State of State: Helping students find the ‘I am’ in ‘we are’

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State 2014 graduates Patrick Boynton and Suzanne Zakaria met during their studying abroad in Europe, they instantly clicked, sharing a common love for discussion, debate and people’s stories.

They both realized that organized and civil discussions are what is missing for many fellow Penn Staters, and they decided to co-create an annual student-run conference called State of State, with hopes of creating an open forum that can bridge the gap within the Penn State community; bringing students, faculty and staff all together addressing issues and brainstorming ideas to better the community.

After a huge success last year on their inaugural conference, presenting 15 key speakers on several topics and attracting more than 300 attendees, State of State has witnessed a big increase in student activism and expression about social issues. This year, State of State will be back again from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 14, in the HUB-Robeson Center Alumni Hall to continue its mission.

“State of State happened because people wanted it to happen. That was very affirming and continues to give me hope.”

— Patrick Boynton, State of State co-creator

Currently working as an events fellow with Atlantic Media in Washington, D.C., Boynton said his experience with State of State has changed his perspective in many different ways.

“Maybe the biggest takeaway is simply hope,” Boynton said. “It is so very easy to wake up, watch cable news, skim social media and go to bed jaded on humanity. I'm living in Washington, D.C., after all. But in organizing State of State, Suzanne and I had the privilege of working with incredible people who embraced the idea of a civil community dialogue. We weren't walking through town on a drizzly Sunday morning, dragging strangers off College Avenue to come talk with each other.”

State of State creators and co-directors Suzanne Zakaria and Patrick Boynton speak on stage to kick off the conference

State of State creators and co-directors Suzanne Zakaria and Patrick Boynton kick off the inaugural 2014 conference last year by discussing their vision for the open dialogue forum.

Image: Sophie Najjar

“State of State happened because people wanted it to happen,” Boynton said. “That was very affirming and continues to give me hope.”

Bret Turner, who was one of last year’s speakers, decided to continue his involvement by joining the committee as director of speaker projects.

Addressing the importance of preventing internal discrimination on racism among gay men, representation of women and people of color, and transphobia, Turner said he was happy to see more conversation and actions have been happening around the community.

“I think State of State is an extremely vital part of this campus,” Turner said. “To be the best Penn State that we can be, we need to make sure that everyone has a voice and can openly discuss issues that they find important. I hope that we continue to grow and that we have some fantastic conversations at this year's conference.”

“Maybe the biggest takeaway is simply hope. It is so very easy to wake up, watch cable news, skim social media and go to bed jaded on humanity."

— Patrick Boynton

Alicia Thomas, public relations director for State of State, met Boynton and co-founder Suzanne Zakaria during a summer when all three were interning in New York City. The two asked her to join State of State’s marketing team almost immediately.

“Their idea for this innovative new conference was inspirational, and I knew right away that it was something I had to be a part of,” Thomas said. “What sets State of State apart from so many other conferences and conversations in the Penn State community is that we’re not just talking about making changes in our community to progress in positive ways — we're actually acting on these conversations and enacting change to be born in our community.”

Thomas also touched on the theme for this year’s conference, which is “Finding the ‘I Am’ in ‘We Are.’ ”

“Penn State is a huge university, and it can be easy to feel like you don't matter when there are 39,999 other undergraduates roaming about campus. Our point is that everyone's individual contribution to this community matters, and it's all about finding the individual within the abstract,” Thomas said. “I think that our topics really bring this idea to light. It can be challenging to find your identity at a huge campus like ours, but I think we're promoting positive ways to do so and to consider the identities of other individuals within the masses.”

Turner said that he used to struggle finding his own personal self during his time at Penn State. “I love this place, but coming to college you get hit with so many new people and places and ideas all at once that it’s easy to lose yourself,” he said. “My advice to everyone would be to make sure you take the time to care for yourself in addition to what you give to the community.”

Nineteen faculty and student speakers from different backgrounds and disciplines will share their personal experience and insights on community improvement with the audience, covering topics ranging from student engagement and mental health resources to the Commonwealth Campus experience.

A roundtable discussion facilitated by facilitators from World in Conversations will follow after each topic, providing the attendees opportunities to share their thoughts with each other and further the impact.

Barry Bram, special assistant to the vice president of Student Affairs, attended the conference last year and said he was “thrilled” to be asked as one of the speakers this year.

“There is a fair amount of ‘uncivil’ dialogue taking place about other University issues, and these students are demonstrating that they care about the institution and are finding an appropriate forum to discuss important topics in a meaningful way."

— Barry Bram, 
special assistant to the
vice president of Student Affairs

“It is extremely humbling to be a part of the line-up of speakers this year, as there are powerhouse speakers across the spectrum,” Bram said. “I like what State of State is trying to do by encouraging dialogue about issues important to the institution.”

“There is a fair amount of ‘uncivil’ dialogue taking place about other University issues, and these students are demonstrating that they care about the institution and are finding an appropriate forum to discuss important topics in a meaningful way,” Bram further explained.

Bram will talk about university’s Engaged Scholarship initiative at the conference. When it comes to student involvement, Bram offered two pieces of advice.

“First is to be patient and continue to explore the options, as it may take time for some students to find their niches here,” Bram said. “Secondly, I'd encourage students to try something new and different. There are thousands of out of class experiences from which students can choose, and while it is easy to do what you know you love, it's also okay to try something that you don't know anything about. Those experiences can be just as transformative.”

“I hope students walk way informed and engaged about different issues, as State of State continues grow and reach out to other parts of the University,” Bram said.

Ten student speakers were selected to present at State of State 2015 based on self-applications and nominations.

“We heard a lot of powerful stories and it’s hard to make the decision, but we picked the ones we think that are best in line with our mission," Tess Hamsher, State of State director of content, said.

Discussions about sexual assault and sexual harassment have been set as one of the priorities for national campuses. President Eric Barron recently charged a task force to specifically address the issue, making Penn State one of the leaders in the nation. The task force released its recommendations Jan. 29.

Melissa McCleery, a senior studying women’s studies, political science and Spanish, has been passionate about further exploring the topic of sexual misconduct on campus as one of the nine student speakers for the conference.

Melissa McCleery, a senior studying women’s studies, political science and Spanish, has been passionate about further exploring the topic of sexual misconduct on campus as one of the nine student speakers for the conference. McCleery is also one of two students who served on the University's Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment.

Image: State of State

Melissa McCleery, a senior studying women’s studies, political science and Spanish, has been passionate about further exploring this topic as one of the nine student speakers. McCleery was one of two students who served on the University task force.

“I hope that people in the audience take away that men and women alike should both realize it’s not okay to normalize the mistreatment of women for simply being who they are,” McCleery said. “Once people get that, I’m hoping that they could help others see it and step in when they see things happening.”

Staying committed to her mission to bring positive changes, McCleery also serves as the chair of Sexual Violence Prevention and Awareness Roundtable in UPUA.

The conference is free to the public and registration can be accessed at http://www.eventbrite.com/e/state-of-state-2015-tickets-15369424362. A complimentary lunch will be served at the conference. Online streaming will also be available on www.psu stateofstate.com the day of event. 

Last Updated February 11, 2015