Penn State in the Winter

I’m now at 15 days before I leave the US permanently. It’s so surreal to think that one day, I’m living here and in a couple of weeks, I’ll be elsewhere, never to return (at least not in the foreseeable future.) I still have a number of essential things I need to get done, namely papers for the cat that can’t be processed till I’m down to my last 10 days here. The procedure with bringing him over has been so nerve wracking that I’ll be saving that for a post after I’m back in Kuala Lumpur.

But none of that has anything to do with winter at Penn State, my alma mater in State College, Pennsylvania. I visited last weekend with my friend Liz, mainly because we live so far from each other and Penn State often becomes our mid point meeting. This time, the visit served a dual purpose — see Liz, and bid farewell to a university that gave me a world-class education. I graduated from here seven years ago, but have been back for old times sake and the occasional tailgate at football games, which is what most of the country knows Penn State for.

It’s true that Penn State’s most prominent past time and feature is football. Students and alumni who are fans, are so devoted to the Nittany Lions, they’ll brave snow and wind to support the team at Beaver Stadium as the thermometer clocks in at -20 C during football season (Between late August to early November.) Tailgates and campsites during college football season are pop-up villages on campus dedicated to celebrating the team and the game. Not that it isn’t already a lot of fun to be at a big outdoor party — with grills firing burgers and hotdogs, people horsing about and music playing — but the abundance of alcohol also doesn’t hurt in getting everyone into a cheery mood.

Besides, the university is located smack in the middle of cow countryside aka Happy Valley in Pennsylvania state. It’s idyllic as a town for 40,000 young scholars who need quiet, away from the kaleidoscope of distractions of a metropolitan city, but also let loose and be as rowdy as they can without too many neighbours complaining. For a city dwelling foreigner like myself, living in a charming American country town was delightful in itself. Unlike the tidak apa (don’t care) mentality of Kuala Lumpur, everything here is orderly. Busses are frequent and on-time. Drivers are friendly. This is a public school in a little country town, but everything operated with tick-tock on the dot professionalism. Students ran their own schedule, but if you had a job on-campus, you were expected to mind your attitude. A poor work ethic was deeply frowned upon. Other universities also impress this on their students I’m sure, but having studied at another school in the US, I simply didn’t see the same kind of care and attention that Penn Staters showed for their work.

At Penn State, people usually chose to do the right thing, and that’s why they, or we couldn’t accept it when the football scandal blew up. The entire State College community invested in Penn State as our pride and joy. An institution so well-known across the nation and in the world, not just for football, but for award-winning academic achievements, that it was heartbreaking to be dragged into the mud for something so shameful as having a child molester so close to our midst — someone who had pulled wool over their eyes by taking advantage of the community’s honesty and naiveté. The rest of the country were quick to jump up and jeer, casting judgement over the entire community for appearing outraged that beloved coach Joe Paterno was being accused of a cover-up, but not at the horrible crimes committed, while others gloated at our tragedy. “How could these people have been SO stupid,” they said.

I can’t be sure it was stupidity. Although I’m an alumni, I don’t have the kind of community ties that other families, whose generations of children went here for an education. (Legacies is what they’re called in America.) Back in 2003, I was a newcomer to the Penn State community. Having grown up in an Asian city where cynicism towards neighbours was common and extending goodwill to strangers was (is) rare, the difference in locals’ attitudes towards each other was obvious. It was refreshing, even a relief not to worry nearly as much of dangers lurking around every dark alley and corner, like I was constantly told to when I was in KL. We had on-campus safety campaigns at Penn State too, but by and large, this is the kind of town where residents leave their doors unlocked or walk home alone late at night without trouble. There usually wasn’t any, and I was really happy to be part of this school and the greater State College community.

