Q&A: Alumni Association chapter presidents lead through volunteerism, part III

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Here’s the finale of the Alumni Association's three-part series on millennial chapter presidents. Hear how they develop leadership skills early on, learn from alumni who’ve been involved with their chapter for years (or decades), and stay connected to Penn State through their volunteerism.

Featured this month: Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter President Kristin Prusinowski (Class of 2006) and San Francisco Bay Area Chapter President Sarah Hernandez (Class of 2006).

Kristin Prusinowski, Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter President

Kristin Prusowski photo

Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter President Kristin Prusinowski, photographed in April 2014 with her now 3-year-old son, Jacob: "Penn Staters are life learners, so attending events with alumni from many generations is a rich experience for all. There’s something comforting about walking into a room miles away from campus, but where you know you have an immediate connection."

Image: Kristin Prusinowski

Alumni Association: How did you initially become involved with your alumni chapter, and what inspired you to become your chapter's president?
Kristin Prusinowski: My husband and I had been attending the occasional event each year since relocating to the Hudson Valley in 2007. We’re both from out of town, so having a local Penn State “family” was a comfort. In 2014, I started attending my chapter’s monthly board meetings because I wanted to become more involved in my local community. My older son was about 18 months old at that time, and I felt a need to reclaim some of my own identity after focusing so much energy on surviving first-time parenthood, as well as set an example of community service and involvement for him. Initially, my intention was to start slow and find just one project or event that I could lead, but instead I raised my hand at the call for nominees for president. As the veteran members move toward retirement and reduce their leadership roles within the chapter, there’s a need for the younger alumni to step up, and I sensed that urgency. I want to do my part to keep our chapter going.

Alumni Association: Were you involved with any Alumni Association-related activities as a student, and following up on the first question, how did you learn about your local Alumni Association chapter? Was joining an alumni chapter something you knew about even as a student?
Kristin Prusinowski: My parents are alumni, so I’ve always been aware of the Alumni Association and have fond memories of attending a reunion weekend at University Park with them. As an incoming freshman, I attended my local chapter’s freshman sendoff event, so when the Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter reached out to me upon my graduation, I again appreciated the connection with the satellite community.

Alumni Association: Being a young chapter president, did you have any prior experience that helped prepare you for this leadership position, and what have you learned during your time as chapter president that's helped you grow, personally and professionally?
Kristin Prusinowski: As a student, I completed the Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) minor and was involved with the associated ELD Unlimited club, where I had the opportunity to lead projects and events. In my professional career, I have held supervisory positions, as well as lead project work. So far, during my short time as president, I’ve learned the importance of mentorship. The immediate past president, Bob Wagner, has been a patient mentor and resource to me. There are many best practices and observations that Bob has shared with me, while also encouraging me to test my own ideas.

Alumni Association: Do you have any chapter members who've belonged to the group for a long time, perhaps decades? If so, how special is it to bridge those generational gaps and have shared Penn State experiences with alumni who might've graduated decades earlier?
Kristin Prusinowski: As I understand the history, a group of alumni has been representing Penn State from an admissions and recruitment standpoint in the Mid-Hudson Valley, long before the Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter was established in 1999. I think it’s safe to generalize and say that all Penn Staters are life learners, so attending events with alumni from many generations is a rich experience for all. Also, who doesn’t love the feeling of camaraderie? There’s something comforting about walking into a room miles away from campus, but where you know you have an immediate connection.

Sarah Hernandez, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter President

Sarah Hernandez photo

San Francisco Bay Area Chapter President Sarah Hernandez: "What’s so satisfying is being able to reconnect with that part of myself and pay it forward, because I want other people to have the same experiences and opportunities."

Image: Sarah Hernandez

Alumni Association: How did you initially become involved with your alumni chapter, and what inspired you to become your chapter's president?
Sarah Hernandez: I moved to California shortly after graduation, and I moved here blindly — I didn’t know anyone when I moved to the Bay Area. One of the first things I did when I hit the ground was look to connect with fellow Penn Staters, and recreate that sense of home and place. I got involved with admissions, assisting with the college fairs and making calls to admitted students; and through that community, I met my now Vice President Amy Hazen. One day, Amy and I were chatting about admissions efforts and thought maybe we should get more plugged into the alumni chapter and get to know the community. We introduced ourselves to the chapter president, at the time, Tom Paradiso, and learned that Tom was running a one-man show. He didn’t have volunteer help, and he was still churning out lots of great activities for Bay Area alumni. Amy and I volunteered to be young alumni co-chairs, and over the course of two years, Tom and I built a relationship to the point where Tom said, “Let’s have a conversation about a succession plan, and would you want to step into this role?” I was really gung-ho, because I saw so much potential. Tom built a great foundation for the chapter, and I thought, “How do we take this to the next level?” I transitioned into that role in July 2012.

