A 'bittersweet' departure

Editor's Note: Arianna Davis is a Penn State alumna and writer for Refinery29 in New York City.

When you climb the stairs of Carnegie Building, it can feel cold. Intimidating, almost — especially if you’re an 18-year-old freshman unsure of what’s beyond the stone walls of the home of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. It’s even more daunting if you are a minority student, new not just to Penn State but also to the outside-the-comfort-zone experiences that come with college life. 

And then you meet Joseph Selden, the college’s assistant dean of multicultural affairs.

For 23 years, Dean Selden has welcomed ethnically diverse students with open arms and a signature chuckle that comes straight from his belly — and his heart.

He has mentored wide-eyed Penn Staters through any conundrum they could face: difficulties fitting into a mostly white university, disagreements with faculty members, decisions about Greek life, even relationship breakups and family issues back home. Since the 1990s, Selden has single-handedly helped thousands of communications majors make the transition to true adults ready to leave the bubble of Carnegie Building with exactly the tools they need.

On June 30, Selden is leaving that bubble himself.

Selden, 66, is retiring. “It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Bitter, because I will miss my students. But sweet, because the way it worked out, all the planets have aligned.”

Here’s how they’ve aligned: “Penn State offered me the right benefits package, and I’m at the right age and point in my life. I have mixed emotions, but I’m trying to stay excited. It’s time to plan out my future.”

Not to worry. Selden and his wife, Shenetta, will remain in Happy Valley for at least a year, while their daughter, Camille, completes her master’s degree in education.

After that, they’re considering a move down South, “somewhere where I can take lots of salt-water fishing trips, get back to my oil-and-acrylic on canvas work, and play tennis,” said the native of Bedford, Virginia.

And that love of tennis has deep roots: As a life member of the United States Tennis Association, he’s been passionate about tennis since he played in a physical education course at Oklahoma State University. He was inspired by tennis legend Arthur Ashe, whom Selden calls one of his role models. At the end of every summer, he takes time off to attend the U.S. Open.

Of course, the assistant dean has been serving others long before he arrived to Penn State. As an undergraduate at Oklahoma State, he was in Air Force ROTC and was commissioned at graduation in 1973 as a second lieutenant. He initially trained to be an air weapons controller, but it wasn’t long before he realized he wanted a sociocultural career path. That led him to become a social actions officer, conducting race relations seminars for military personnel and civilian employees of the federal government. Simultaneously, he earned his master’s degree in guidance counseling from Syracuse University.

After 11 years of active duty in the Air Force, he began his career in academia in 1985 as assistant director of student services/registrar at Cornell University. At the same time, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve. For the next 19 years, he was assigned to the Pentagon as a communications/computer systems officer for active-duty time each year, helping to update the Air Force’s logistics policies. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2004 with decorations that included the Meritorious Service Medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

In the fall of 1994, Selden moved from Cornell to Penn State, quickly becoming a staple in the community. He began as the director of multicultural relations before being promoted in 2001 to assistant dean. He was the first-ever dean of multicultural affairs at any Penn State campus, a role that has helped the Bellisario College become one of the most diverse colleges on the campus with the number of students of color averaging 11.8 percent.

Along the way, he has earned accolades. He received a Barry Bingham Sr. Fellowship from the National Conference of Editorial Writers in 2001, an award recognizing “an educator’s outstanding efforts to encourage minority students in the field of journalism.” He was named the “most devoted senior faculty member” at Penn State by Delta Gamma chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in 2009 for his dedication to minority students, many of whom were members of the sorority and had become campus leaders thanks to Selden’s guidance.

When a minority student arrives at Penn State with dreams of a job in journalism, advertising or public relations, someone will probably direct him or her to Selden’s office. People at Penn State know about his years of going above and beyond office hours, whether that means Saturday visits with prospective student-athletes, hosting weekend brunches for graduate students, or meeting with tearful undergrads during his lunch break.

“There are many nights when I walk out of the building to head home around 7 in the evening, and Dean Selden’s day is still going,” said Dean Marie Hardin. “What I’m going to miss most is seeing him share his wisdom with his students. He has a way of being very direct and honest with our students, but in such an endearing way. He cares about the kids that he works with, not just while they’re at Penn State, but long after they’ve left.”

