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Holly Swanson: Give the Students a Break

by on October 31, 2012 6:04 AM

Last week, the Penn State Class of 2013 voted for their senior class gift, a time-honored tradition at the University that gives students an opportunity to leave behind a small legacy. This year's choices, which were voted upon by the seniors, were a Rec Hall beautification project, a donation to the newly established Penn State Hershey Center for the Protection of Children, and a We Are sculpture.

In the past, the selection of a senior class gift has gotten very little attention. Fundraising for the projects often take several years to complete and it can be even longer for a class gift to come to fruition. Few gifts reach the iconic status as the Class of 1940s Nittany Lion Shrine, with many gifts simply becoming part of a general fund. Still some, like the Portrait of Professor Josiah Jackson sank into obscurity. The portrait was a gift from the class of 1892 and took 11 years to complete. It may be hanging somewhere on campus, though I've never seen it.

I suspect that if you quizzed most graduates, they couldn't tell you what their own class gift was (I don't know what my gift was or if we even had one).

But this year, the gift got more attention than usual. A lot of people would have preferred that the students picked the donation to the Center for the Protection of Children. But they didn't. I don?t know the breakdown of the 1,700 votes, but the majority went with the We Are sculpture.

Some members of the local media, include the Daily Collegian, were critical of the decision. Their editorial, along with many comments on other news websites, felt that the sculpture may not have been the right choice compared to supporting children who were abused.

I think, however, that it's important to remember how much Penn State, and its students, has already done to increase awareness of child abuse topics. There?s always more work to be done, but so far the student-organized Blue Out has raised more than $78,000 for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. The Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Conference was held on campus just this week. Donations, sometimes in the form of fines, totaling millions of dollars are being directed to the creation of the Center in Hershey and to child abuse awareness projects. Students have also been involved in organizing awareness walks, fund-raising bracelet sales, and vigils.

In the past few months, the students seem ready to heed the call to "move on." While I don't agree with that sentiment, I can understand where the students are coming from. Their last year of college has been filled with the ongoing controversy and conflict from the fallout of Sandusky.

The Penn State students, of course, are not the victims in the Sandusky tragedy. But they have been dealing with its effects and will continue to answer questions about it for years to come. They have been characterized as part of the scandal simply because they are Penn State, not because they knew anyone involved or had any connection to the crimes. They didn't.

This is not what they want to be remembered for. They want to come back to campus with their family years from now and have something tangible to point to and say, "I helped make that." Is it a little bit selfish considering the alternative? Perhaps. But this is their first real chance to make their own statement about Penn State. The We Are sculpture represents the pride they have in their education and their university, regardless of what the rest of the country thinks.

Not only do I support their decision on the We Are sculpture, I don't think they need any criticism because of it. There are plenty of real issues for us to be upset about without creating controversy where there doesn't need to be any.

By choosing We Are, they are also telling us what They Are Not. They are not to blame for what happened here. They are not going to let their college years be defined by a monster in Penn State clothing. They are not going to drop their heads when someone says "So you went to Penn State?"

When you think about the initiatives the students are involved in for child abuse awareness and then consider the work they do for THON, Special Olympics, Relay for Cancers, charity 5ks, this is a pretty generous group of students. We are lucky to have them and we shouldn't resent the occasional indulgence to stroke their own egos just this once.

The sculpture tells us that they still stand united with everything that We Are means, even after it was mocked relentlessly by major news networks and other colleges.

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Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at hollyannswanson@verizon.net.
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