Shed Your Skins But Hold Them Close: Haylee Yocum’s Senior Column

For a long time, I thought I knew what this column would be about. I was going to talk about how you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, which is something I still believe in, but it seemed too surface-level. Two months ago, I went back to the drawing board, asking myself questions like “What legacy do I want to leave?”

But maybe it’s not always about leaving a legacy for yourself. Maybe it’s about sharing a piece of wisdom with anyone who will listen.

I’ll get to my Penn State and Onward State reflections in a second. Let me stand on a little soapbox first.

Though I hate to admit it these days, the defining point in my life occurred almost exactly 12 years ago. In early May 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer. I’ll spare you the gritty details, but I did chemotherapy for four months and was put into remission shortly after. In 2017, my doctors said I was officially cured. I’ve been (mostly) healthy since.

In a small town like mine, if a child gets cancer, everyone knows about it. Even after I was finished with treatment and looking healthy, there were people who knew me as the cancer girl, leading me to also believe that was who I was. It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that my cancer diagnosis from when I was 10 didn’t define me.

And it took even longer for me to realize there was no purpose in shaking my fists at the sky when I thought about the pieces of my childhood that had been stolen from me. There’s no undoing. There’s no redoing. It’s only ever forward.

Once I fully realized both of those things, my life began to change. It’s like the clouds parted over a flag football game and I had a second chance to forge my path to wherever I wanted it to go.

To be clear, being a cancer survivor is still a prominent part of my life story. However, instead of punctuating it with a frown or an ellipsis, I punctuate it with an exclamation mark. In a way that’s probably confusing to most, I look back on my experience with gratitude for what it has taught me — mainly the value of enjoying the little things and the fact that we’re on a floating rock and nothing is that serious (Late to class? Whatever. There’s aliens somewhere).

A former THON dancer and cancer survivor that I interviewed in 2023, Nathan Smelser, said it best: “I like who I am today, and I don’t know if I would like the person I would be today if I hadn’t had [cancer].”

Further down the road, I put the pieces together again. I can apply this mindset to other situations. It can be like this almost all the time.

I had spent so much time carrying around layers of myself that were no longer relevant to who I was as a person that I hardly recognized myself. Why am I holding a grudge against someone from sixth grade when neither of us remembers what it was for and our frontal lobes are nearly developed now? Why am I carrying around guilt for something that doesn’t reflect who I am anymore?

I could sit here and talk to you about dozens of times the world has done me wrong or that I’ve done other people wrong and how it made me mad or sad. But I am no longer the same person I was in any of those experiences. 

The scientist in me is screaming that yes, the DNA in my cells is the same, but that’s not what I mean. Every single moment in my life, good or bad, has made me who I am today. 

Would it make more sense to say that my stories, memories, and feelings exist upon me in layers? Probably. But I would have thousands of layers for each day I have lived, and that’s quite the burden to carry. And that’s the exact thing I’m trying to avoid.

Instead of continuing to drag around past versions of myself that do nothing but weigh me down, I’ve chosen to shed dozens of versions of myself in favor of better ones, wiser ones, and kinder ones. I always hang on tight, though, tucking those layers of myself into the corners of my brain. There’s a lesson to be learned from nearly everything that happens to us, whether that’s how to solve a MATH140 problem or how to be kinder to a friend when they’re in a tough situation.

Shed your skins but hold them close. Forgive but don’t forget. Allow your regrets to be washed away but learn from them. Grow from them. Grow each day. It doesn’t matter if your growth is as simple as cooking a new meal. It’s growth all the same.

Gripping on to the past, as comfortable as it may be, holds you back. It’s OK to let go, and it’s OK to begin moving forward. You’ll be shocked by everything you’ve been missing out on.

Recently, I’ve learned that there are two pieces of myself that, even if I wanted to, I’ll never be able to leave behind.

First — Penn State. I didn’t come from a Penn State family, and none of my family members were alumni. When I was 11, my dad took a job working with the Office of the Physical Plant (OPP). We were slowly turned into a Penn State family — except for my mom, who couldn’t be convinced it wasn’t a cult. She might have been onto something. 

As I’ve been searching for pictures to include in this column, I’ve found a few from before I was even thinking about college where I was wearing Penn State clothes or posing with the Lion Shrine. An invisible string, if you will.

Over the years, as I learned the rules of football through my time in high school marching band, I’d occasionally sit down and watch pieces of games with my dad. I’d gone to a few football games, volleyball games, and hockey games over the years and been to campus and downtown dozens of times. Yet, there was never a part of me that felt like I needed to go to school at Penn State.

