Student Involvement Among Key Résumé-Builders

- by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday

In their new home away from home, Pennsylvania College of Technology students are faced with innumerable questions and challenges, opportunities and temptations. Beyond their coursework, perhaps none of those experiences is more important than the chance to belong, to fit in, to surround themselves with like-minded (and potentially lifelong) friends.

Red Cross Bloodmobiles offer regular opportunities for student involvement, both as volunteers and donors. Photo by Jessica L. Tobias

In the warm cocoon of collegiality, a student can find others who share his or her interests, the common ground of fellow gamers and hobbyists, or, simply, the welcome support of a confidante’s ear.

There are more than 50 student organizations at Penn College: stretching from the broad membership of the Student Government and Residence Life associations to the more-specialized focus of groups related to academic majors.

“When students look back on their college experience, studying will only be part of it,” said Kimberly R. Cassel, director of student activities. “Getting involved outside the classroom helps foster positive memories of their time at Penn College. With 6,500 students here, it isn’t always easy to find that fit. But if someone can hook up with one organization of 20 students that they feel comfortable with, someone to turn to when there’s a problem or they need help, it really can help in finding that niche.”

The Student Government Association awards “SGA Cup” points to organizations for their campus involvement – the number of members who donate at an American Red Cross Bloodmobile or participate in a leadership conference, for instance – and the top finishers annually receive money for their organizations’ accounts.

The benefits aren’t merely financial, however. Student organizations are required to perform two college-service projects and two community-service projects each year. Whether it be a fundraiser for a charity, litter cleanup along an area highway, washing police cruisers or doing the heavy lifting for a budget-conscious nonprofit agency, Penn College students are making their presence known across campus and throughout Greater Williamsport.

“They learn that they don’t operate in a silo,” Cassel said. “They get the good feeling that comes from helping someone, and the community members easily can see the emphasis that we place on positive involvement.”

Some have even taken that reputation across the border.

Representatives of Penn College's vital student organizations aim for recruitment at a Fall FIESTA in the Field House. Photo by Phillip C. Warner

The Construction Management Association, Penn College’s student arm of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., was chosen as the “Student Chapter of the Year” at this year’s ABC National Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico. CMA, sponsored by ABC’s Central Pennsylvania chapter, was recognized among the top college and university student chapters during the 2008 Student Chapter Excellence Awards ceremony at the convention.

“CMA and its members have been extremely active on campus and in the community,” said Wayne R. Sheppard, assistant professor of construction management in the college’s School of Construction and Design Technologies. “The award recognizes the amount of time invested to promote construction management careers while serving others and having a great time. They submitted around 80 pages of documentation related to meetings, social events, industry interaction, fundraising, community and college service, and all sorts of additional activities that show they are the best in the country.”

In just the past year, members built a playhouse that was raffled to benefit the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, helped the Habitat office move into new headquarters, sponsored several field trips, hosted guest speakers, and participated in multiple charity and volunteer activities around Williamsport. The group also is the lead sponsor and provides management for the traditional fall “Hog Bash” pig roast on campus.

A collaborative effort among several Penn College organizations, the annual Hog Bash provides food, fun and friendship. Photo by Jennifer A. Cline

When it comes to civic contributions, students also have a shining example in the institution’s president, a longtime community volunteer who readily and regularly preaches the gospel of giving.

“The student body at Penn College is renowned for its public service: Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics, the American Cancer Society, AIDS awareness, Little League Baseball and so many others,” President Davie Jane Gilmour told one group of graduates during commencement ceremonies. “Please continue that spirit after you leave here, for it is that community commitment – whether in your own backyard or in the broader world beyond your doorstep – that will define your contribution every bit as much as your paying jobs.”

Some Penn College students already have confirmed that today’s corporate culture places a very high value on campus involvement – it no longer is “Who you know,” but, rather, “What have you done?”

Among them is Thomas P. Garrett, an information technology: information technology security specialist concentration major from Lansford, who interned this past summer with ING Direct in Wilmington, Del. April’s “Student of the Month” at Penn College, Garrett has amassed a formidable record of service: student government’s vice president of finance and chair of the allocations committee, president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a stint as a Resident Assistant at the Rose Street Apartments.

Student Stephen A. Geruschat was the grand-prize winner in fall's Wildcat Talent Contest, one of the countless events held each semester to involve students socially and educationally. Photo by Kenneth L. Barto

Meeting with corporate officials in his attempt to obtain an internship at a stressful financial firm in which computer crashes can cost millions of dollars, he had done his homework, knew about the company and was fully prepared to dazzle his inquisitors with what he had researched about their business.

“But when they saw what I was involved with – SGA, ACM president – they crumpled up their interview questions,” Garrett said.

Fraternities are among Penn College’s latest opportunities for students to contribute to their ever-growing world. Three national fraternities are represented with chapters, or “colonies,” at Penn College – Phi Mu Delta, Sigma Nu and Chi Phi – and Cassel noted that two sororities will be on campus by fall.

The college’s Student Affairs Office engaged in an extremely transparent selection process by inviting faculty/staff and students to each fraternity’s presentation and proactively addressing the more prevalent concerns. Officials made it clear, for one, that alcohol will be forbidden at all Greek functions – on Penn College’s campuses and off – and that the college will neither provide on-campus Greek housing nor encourage off-campus fraternity houses.

Volunteers spruce up the grounds at the Lycoming County SPCA pet cemetery, among the regular

While acknowledging the stigma that follows some fraternal organizations, the college – with the blessing of the administration – instead highlighted the principles of scholarship, service and philanthropy, leadership, community, and brotherhood in explaining its decision to initiate Greek life.

“Bringing fraternities and sororities to Penn College was not a decision that was made lightly,” noted Erin M. Datteri, the college’s assistant director of student activities for Greek life and leadership. “The administration reviewed both the positive growth of our students and the risk that it felt would be taken with these groups and decided that it was an opportunity Penn College was interested in providing.”

Greek life historically has played a critical role in strong student-life programs and has been noted for offering students opportunities to gain leadership skills and experience outside the classroom; to be active in college/community service and philanthropy activities; to develop institutional pride and build connections between friends, faculty and the college that leads to a stronger alumni base; and to find their place on a college campus, making a large institution feel smaller and more like home.

“I believe that the opportunities we provide for our students to get involved … make for more dynamic graduates. We want our students to feel proud of what their résumé looks like from curricular skills and from interpersonal relationships,” Datteri said. “This experience is provided when students work with a group of peers through Greek life, student government, residence life or programming experiences. It challenges them to think about their own personal values and what type of leader they would like to become.

“The key message is that, to maximize the college experience is to be involved both inside and outside the classroom,” she said. “And, there are many options at Penn College to help a student achieve that goal.” ■