"Hello, Self!": Honors students receive letters written four years ago

Dan Bloodgood hadn’t been at Penn State for 24 hours and already he had an assignment.

Hunched over a piece of paper, pen in hand, he sweated it out underneath a tent where a welcome barbecue had just been served to the members of the Schreyer Honors College’s (SHC) incoming freshman class.

“Dear Self,” he scrawled that August night in 2010. “Wow, can you believe four years have gone by?”

Fast forward, those four years have passed, and Bloodgood’s letter, which had been sealed in an envelope on that August night in 2010, has just been returned to him and other senior Schreyer Scholars graduating next weekend. The letters were part of SHO TIME, the Schreyer Honors College’s orientation program for incoming students. Like a postal time capsule, the letters have been in storage in a file cabinet in the basement of Atherton Hall since that night. As Bloodgood and his classmates turned in their honors theses in mid-April, the letters were returned and the soon-to-be graduates got a look back at what they were thinking and feeling when they first arrived on campus.

“I did remember writing this, actually, said Bloodgood, a senior in the Eberly College of Science who will be graduating with honors in biology. “It was one of those moments you remember. Moving into college is a big event. It was really hot that night, and we had to walk all the way across campus, and I remember I was really hungry and tired.

“I also remember I was really kind of nervous. I had just met these people, and I remember thinking ‘Are these going to be my future friends forever?’ I didn’t know if I’d do well in college or if I’d get along with my roommate. But it all turned out great.”

To read more excerpts from students' letters, click here. 

Donna Meyer, the Schreyer Honors College’s coordinator of student programs, came up with the idea to kick off the first night of orientation with the letter-writing activity.

“The letter is an opportunity for self-reflection,” Meyer said. “At the time they write the letter, just as they’ve arrived on campus, they are setting goals and mapping out who they are and what they want to be. When they read it now, they get this amazing sense of accomplishment and awareness from all of the anticipation of arrival day to the achievement of graduating with honors.”

Just as Meyer planned, the special deliveries in recent weeks have Schreyer seniors taking a look back at their not-so-distant pasts.

“I vividly remember writing it,” said Marvin Johnson, who will be graduating from the College of the Liberal Arts having majored in psychology with a business option. His letter begins with a jaunty salutation: “Dear 22-year-old Marvin (aka Future Me aka Present You).”

“This was just to make me smile, to just be a snapshot of where I was,” Johnson said. “I knew I was going to have experiences that I would have for a lifetime but I wanted to write and remember myself as where I was, how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I was, how naïve I was. Reading it, it didn’t seem profound but rather it showed me how much I transformed over these past four years.”

Uma Pattarkine, a senior in the Smeal College of Business who is graduating with bachelor of science degrees in finance and accounting and a master of accounting, laughed when talking about her letter. In it, she had written about spending the next four years preparing for law school while pursuing a major in finance and minors in international business and biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB).

“My goals changed pretty quickly,” said Pattarkine, who is moving to Houston, Texas, to take a position in Exxon-Mobil’s financial development program. “The BMB went away quickly. I like learning concepts and being able to apply them in different situations. I love working with numbers. I love finance so it all worked out.”

Cori Steimling, a senior majoring in animal science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, had an inkling that first night that her academic career was going to change right from the start.

“Right now, you’re debating leaving biology and switching to animal science for large animal and wildlife,” she wrote.

“I think it’s funny now how I was so motivated to change my major right away,” Steimling said. “Making that decision that very first day changed my life entirely. I had been accepted into the College of Science but my heart was in agricultural sciences. I felt more at home in the College of Ag, and I would recommend it 10 times over to anyone. It’s one decision that I’ve stuck with, and it’s taken me in a completely different direction.”

Jessica Paholsky’s letter stated up front her goal -- to become a National Geographic photographer. Paholsky, who will be graduating with degrees in journalism, with the visual communications option, and fine arts, with a focus on photography, said the past four years have opened her eyes to lots of possibilities.

“National Geographic’s definitely still out there but, knowing more about my field now, it’s not a set-in-stone goal,” said Paholsky, who spent time abroad in Mexico, Cuba and Italy the past four years. “I’ve come to realize that I can use my skills and language and international studies experience toward something else.”