So I applied and called it my safety school. The only other school I had applied to was Yale, which sounds crazy, but I did a summer program there during high school and interviewed while I was in New Haven. I also thought that I wanted to be far away from home because it’s so weird to be going to the same school that my dad works at, right? (Side note: I have never seen my dad on campus unless we plan a meet-up hours in advance.)

Obviously, Yale rejected me, leaving Penn State as the default option. Thanks to a handful of university-exclusive scholarships, I wasn’t too upset, and as the pandemic became a reality, I was definitely thankful to be close to home. My freshman year, as I attempted to adjust to the harsh reality of college on top of COVID-19, I went home pretty often and was glad there were only 40 miles between a hug from my mom and me.

Frankly, looking back on it, my time at Penn State has been uneventful — in a good way, and in a way I consider myself lucky for. My academic journey was straightforward. I went to my classes, I struggled, I studied, and I dropped a few. I guess something worked in my favor because I’m three days away from walking across the stage at graduation.

Sure, there were many times when I contemplated laying facedown in my bed instead of taking an exam or actually did lay facedown in my bed when I got an exam score back. But those moments are fleeting and ultimately, not that serious. And I would have experienced them at any college.

Besides, academics are only a small part of why people come to Penn State. It just took a long time for that to become clear to me. Those other reasons — the community, the pride, the friends — are what give Happy Valley its name.

The parts of Penn State that I will hang onto forever are the little moments that are unique to this bubble: spending a sunny afternoon at the duck pond, grabbing a coffee from Irving’s before the rest of campus wakes up, watching hordes of people head down Curtin Road on a fall Saturday afternoon, finding a new shortcut to class, people-watching in the HUB, hearing the bongs of Old Main’s bell.

You could put me in any city, any town, any college campus, and it would never compare to Penn State. I’ll be chasing the euphoria of walking across campus on a spring day for the rest of my life.

The other piece of me that I can never shed is Onward State. Obviously.

My freshman year, I was looking to get involved fast with things that weren’t related to my major — mostly to keep myself sane. Writing has been one of my favorite things for as long as I can remember and led me to win various competitions through middle school and ultimately become the editor of my high school’s newspaper for three years. 

Naturally, the next step was to continue writing in college. Onward State is one of the unofficial required social media followings for Penn Staters, so of course I was familiar with it. I filled out the application my first semester with confidence, fully believing my experience as editor of my (very small) high school’s newspaper would make me a shoo-in for a position as a staff writer.

It turns out that most Onward State applicants have been editors for their high school newspapers. Who knew there were so many? After receiving an interview, which I probably bombed, I was denied a spot on staff and was deeply humbled.

But I applied again the next semester. I sent in different samples, fixed up my mock article, and read the site regularly that fall semester to get a better understanding of what exactly Onward State was and meant. The second time around, I was awarded a position as a staff writer.

Throughout my college career, Onward State has been one of the only constants, one of the only things I can count on. I’ve poured my soul into the blog, and in return, it’s given me a sense of pride, lifelong friends, countless memories, and even a few enemies.

Despite majoring in immunology and infectious disease, which has nothing to do with journalism, I found myself giving more and more of my time to Onward State because it brought me so much happiness. I worked on learning our style, I wrote features, and I wrote articles that I knew nobody would read. I didn’t care. It was my escape from having to keep studying the Krebs cycle.

Over the past 3.5 years, I’ve written over 200 articles. Even though I’ve never been a big sports person, I got lucky enough to cover Penn State women’s volleyball for two seasons, which instilled a brand new kind of confidence in me. I covered Jennette McCurdy’s visit to campus, was on the scene of The Waffle Shop fire, wrote Penn State history lessons, was on the student government beat, lived in the Bryce Jordan Center during THON Weekend, and on and on.

Some days, my inbox fills up at a rate that makes me want to chuck my laptop across the room. On most other days, people are yelling about James Franklin in our comment sections as if we can personally do something about his coaching. And yet I always came back for more, because I’ve always been one of the best versions of myself in a WordPress draft.

Nobody asked, but here’s a list of eight of my favorite Onward State articles that I’ve penned (simply because eight is my favorite/lucky number):

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: being part of Onward State has truly been an honor. To be entrusted with the stories of other students, alumni, community members, and even campus buildings has been priceless. By next week, there will be an OS-shaped hole in my heart.

Now, for a long, long list of thank yous that you can scroll past if you want to.

