This fall, the Penn State Shenango Campus is enrolling its 49th class of first-year students. That means that 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the campus.
The campus opened in 1965, and I started there in the fall of 1966. During my freshman year, there was no physical campus. Instead, classes were held at Kennedy Christian High School, which itself was fairly new and had some space to spare. The nuns were very generous to us college kids, not complaining (at least not to us) when we played cards in the cafeteria, which we used as a kind of student lounge.
The next year we moved to a campus of our very own in downtown Sharon—an old high school building that dated to the early 1900s. Like many older buildings in the Shenango Valley, it was built of yellow brick and sat near the riverside. It was old and a bit creaky, but it was home and gave us big old classrooms with high ceilings and the message that learning was taken seriously here. It was a great learning environment. Because the campus was a smallish community, classes were fairly small, and the students got to know the faculty very well.
One of the great things about Shenango in those days was the curriculum itself. We had, in addition to the usual introductory courses, the opportunity to take interdisciplinary general education courses in the humanities, behavioral and social sciences, and physical sciences. There were two interdisciplinary courses in the humanities series, which explored how the major ideas of Western Civilization evolved, from Lucretius’ The Nature of Things to more modern times. Given our small classes, there was a lot of discussion, which made the courses great fun. When I transferred to University Park—where many of the survey courses were taught in lecture halls of 300 or more students with virtually no interaction between students and faculty—I realized just how powerful the Shenango Campus experience had been.
That second year, I served as editor of the campus newspaper—The Lions Line—and also covered several campus basketball games for our local paper, The Sharon Herald. I thrived in this environment of smaller classes embedded in a community where I was already at home and where I studied with some old friends from high school along with new classmates, some of whom became lifelong friends.
Penn State Shenango was a godsend. Had it not opened in my junior year of high school, I probably would not have gone to college. We had no money, and no real expectation that I could afford college. But I took the SATs anyway, mostly on a dare from my best friend, and when I got high scores some of my high school faculty contacted my mother and explained how I could go to Penn State but live at home and how I could get state scholarships to support the tuition. I was able to be a full-time student while living at home and working almost full-time at Arby’s, where I was a shift manager. In those days, Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses offered only the first two years of the baccalaureate degree. After two years you either transferred to another nearby college or to Penn State’s University Park Campus. The result was that I got a great education and made friends who transferred to the main campus when I did, so I didn’t have to make that huge transition—living away from home for the first time—entirely by myself.
In May 2005, as the campus celebrated its fortieth anniversary, I was invited to give the spring commencement speech at Shenango. I mentioned the incredible changes that the Information Revolution has wrought in our daily lives, and the fact that the changes will continue, noting:
For me, at my age, all this is an adventure. For you, well, it may be pretty normal. But this idea that technology is changing how you will define your community in the years ahead is well worth thinking about. All of you have the ability now to carry your communities with you wherever your life’s work will take you. For some of you—and I hope this is true of a good many—it will allow you to stay right here in Western Pennsylvania and still be citizens of a rich community of colleagues and friends far from here. Pennsylvania is facing a powerful challenge. Many of our communities—and the Shenango Valley is a wonderful example—were shaped by the needs of the Industrial Revolution. The challenge—and it is an immediate challenge for all of us—is to re-envision our communities for this new economy. We’ll need your leadership here at home or wherever your careers take you, to make that happen.
Tonight, you have received your degrees from Penn State. But I think it is important to note that you did “receive” your education. It hasn’t been handed down to you. Instead, you MADE your education. You had lots of help from faculty members and other students, but it is YOURS. In the process, you’ve created a new capacity within yourself to face the changes ahead. One thing we DO know about the world that the information revolution has created is that, for us—because the world continues to change rapidly—education doesn’t end tonight. It is a lifelong process. I wound up getting two more degrees from Penn State as an adult learner. I hope that, as you move forward you will continue to turn to Penn State for renewal and to help you to reach new goals as you move ahead in your life.
Over the years, Penn State’s system of Commonwealth Campuses has strengthened the local economies of communities in this most small-town of states, giving us leaders. As it approaches its 50th anniversary, it is fun to look back, but even better to look ahead to how Penn State Shenango can realize its potential for a new generation.