Each year, the Penn State Renaissance Fund – a scholarship program that provides funding to the university’s most high-performing students with the most financial need – chooses an honoree, in whose name an endowed scholarship fund is created. Since the 1970s, the Renaissance Fund has chosen a variety of philanthropic and notable individuals and couples to honor in this fashion, but for the first time ever, the fund has chosen to honor an organization: the Penn State Alumni Association.
The Penn State Renaissance Fund’s board chooses the annual honoree from a list of nominees, explains board President George Henning.
“We look for people who contribute greatly to our community, who have been philanthropists for the community, and who are involved in Centre County,” he says.
“The Alumni Association first came to our notice when we realized they were celebrating their 150th anniversary. Some of us started thinking – when you look at what we’re interested in, as the Renaissance Fund and for the Renaissance Person [of the Year], and their help to the community and their work in the area that they specialize in – that there are very few people or organizations that can do as well or be as well thought of as the Penn State Alumni Association. We said, ‘Well, why not? Why not have an organization be the Renaissance Person of the Year?’”
Once a Renaissance Fund honoree is chosen, the honoree, Henning explains, generally makes a contribution to their named scholarship, as do friends, families, and others interested in supporting the fund’s mission. This year, though, the Alumni Association is taking things a step further.
“The Alumni Association has been, in the past, philanthropic and given money to scholarships, and now they’re going to match all the money we raise this year, up to $500,000 for the scholarship in their name,” says Henning.
For volunteers and staff members at the Alumni Association, the honor came as a shock at first.
“Frankly, we were surprised,” says the association’s CEO, Paul Clifford. “The Alumni Association has been a Renaissance donor and we’ve bought tables at their events in the past, and we know they’ve only honored individuals or couples. They’ve never honored an organization. It didn’t even cross our minds that we would be eligible for something like this. [However], it’s no surprise it’s happened in 2020 … that they would select an organization and that they would select us, on our 150th anniversary. … I think it’s not just a snapshot of a moment in time, but a recognition of 150 years of service to Penn State.”
The efforts of the association and the Renaissance Fund go hand-in-hand. The association is not only about serving alumni.
“As much as we’re the Alumni Association, we do so much for current and incoming students,” says association President Randy Houston. “For example, ‘Be a Part from the Start,’ the first event students take part in when they come to campus, is sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association. It’s intended to introduce students to campus, but also help introduce them to the traditions that some Penn Staters take for granted. …
“Throughout most people’s four-year experience, there are programs that are part of or sponsored by the Alumni Association – our Fast Start mentoring program, things like that, which are particularly for the benefit of current students, with the idea that they’ll eventually be alums and will hopefully join the Alumni Association. We want to be with them from the very beginning and until they graduate.”
Mentorship and inspiration
The Fast Start mentorship program ties into one of the primary ways the Alumni Association benefits current students, whether or not those students end up as dues-paying members: mentorship opportunities.
According to Leila Farzam, a member of the association’s alumni council and a volunteer, the mentorship she received from Penn State alums and members of the Alumni Association changed her entire career. As a 17-year-old, Farzam fostered dreams of a music career in Nashville, but at the urging of her parents, she traded Tennessee for Penn State, where mentors changed the track of her life, as she’s now a PhD candidate at University Park.
“My first professional mentor was a Penn Stater,” she says. “My first mentor really stuck by me and showed me the ropes of education, and how to really love learning. From that experience, my parents learned about the Alumni Association and they gave me [a membership] as a gift for graduation. Honestly, that one moment has turned my entire life. That moved me into meeting another mentor who was part of the Alumni Association, who then pulled me in and showed me the ropes, which led to them motivating me to get a master’s degree and then a PhD.
“It’s such a crazy journey that happens when you really invest yourself in an organization. The return on investment for an individual, both personally and professionally, is so great. You meet all of these people at different stages in their careers, and you learn from them.”
Fellow alumni council member and volunteer Shawn Manderson, a graduate from the Penn State Brandywine campus, tells a similar story. Having originally turned down a role in the Alumni Association, Manderson finally got involved at the behest of his own Penn State mentor, in the early 2000s, and has remained an active volunteer ever since. He now pays the favor forward by acting as a mentor for current Brandywine students.
“Penn State is a traditionally white institution, so by sheer game of numbers, you’re not going to have that many people that look like you if you’re a black, brown, or Asian student,” Manderson says. “Mentoring became very important not just to me as a minority alum, but at the Alumni Association. … It really was incumbent on them to recognize that mentoring, no matter who you are, to any student, of any background, but particularly our students who come from certain family challenges or economic conditions that are unique … to those students, mentoring is important because that’s what can keep that student going forward.