Overall, faith and trust in Penn State’s administration was solid — and why wouldn’t there be? The school flourished and continued to grow. We were spoiled to bits with top notch amenities. Something new was always being built for our benefit. New Macs in the computer labs every six months. Free movies and other entertainment at the student union on the weekends. Lots of funding for hundreds of student groups. Some of this money came from donors, but thanks to the popularity of our football team, a whole lot more came from corporate sponsorships. Money is what trumped the safety of children when the abhorrent misdeeds and cover up scandal finally broke, shattering Penn State’s reputation — but the irony of this is that I know, having lived amidst the Penn State community, that the majority of the school’s population would have done without the extra luxuries thrown at us, had we known what was going on. Finding out about the scandal on the evening news was just as much of a shock for us as it was for the rest of the country.

It was a bitter reality pill that some found hard to swallow, and those are the ones we saw on the news, rioting on College Avenue in protest of coach Paterno’s firing. Joe Pa is a beloved figure in Penn State circles, also revered for his many non-football contributions to the school. He was now being cast out like a pariah by the school’s administration, and this angered his diehard supporters, many who saw him as a father figure and the embodiment of Penn State. The behavior of the few thousand rioters was convenient ammo for ridicule, however, they certainly weren’t representing me, and they probably didn’t speak for thousands more past and present Penn Staters either. But the damage was done. When the scandal began unfolding in 2011, people around me wanted to know what it was like when I went to school there. No matter how much I tried to explain that Penn State was more than just football, a grim look would pass through their eyes as if they’d already decided that we were a bunch of brainwashed, inbred weirdos so blinded by loyalty that we couldn’t tell right from wrong. Fast forward to 2014, and I still get some grim looks at the mere mention of Penn  State.

No outsider seemed to care about hearing that Penn Staters had a good side to us: more than anyone else — even those of us less invested in football — we wanted to know how the heck something like this could happen in Happy Valley. We wanted an explanation to help the truth sink in. It didn’t mean that the horrors of the scandal was diminished — not at all. Regardless of rank, every person that knew about the wrongdoings had an equal amount of responsibility to report it, and as stewards of an institution that nurtures young minds, they also had that additional responsibility to make sure this didn’t happen again. Penn State placed all their eggs into the football basket, allowing the reputation to grow to mythical proportions. Which is fine, except, it also enabled a predator to lurk beneath that shiny veneer of glory for years and years. The radical defenders will bang on about assigning blame to anyone but Joe Pa, but as the abuse carried on literally unnoticed, it’s obvious that they all failed in their duties to protect the children. The sooner that everyone put aside their pride for the school and accepted reality, the sooner we could begin reflecting and making changes.

Traipsing around campus, observing the legions of students trekking through the snow to get to class, armed with books and backpacks, I remember how it was when I was in their shoes. Focused and competitive, we worked hard at good grades, student activities and fitness while holding down a part-time job or two, and finding time to party. It’s the result of that spirit that world-shaping breakthroughs continue to happen at Penn State. Just to name a few: The world’s first successful pacemaker. Policymaking that shaped the format of American public media that the country knows today. The inventor of the telephone jack and a biochemistry Nobel Prize winner as alumni. One of the best ice-cream manufacturing programs in America  that Ben & Jerry’s gained from.

I chose Penn State for their academic reputation, not even realizing how big football was over there. Students, faculty, administrators and alumni, we all want this to never happen again, and I believe measures are being taken. We want our good name returned, because we ARE a community that cares; a community that does the right thing. I’m no apologist for what happened here, but I do think that we’ve been at the short end of the stick with all the coverage so focused on the Joe Pa diehards creating havoc and appearing to have no heart for the victims.

Because the rest of us with a voice of reason, well — we make for boring news, don’t we?

**There’ve been enough essays on Penn State’s recent dilemma to last everyone a lifetime, and I really started out only meaning for this to be a pictorial post celebrating the pretty landscape of my alma mater. If you ended up reading all of what I had to say, thanks! I hope it added value to you somehow. Enjoy the pictures.**

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