As for experiences over the past four years, each of these seniors expressed astonishment at how much their lives have changed since that August night.

Pattarkine launched SHC THON, the Penn State Dance Marathon team supported by the Schreyer Honors College’s Student Council, and held a leadership position on Penn State Homecoming’s executive committee.

“It’s hard to sum up everything over the past four years,” Pattarkine said. “Back then, I could never have imagined what this would bring. It definitely surpassed all of my expectations by a lot.”

Steimling landed in a poultry science research project that turned out to be the basis of her honors thesis. Her research landed her an invitation to the International Poultry Scientific Forum twice. Her first time there she won an undergraduate research award. Her trip to the forum led to an invitation to speak about her research at North Carolina’s Turkey Days.

“I was the only undergraduate who spoke,” said Steimling, who will be entering Ohio State University’s veterinary program. “It was a really neat experience for people to walk up to me afterward and ask me my opinion. I was one of their peers rather than just a college student. My whole experience these past four years has taken me a lot of places that I could never have predicted, and I wouldn’t trade it for a single thing in the world.”

For Bloodgood, writing that letter under that tent was only the first of many experiences he can now look back upon from his time at Penn State. He credits an honors class, Globalization Trends and World Issues, with introducing him to the intricate web of governmental organizations, nonprofits, think tanks and companies that propel public policy. He had the opportunity to conduct his thesis research in Spain “for two awesome months” last summer.

“I could never have realized how much I would learn academically and as a person over these past four years,” said Bloodgood, who will be starting a Ph.D. program in neurobiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill later this year. “I’ve learned a lot of leadership. I’ve been involved in the community and other clubs. I’ve learned how to be an effective manager of people and how to bring out the best in them and help them grow.”

Personal growth is what Paholsky said she has developed over the past four years. Studying abroad expanded her worldview. Small honors classes encouraged her to become more comfortable in speaking up and expressing her views. Being a photographer for the Daily Collegian exposed her to many aspects of the University. Competitive with the club cross country team for the past four years, when she was sidelined with an injury her junior year, Paholsky took up swimming—and ended up becoming a triathlete and a member of the Penn State Triathlon Club. She went to nationals in Arizona last month with the club.

“I think the one sentence I could be satisfied with the most in my letter is where I wrote ‘I hope you have gained the confidence to go out into the real world and the knowledge to become whatever your heart aims for,’” said Paholsky, who will be working for Travel for Teens this summer, documenting the company’s European tours.

“I think that’s definitely been my biggest outcome at Penn State and in Schreyer. In high school and all throughout childhood, I was always reserved. I wasn’t the one to speak up in class. That definitely changed here. It came not only from small classes and being encouraged to be vocal and assertive but also from being involved in extracurriculars and being exposed to so many students. The knowledge comes from academics, cultural experiences, student government, athletics—pretty much everything.”

For Johnson, the academic experience has prepared him to launch his career but he said it is the people he met these past four years that have enriched his life. Even his younger self in 2010, in those first hours at Penn State, had started making people connections. His letter mentions two of his new classmates—Patrick Boynton and Chloe Weaver—by name and whom he quaintly writes “seem like good-natured American teens.”

“These last four years were the unfolding of a blessing,” said Johnson, whose post-graduation plans include marrying fellow Penn Stater Abigail Layer on June 13 and starting a job as a talent acquisitions specialist with Aramark in Philadelphia. “It surpassed my wildest expectations of what I thought college would be like. In a nutshell, the classes that I’ve taken, the success that I’ve had in the classroom is one thing but what has stuck and what will continue to make an impact in my life are the people I’ve met, the laughs I’ve shared.

“For freshman coming in, you think so much about ‘Am I going to make the grade-point average? Am I going to take the necessary classes? Am I going to get my thesis done?’ You need to focus on those things but not lose track of all of the people you’re going to meet and all of the things you’re going to do outside of the classroom.

“What’s really marked my four years are the moments I’ve shared with people. It’s been unforgettable.”

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Last Updated June 02, 2014