“Even if you have the ability to give them money to pay the bill [for their tuition], you don’t know where that emotional balance is at, or where their motivation or engagement is at. There’s no bank that can tell you that, ‘Hey, Shawn has a negative balance of engagement or inspiration.’ That’s important.”
It’s that mentorship and the focus the Alumni Association puts on current students, Manderson says, that truly shows its value.
“It’s the unsung work,” he says. “No one goes out and pats themselves on the back for this work. We do it because we genuinely care. Whether we do it through the Fast Start program at University Park or at the local campuses throughout the commonwealth, it’s important.”
Looking out for one another
To Manderson, that’s part of what makes up the Penn State Alumni Association family.
“The Penn State Alumni Association is basically a family of Penn Staters that just looks out for one another,” he says. “We welcome all our alumni back and make sure they stay connected not just to ourselves, but to the university. That’s really what it is – it’s a family. We have so many leaders and great thinkers and volunteers and that’s what it really is – selfless volunteers who do great works.”
It’s a family that’s only grown stronger over the course of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented spring and fall semesters.
As Alumni Association president, Houston says a lot of his role up to around the time of THON 2020 was interactive and in-person, with constant travel back to State College from his New York City home, and to away sporting events around the country. However, the COVID-19 crisis and the move to virtual events have allowed him and his team to connect with more alumni in more ways.
“We’ve been able to translate a lot of our activities, events, and programming into virtual events,” Houston says.
“We want to find ways, personally and virtually, and in print with the Penn Stater magazine, to keep people feeling connected to this little tiny town in Pennsylvania, no matter where they live in the world,” he adds. “I think that’s not only our mission, but also the greatest thing we do – creating and maintaining that connection.”
Clifford says much the same regarding the efforts of the association’s staff – which consists of about 70 individuals – to maintain their work amid the pandemic.
“We continue to think about our work connecting Penn Staters to the university for a lifetime, but using different modes to deliver that type of engagement,” he says. “As challenging and heartbreaking as it’s been to not be with your team and to see what the world is struggling with, it’s also been energizing and invigorating and really fun to bring a new level of creativity to the work we’re doing – creativity out of necessity.”
Honoring the past, looking to the future
Unfortunately, one event that the association will not be able to have in-person as a result of the pandemic is its 150th anniversary celebration, but, according to Houston, the Renaissance Fund honor is a fitting nod to the association’s past.
“I thought this was an incredible way for us to be honored, but also to celebrate this great achievement on our part,” Houston says. “Most universities aren’t 150 years old, and our Alumni Association is 150 years old. I thought this was a great way to commemorate that.”
As the association looks forward to the next 150 years, members are excited to see where the future takes the organization.
“We’re very much going to continue in the same vein – keeping alums connected,” Houston says. “Some of the things that have happened, unfortunately, this year have led to some changes in mentality and ways of doing things. I think we were focusing previously on a sort of nameless, faceless, general alum, and I think now we’re focusing more on the idea that not all Penn State alums look alike or talk alike or live in the same places, but we’re all Penn State alums.
“We’re diversifying not only the people who make up the Alumni Association, but how we connect and how we reach out to people and how we communicate with people and how we listen. I think the next 150 years for us will look very different from the last 150 years. We started in 1870, when there were no alums of color and there were no female alums. Just things like that alone, that we take for granted now – I think there are a lot of things we don’t consider now, that over the next 50 or 100 years will become more commonplace.”
This eye toward a more diverse future is one that especially resonates with Farzam, who is currently leading a diversity and inclusion survey and implementation for the association.
“How do we engage all of the different diverse groups of the Alumni Association? How are we impacting them through programs for individuals who aren’t connected with the Alumni Association? What can we do to connect them?” she asks.
“We hope to …really increase the diversity of the council. For example, we have young alums who are international students. We have a huge population of international students at Penn State … and many of them don’t necessarily come back. The mindset has always been to come in-person, be in-person with us, but I think this pandemic has proved that not everyone has to come in-person. People can make an impact from far away. I think that’s one of the greatest goals: How do we bring people back from different backgrounds?”
Even when looking toward the future, it’s impossible to ignore the association’s strong past, which is exactly what the Renaissance Fund honor recognizes.
“We have tremendous respect for all those who have come before us,” says Clifford. “This Alumni Association did not become one of the best in the world overnight; it’s been the dedication of the volunteers and our staff members who came before us that built it, and we’re custodians, maintaining that. We’re so grateful to those who came before us and what they have done. We’ve taken that responsibility to continue to move that forward.”
The Penn State Alumni Association will be recognized as the 2020 Renaissance Fund honoree in a virtual event, open to the public, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. To learn more about making a gift to the Penn State Alumni Association Renaissance Scholarship, visit raise.psu.edu/PSAARenaissance.
To learn more about becoming a member of the Penn State Alumni Association, open to both alumni and friends of the university, visit alumni.psu.edu.
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.