All Roads Lead Home: Catching Up With Penn State Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford
During his childhood, a young Paul Clifford visited Penn State often. With a father from the Class of 1972, the family traveled to University Park mainly for football games, where quick moments turned into cherished memories.
As CEO of the Penn State Alumni Association, Clifford now leads the largest dues-paying group of its kind, with close to 775,000 members around the globe.
While Clifford has met a variety of exceptional Penn Staters in this role, he has never forgotten the simple family car rides that sparked a love for Dear Old State.
“It wasn’t till I was much older that I realized it was a lot less about the football games and a lot more about the time we spent together with my brother, my sister, and my mom,” Clifford said. “The most important time that was spent was the two hours in the car coming to, and the two hours back because that was time during the week to talk and connect.”
Born into a Penn State family, Clifford was welcomed into the blue and white community from the very beginning. A native of Conyngham, Clifford has deep Pennsylvania roots and was delighted to return home to lead the Alumni Association in 2016.
“It was surreal,” Clifford said. “It’s the first time in my career that I actually served people that I knew, teachers that I had, friends that I went to school with, family members who all came to Penn State.”
A leader in university relations, Clifford has previously served in roles at James Madison University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Oregon.
“For the past 25 years, I’ve dedicated my career and life to higher education advancement and supporting some of our country’s finest public institutions of higher education and then finally back home to Pennsylvania to serve Penn State,” Clifford said. “For the past eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve an institution that’s meant so much to my family.”
The Penn State Alumni Association is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, with over 240 chapters, groups, and societies associated with the network.
“I get to work with some of the best people in the world that do what we do,” Clifford said. “It’s also certainly inspirational and really kind of uplifting working with Penn Staters.”
As CEO, Clifford often works with alumni to expand the potential of the university and assist in coordinating support for the next generation.
“It’s kind of activating those volunteers and those Penn Staters to do things for their alma mater that they had only dreamed of previously,” Clifford said. “Whether it’s helping the students to raise over $15 million with THON or completing a capital campaign that raises $2.2 billion, or even winning a Rose Bowl.”
Aiding in the cycle of giving back is a key piece of the Alumni Association’s efforts.
“All things that as leaders, we feel part of and only at times, hope and dream to do,” Clifford said. “We get to be there to see those hopes and dreams come true.”
From coordinating alumni honors such as the Alumni Fellow Award to building communication channels to connect with over 200 chapters, every day’s work is different.
“One day, we might be sitting around kind of talking about what’s a good campaign strategy to get alumni involved,” Clifford said. “There’s a wide variety of ways that Penn Staters connect back, which means that there’s a wide variety of activities that we’re involved with on a weekly basis.”
With diverse skill sets needed to support the association, Clifford emphasized the teamwork behind every effort.
“We have 60 team members here at the Alumni Association,” Clifford said. “It’s not just about the individuals… It’s about how good we are together.”
As the theme of community runs through all aspects of the organization, Clifford is no stranger to Penn State pride, both in his career and in his family. As a father of three and husband to wife Jennefer, Clifford now has become the ultimate Penn State dad, as his daughter is a second-year student at University Park.
Clifford was also recently a part of the 2023 Alumni Homecoming Court, after earning his master’s of education from Penn State in 2020.
Showing the true stretch of university spirit, Clifford also shared a humorous story from a recent visit to see his daughter Avery as she studied abroad in London.
“It’s everywhere we go,” Clifford said. “We’re walking outside of Buckingham Palace, and the guy jogging by is wearing a Penn State t-shirt. Well, I yell out, ‘We Are.’ He turns around [and] he’s like, ‘Oh, Penn State!'”
While representing the university in a leadership role today, Clifford was motivated to connect with fellow Penn Staters long before he took on the role of CEO.
“Every time I go to travel, regardless of the school I was representing, if I saw a Penn Stater in the airport or on a beach somewhere, I would yell, ‘We Are!'”
In a journey that both began and ended in Happy Valley, there’s no doubt that Clifford’s legacy can be considered a round trip. Reflecting back on a life lived for Dear Old State, Clifford shared a meaningful memory of his favorite place on campus: Beaver Stadium.
“My dad would put my brother and I in the season ticket seats, and then he’d go sit by himself and he’d say, ‘Wait here, and I’ll come back after the game,'” Clifford said.
While Beaver Stadium is known for being one of the loudest venues in college sports, Clifford appreciates the space for some of its quieter moments.
“My brother and I spent an awful lot of time in Beaver Stadium together,” Clifford said. “He passed away in 1999. He was killed by a drunk driver, and so I kind of feel most connected to him when I’m in the stadium. Here on campus is where I have my strongest memories of him.”
With heart at the core of operations, Clifford continues as the 11th CEO in the 150-year history of the Alumni Association. Leading with a service mindset, Clifford synthesized a final reflection on the power of the association, and how the whole truly may be greater than the sum of its parts.
“Certainly, there’s a lot of power in the 775,000 alumni that are Penn Staters around the world. We’re lucky to have over 240 groups affiliated with the association that are spread out all over the world and make sure that, when Penn Staters are traveling or when they move to an area, they’re only an arm’s length away from another Penn Stater,” Clifford said. “It keeps them connected to this, to the common experience that they all share with each other.”
While Clifford’s journey has had many valuable stops, it may just be proof that all roads are bound to lead us home.
“There’s something unique about Penn State,” Clifford said. “Just that little extra, I don’t know what it is, but that makes it special.”
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