Alumni Association: Were you involved with any Alumni Association-related activities as a student, and following up on the first question, how did you learn about your local Alumni Association chapter? Was joining an alumni chapter something you knew about even as a student?
Sarah Hernandez: I was involved with the Blue & White Society, though I have to admit that the alumni chapter world was really not on my radar coming out of Penn State. I do this work professionally, so I know that these entities exist, and it was more through my professional work that I came to know and familiarize myself with the Penn State chapters. In 2010 or 2011, one of my roommates (Jeannine Castelbuono) became the chapter president in Boston, and she was influential in me accepting the offer that Tom made to become the president of the Bay Area Chapter. Boston is a more well-oiled machine and serves a more broad alumni audience. Jeannine was influential in walking me through what was needed, and helping me to understand the opportunities that she was able to take advantage of in that leadership role.

Alumni Association: Being a young chapter president, did you have any prior experience that helped prepare you for this leadership position, and what have you learned during your time as chapter president that's helped you grow, personally and professionally?
Sarah Hernandez: Definitely — the fact that I do this work professionally is the best training ground for me as a volunteer. I am on the staff side of volunteers in my professional world; and what I’ve really enjoyed is being able to wear the volunteer hat in my work environment, and say, “Let’s think about this from the volunteer perspective.” It’s very different when it’s your 9-to-5 job, versus when it’s the activity you have to carve out time in your personal life for. It’s a lot harder to be a volunteer than it is to be a paid professional in this industry. As much as I coach volunteers on best practices, and succession plans, and establishing bylaws, when you are the one doing it as a volunteer, there are a lot more obstacles involved. I appreciate the opportunity to see both sides of the coin.

Alumni Association: Do you have any chapter members who've belonged to the group for a long time, perhaps decades? If so, how special is it to bridge those generational gaps and have shared Penn State experiences with alumni who might've graduated decades earlier?
Sarah Hernandez: Tom Paradiso, the former president, is really that mentor and that coach in my eye. He was running the chapter all on his own for 11 years, and I knew coming into this leadership role that I would need Tom for his support, institutional knowledge, and buy in. It also was important that he continued to be a contributing and valued member of our board and our leadership. He still sits on the board for the scholarship program. And he contacts admissions and finds out what students have been admitted so they can complete the application. He always attends our annual student sendoff every August, and I really value knowing I have someone like Tom who I can lean on. I value his opinion when we’re making tough decisions. We spent the last year-and-a-half working on our chapter’s infrastructure. We wrote and approved bylaws; set up a bank account where there are three different signers; and have a formal board with roles, responsibilities and job descriptions. Without Tom’s input, none of those things would have been possible. He’s the best example of how we’re bridging the gap between the younger alumni and older alumni.

Alumni Association: In what ways does belonging to an alumni chapter help you stay connected to Penn State, and why is it important to keep that connection?
Sarah Hernandez: Like many other Penn Staters you talk to, I am a very proud alumna. It is ingrained in me; it’s part of me, and who I am and how I define myself. The reason I love Penn State so much is I not only got a great education, I also made lifelong friends there; and I met my husband through the Penn State chapter. I feel indebted to my alma mater in so many ways beyond the education — Penn State has really enriched my life in ways that I can’t even express. What’s so satisfying is being able to reconnect with that part of myself and pay it forward, because I want other people to have the same experiences and opportunities. When I became president, it was right after the scandal, and I was really anxious about what might happen with the chapter and what responses we’d get. I wondered if people would come out, and how they were feeling about Penn State. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people came out to our social events to have a safe place. They were there without having to explain why they still loved Penn State — it was come as you are. That was a really powerful experience to go through in my tenure as president, and really validated all of the wonderful things about Penn State. It’s an accepting and passionate community, and these are people that I want to spend my time with. Being in California, there’s this gravitational pull toward each other because there are so few of us (living in the state), and that’s a really special thing.

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Last Updated April 12, 2016