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State of State 2016: 'It's a Small World After All'

by on February 23, 2016 6:00 AM
University Park, PA

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity in Happy Valley!

Big wrestling victory over Ohio State at the BJC; the final women's home game vs. rival Syracuse was televised live on the BTN (good family friend and State High grad Jill Holdcroft skated for the final time in Pegula Arena); big men's basketball wins over Indiana and Iowa; and a special event for me, the men's hockey alumni weekend and senior banquet.

It is always a highlight of the year for me to visit with former teammates and players and to honor the current team and seniors. It took me a little longer to recover from the alumni post-game activities but there is no greater feeling than to renew those bonds with old teammates.

Side note: When men's hockey senior Tommy Olczyk's pro career is over and he isn't quite ready to put his Masters degree in accounting to use, you may spot him on the Wisecracker's Comedy Club circuit because he is one funny dude.

All of this reminded me of why living in State College is so amazing!

But, there was also an event held on campus that may have flown under the radar screen of many of the folks on campus and in the community.

State of State 2016 was held on Sat., Feb. 13 at the Alumni Hall in the HUB. The theme this year was "Explore the Glory" and it was an absolutely wonderful experience.

It was a great day of presentations and discussion with alums, faculty, staff, student leaders, and community members. Kudos to executive director Tess Hamsherand all the volunteers on her team, who did a marvelous job coordinating a first-class event.

It started off with a wonderful message from Dr. Susan Russell, Associate Professor in the School of Theatre. She set the bar very high for all speakers that followed.

If you are interested in watching the videos of the various speakers and learning more about State of State, visit the website.

The videos are in post-production and should be ready very soon.

I was asked to speak about "Tradition and Change" and talked about some bygone traditions from freshmen men having to wear "dinks'' and young ladies having to wear green ribbons; to the infamous "Pushball" matches that pitted the freshmen and sophomores (had to be a risk manager's worst nightmare!); to the Phi Psi 500; to singing the "We don't know the GD words" version of the Alma Mater. I spoke with great pride about our tradition of having world-class faculty and research, our philanthropic traditions, our athletic traditions, and of course... THON, climbing Mount Nittany, and eating Creamery ice cream,

While we may not have all personally agreed with everything that was said, that was exactly what the day was intended to do: create dialogue. There was meaningful and amicable discussion after each of the four sets designed to stretch our minds and look at tough topics from the perspectives others and in different contexts.

There were no assigned seats and we ended up sitting with an incredibly impressive and very diverse group of students from all over the country and the world.

Our facilitator was a very personable junior marketing and sociology dual major named Aiming Li, from Beijing. He moved to Orange County, Calif. where he attended a Christian Prep School and learned English at an accelerated rate. He started his Penn State education in Erie at The Behrend College. So right away he and my wife Heidi (from Erie and a Behrend alum) hit it off famously. Hmm. What a small world!

Aiming's father owns a tech firm in China and his mother works for the government. He loves Penn State and central Pennsylvania, noting the beautiful skies, rolling mountains, and clear water. He hopes that someday China will be more like the U.S. and would like to be a difference-maker.

We also sat with Beth Rudoy who hails from Pittsburgh (my hometown) and is working on a Masters in education. I always say to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. She is of the Jewish faith and just spent two weeks in Israel over winter break. Turns out I knew her dad and he mentioned to her that he heard me speak at a Penn State alumni function at the Duquesne Club a few years ago. Hmm. Small world, eh?

Her fellow graduate school classmate, Brittani Wyskocil, is from Tampa Bay and went to a small undergrad college in Jacksonville. Ready for this ... I coached her Uncle Ken (a goalie) at Kent State in 1986. I could hear the Twilight Zone music playing in my head. It really is a small world after all!

Just after lunch a young lady from Dubai, Yara Alul, joined our discussion group. She is an extremely bright and personable finance student who has been all over the world. Originally from the West Bank, Yara is of the Muslim faith. She has endured her share of prejudice and said the vast majority of the people of the Muslim world do not support extremists or their philosophies and tactics.

I sometimes wonder why more clerics don't speak out against the extremists. Might it be that they know they will be targeted by the Jihadists and may be persecuted or even killed?

Powerful stuff to be talking about in little old Happy Valley!

So there we were, this multi-national group from different religious backgrounds all pulled together by a common bond. Penn State.

We talked about some more heady stuff like why people don't talk about religion, politics, and finance at the dinner table. How can you "be the change" when you don't know all the facts, haven't empathized, and haven't put into perspective other people's point of view? Do people even bother to do fact checking or do we simply believe what is emailed, texted, or read on Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia? Trust but verify? Nah, easier to get "likes" and page views by making dramatic statements. If it doesn't bleed, it doesn't read as they say.

We live in the "Age of Rage" and are exposed to "critics without credentials" all in 140 characters because it is easy to spew hate by hiding behind some fake social media name.

If there is truly an opportunity to drive change "for the good of the order", it is going to have to be at the grassroots level. It will only happen when people of diverse backgrounds are able to have critical discussions without fear of persecution or censorship and "common courtesy and mutual respect" are observed and where common sense prevails.

A group of strangers sat together at that table in the HUB on a brutally cold Saturday afternoon. We left feeling the warmth of new friendships that was spawned by civility, empathy, and yes, old-fashioned debate without being debatable.

It really is a small world after all.

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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