New program lets Altoona professors share expertise in and out of the classroom

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Sometimes the best, most valuable learning comes outside of the classroom environment. Students in the Honors Program at Penn State Altoona are finding that out by eating sushi, re-enacting the raid on Harper’s Ferry and touring a grain corporation plant -- not for a grade, not for extra-credit, but simply for the sake of conversation and whatever may come from it. 

The Distinguished Honors Faculty Program, new to Penn State Altoona this year, is based on one by the same name at the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University Park. The philosophy behind it is to get students into a non-classroom setting and involved in intellectual discussions about timely or interesting topics. “It’s not about professors going in with any kind of agenda or lecture at all,” said Laura Rotunno, coordinator of the program at Altoona.

More often than not, the topics brought about by professors have nothing to do with their areas of expertise or what they teach, and students are participating in realms outside of their academic majors or courses. The result is open dialogue on thought-provoking subjects and exposing students to innovative thinking and expanded understanding. “Some of the questions and issues we discuss that pique intellectual curiosity turn into things students can write about or that inspires them to do research or even figure out what they want to do in their academic career,” said Rotunno. “Interacting with professors outside of the classroom can also show students what professors do in a new and different light.”

Meghan Delsite is a sophomore studying communications. She has only been in the honors program about two months but already thinks this new feature has added greatly to her experience. “Coming to college and being able to do this kind of thing just means so much to me. There are so many opportunities I wouldn’t have had if didn’t join this program. It’s already helped me grow a lot and experience more.”

Rotunno put out a call to professors over the summer for proposals outlining their intended events. There were spots for most who offered their time and energy resulting in nine diverse programs throughout the academic year. The first, with Erin Murphy, associate professor of English, focused on failure and risk-taking. Over dinner at Yamato, a Japanese restaurant in Altoona, the group discussed their ideas of failure, how to handle it and the importance of taking risks. The conversation was topped off with students trying sushi and other Japanese foods for the first time. 

“For me, this particular Distinguished Honors Faculty Program was an issue close to my heart,” stated Annette Nagle, a junior from Altoona. "The insights and advice that Erin shared with us helped change my perspective about the new path I have found myself on. I hope to attend the Success! What does it mean to be successful? program in January. I’d imagine hearing different perspectives on what success is would be a nice balance, now that I have a healthier perspective on failure. I wouldn't want to miss another opportunity to gain enlightening perspectives from bright academic leaders and students on our campus.”

Honors students can attend as many events as they’d like. Some involve dinner and discussion but others also include field trips, like the one to the "Body Worlds" exhibit in New York City in October, one to the Pennsylvania Grain Corp. plant and one to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., in March. Field trips are exciting and fun but are only an added bonus. Students seem to prefer the interaction with professors.

“Around that dinner table, professors look at you like an equal rather than as just another student,” said Delsite. “They are talking with you and communicating, and the fact that we are having dinner with these older, wiser people is really cool.” Delsite says after just the first event she became inspired to delve into new areas, such as the poetry Murphy is so passionate about. “I hadn’t met her before and afterward I was like, ‘Wow, I want to go read poetry now.’ I want to do a lot more just from that one dinner where we spent two hours talking to each other.”

Rotunno is pleased with the success of the program in such a short amount of time. It was funded for the year by money from Schreyer Honors College that was then matched by Penn State Altoona’s honors and Academic Affairs funds. She hopes the program will eventually have its own funder and continue to grow. How elaborate it becomes is really up to the imaginations of the professors who get involved. “The more vibrant we can make the program, the more students will talk and become engaged. Reinforcing the ideals of the honors program, taking initiative and taking advantage of opportunities, being interested and engaged students … that’s what this is all about,” she stated.

Nagle added, “You get to see a different side of professors and you get to know them as humans, people just like you -- rather than academic leaders giving you facts for a grade. It's also a great way to meet other students in the honors program. You have a great excuse to go out for an evening, participate in thought-provoking discussion and make new friends. We should take every chance we can to learn lessons about life, take time to relax and enrich our lives.”

“The fact that these professors take time out of their schedules and want to share is pretty amazing. It’s cool how they can influence us through just these small things,” said Delsite.

Extending beyond classroom walls can open the eyes of student and professor both educationally and personally, and broaden their views on the world. “Sometimes classrooms have to be expanded to encompass the richness of what we teach,” said Sandra Petrulionis, professor of English and American studies. She and husband Joe, instructor in philosophy and history, are hosting the Harper’s Ferry trip. “This is especially true when arbitrary barriers, like the wall separating history and literature, stand as unnecessary obstructions. The Distinguished Honors Program gives us a chance to take interested students into the field, in our case next year to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. John Brown and his violent raid in 1859 on the federal arsenal there will offer complex demonstrations of the benefits that can be achieved by overlapping history, literary studies and ethics.”

For a look at upcoming dinners, discussions and field trips, visit altoona.psu.edu/honors.

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Last Updated October 28, 2013