, I probably have met 99% of the people here.” A funny story is I was at a football game and this student sits next to me with his mom. I saw him the day before when he was taking his test, so I turn to him and I say, “Where’s your phone?,” and he goes, “It’s in my pocket,” then he realized I was from the testing center. We were all laughing about it.

OS: What is your favorite part of working at the Pollock Testing Center?

MW: Just working with students. I love it. I just want to be there for the students to help them and make sure they’re comfortable. I work really well with my coworkers, too, which makes the job even better. On Halloween, I get my other coworkers to dress up with me, and we give out candy, which the students seem to love. It makes the job more fun and less stressful.

OS: What is your biggest pet peeve people do before they go take their exam?

MW: It’s a big thing for me to remind students to power their phones off. There are so many phones that ring and ding in there, and it’s upsetting and distracting to the other students. Some students even try to go through their book bags, and I just remind them not to go in them.

OS: Are there any hardships about working with that many students?

MW: The students are really great. Sometimes it can get stressful, but I never have any students come in with an attitude. If they’re struggling and it gets hard, I just tell them, “It’s OK to be OK. OK is good.”

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur what would it be and why?

MW: If I could be any dinosaur, I would be “Amazing-asorus” because to have an amazing day every day is great. I look forward to coming in every day. I think this job is amazing and has given me so many amazing opportunities. It’s amazing to be here, and I’m just grateful to be here.

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About the Author

Evan Halfen

Evan Halfen is a junior broadcast journalism major from Newark, DE, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. Evan loves all things Penn State, tailgating, being loud, just about any beach, and his puppies, Butterscotch and Wentzy. You can direct all your tips, roasts, and jokes to his Instagram: @evan.halfen or email: [email protected]

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