First and foremost, to my mom, Bobbi, and my dad, Brad. Nothing I’ve done would be possible without your support. Thank you for always pushing me to do my best but not pushing me so hard that I hate my life and I’m no longer happy. Thank you for reading and sharing my articles and for planning family events around my Sunday afternoon meetings. Also, thanks, Dad, for working here. I know you didn’t do it for me, but it does make the crippling debt hurt a little less. 

To both of my sisters, Alexis and Lauren, for unironically showing me the value of being the middle sibling. How lucky am I to be able to receive advice from my older sister, only to be able to pass it along a few years later? I’ll always be rooting for both of you.

To any and all other family members who have sent me cards, words of wisdom and encouragement, offered advice, sent me back from holidays with free food, or anything similar, I appreciate you all more than you know. It means the world to know that I have an army around me I can consistently count on.

To Zack, for being my rock. I haven’t known a day of college without you, and I’m thankful I never had to because I’m not sure that I would have made it. Thank you for being patient when I had Sunday meetings, Wednesday night UPUA meetings, Friday and Saturday volleyball games, editing duty, or whatever else I might have been doing for the blog in a given week. Somehow when I’m having the worst day ever, you can make me laugh, even if it’s just by picking on our cat. You’re my best friend, and I would be a completely different person today if I didn’t know you.

To Hannah, who quite literally got me through physics and junior and senior years. Your friendship has meant the world. You’re my concert friend, my sweet treat friend, my study friend, my Homecoming parade friend, my rot-on-the-couch friend, my College Buffet friend, and everything in between. A lot of my favorite memories from the past four years feature you. Figuring out how to live without getting a text on a Friday night asking about Sweet Frog and having you show up at my door a half hour later is going to be really, really tough.

To my IID girls, Anya, Kim, Erin, Bella, Gabby, Vedha, and Kendall, you guys might not even read this, but I have to give you a shoutout anyway. I hate that it took us so long to find each other, but you all have made these past two semesters more fun and made coming to class more bearable on my worst days.

To the 2020-2021 editorial staff, thank you for giving me a second chance because I have no idea what my time at Penn State would look like without Onward State. It was humbling to be rejected the first time, but it was a necessary evil. If you still read the site regularly, I hope you’re glad that you put me on staff because I know I am. 

To Gabe and Colleen, thank you for encouraging me to apply to be an editor and showing me I had that potential. I feared that as a STEM student, I didn’t belong in that position, even though I watched Colleen do it from the start. I appreciate you both trusting me with big jobs and stories, answering an endless slew of questions, and providing tiny but important AP Style tips. 

Keeley! This year has been a whirlwind and I can’t believe it’s nearly over. There are so many things I could and would not have done this year without your support and guidance. You simply embody some of the best parts of Onward State and I can’t wait to read all of your features next year. I’m kind of sorry for chasing you across a busy street. Rest easy. 

Luke, don’t let the fact that you have a paragraph go to your head because I know it will. In short, I’d probably die for you. I appreciate you trusting me, accepting my occasional criticism, and matching my sarcasm at its highest level. I’ve told you this a dozen times already, but you know where to find me. I’m so excited to cheer you on from the graveyard.

To Megan and Lizzie, for being blog friends for as long as I can remember. You’re both beautiful, kind, hilarious, amazing writers, even better friends, and I could go on for hours and hours. 

To other friends on the blog, Kyra, Abby, Evan, Matt, CJ, Sophie, Mara, Joe, Nolan, Mikey, Ashley, Jack, Jess, Ally, McKenzie, McKenna, and anybody else I forgot (though hopefully I didn’t): knowing you, whether through the volleyball beat, the UPUA beat, being editors together, or just because I think you’re gritty and awesome, has been the highlight of my college career. 

One of the best things about Onward State is that you don’t have to fit into a specific box to exist or succeed. The hodgepodge of majors, hometowns, and experiences we all bring to the table is truly a unique thing and makes me love this group of people even more.

Of course, I love OS for the opportunities it’s provided me with, but I love it even more for the people who make up our staff. I never dreaded coming to Carnegie 113 because I knew at least three different people would make me laugh throughout the course of the meeting.

There is no other place like Penn State. There is no other news outlet like Onward State. When people say college is supposed to be the best four years of your life, I scoff and roll my eyes. But as I prepare to move on to the next chapter, tumbling into the unknown, part of me thinks they may have really been right.

With so, so much love,

Goodnight, blog.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a 2024 graduate of Penn State with a degree in immunology and infectious disease. She relocated to Williamsport but will not be taking any questions about what’s next in her career. Haylee continues to be fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter if you must.

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