Selden was a “mentor” long before that designation became vogue, said Douglas Anderson, who was the college’s dean when Selden was promoted to assistant dean. Anderson, now retired and living in Phoenix, said: “He cares deeply about students — and has a great feel for that which each individual needs most, from simple guidance or a pep talk to a scolding … Joe has the just-right touch.”

Years after they leave Penn State, communications alumni who meet each other across the country often bond over a shared realization that they were “Dean Selden kids.”

The relationship with his students sometimes brings them back to the University. The College of Education’s current multicultural coordinator, Gary Abdullah, was a “Dean Selden kid” as an undergraduate back in 1999, and then again as a graduate student before he returned to Penn State in 2007 to work full time.

“I will never forget one weekend when he invited me and other graduate students to his home for a pancake breakfast,” Abdullah said. He had never seen a mentor go so far above and beyond to help students process not just school, but life. “Now as an administrator myself, I have the greatest appreciation for the way he makes each person feel dedicated to him, no matter how many responsibilities he’s juggling at once.”

Selden’s influence on academia goes beyond students. Linda Shockley, managing director at the Dow Jones News Fund in Philadelphia — which has partnered with Penn State on workshops to help multicultural students sharpen their journalism skills — said working with Selden for nearly 25 years has left a lasting impression.

“He works for his students in a way that modeled the best commitment to them, with the ultimate goal of promoting careers in media,” she said. She has always looked forward to seeing the Penn State entourage he leads to the job fair at Howard University in Washington each year, “their resumes compiled and collected by a forward-thinking professional.”

When the news of his retirement was delivered via Facebook in February, the “Dean Selden kids” were saddened — but also excited for him.

“I met Dean Selden during my visit before freshman year, and he was the person who welcomed me with a hug,” said Brittany Marshall, a reporter at ‎WHAG-TV in Washington, D.C., who earned her journalism degree in 2011. “He helped me meet my best friends, prepare my schedule for my first year, and get scholarships. His office was my second home.”

Tierra Jones, the founder of Attract Philly, a nonprofit educational organization in Philadelphia, said Selden helped to make sure she graduated. He earned his telecommunications degree in 2010. “I had to take 21.5 credits in the final semester of my senior year in order to graduate on time, and Dean Selden not only checked in with me, but my professors. And at graduation, he waited until long after the ceremony to meet my parents.”

Sarim Ngo, a senior account manager in advertising in Los Angeles, who earned her journalism degree in 2009, fondly remembers outings with Selden. “He had a smile so bright it could brighten any room,” he said. “He would take me to a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch and tell me not to tell anyone or they would get jealous – even though I knew he was just as nice and thoughtful to all of his students. Peers from other universities knew of him and always told me they wished they could have him as their mentor.”

* * * *

Dean Selden certainly influenced the writer of this very profile. Since graduating from Penn State in 2009, I’ve managed to build a career in journalism, I’ve written hundreds of stories, worked for Oprah Winfrey, and landed a features-writer gig at Refinery29, one the most innovative feminist women’s lifestyle destinations on the web. I have never taken any of these accomplishments for granted, and I know that not a single one would have been possible without Dean Selden.

It was Dean Selden who persuaded me to attend Penn State upon a high school visit, Dean Selden who encouraged me to apply for scholarships and fellowships, Dean Selden who hooked me up with the right professors. And during my senior year, it was Dean Selden who managed my meltdowns about career decisions. 

In that office brimming with papers and binders and the scent of coffee, I truly began to grow up, to become an ambitious woman who was ready to take on the world.

Dean Selden’s impact on thousands of students just like me is now a part of the blue-and-white thread of Penn State history.

He will be missed, and the biggest regret that I and other alums have about his retirement is that future students won’t have the privilege of receiving his hugs, his encouragement, his wisdom.

But those tennis breaks and fishing trips? Well earned, Dean Selden. And wherever you go, be sure to keep that belly-laugh!

Last Updated May 05, 2017