Alumni mentoring program underscores dedication to improving student experiences

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Looking back at when he began his first job as a geoscientist, Penn State alumnus Enrique Perez said he saw how a formal alumni mentoring program could have benefited him.

"I'm from a low-income family in Georgia and I didn't have any relatives in the sort of career I was pursuing," he said.

Perez came to Penn State on a full scholarship as a participant in a program that gives high-achieving female or underrepresented college students the financial support they need to obtain two bachelor’s degrees at an accelerated pace. After attending Fort Valley State University, a historically black college in central Georgia, Perez came to Penn State to finish his bachelor's studies in geosciences. He then stayed at Penn State two more years to receive an M.S. in geosciences in 2010, receiving career advice along the way.

Perez believes that having a one-on-one connection with an experienced alum would have provided even more support and confidence as he entered into his career. Now, Perez wants to share his experience and expertise with graduating seniors — which is the main reason he joined the Graduates of Earth and Mineral Sciences (GEMS) alumni board last year.

"It's a way that I can contribute and give back to students who come from similar backgrounds. I can provide a different level of experience than other people, so I thought it was a great avenue for me to give back to others," he said.

GEMS is launching a formal college mentoring program, designed to provide advice and a welcoming network to graduating seniors. The pilot program will launch in 2017-18 and plans to pair 30 graduating students with alumni in the students' preferred career fields.

But this isn't the first time College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) alumni got involved in mentoring students.

Erik Pytlak, who received a bachelor of science in meteorology from Penn State in 1991, has been informally mentoring students throughout the past seven years he has served on the GEMS board. Now serving as president-elect for the board, Pytlak has been one of the main drivers of establishing the GEMS mentoring program.

"It's funny because some of the students who were my informal mentees at Penn State have graduated and are now colleagues. That's something I didn't expect when I began working with the GEMS board," he said.

Sharing experiences before a student comes to Penn State

The GEMS board has established a program that puts them in contact with prospective students. The alumni write letters every February to students who are offered admission into the degree program from which the alumnus or alumna graduated. Those letters highlight how beneficial the program has been, which can be a powerful statement for someone making a major decision like which college to attend.

Joel Reed writing letter

Joel Reed writes a letter sharing his experiences as a Penn Stater. Every year, EMS alumni with GEMS send letters like these to students who have been offered admission into the college.

Image: Joel Reed

Penn State was at the top of Vivian Rennie's list of prospective schools, she said, because of its renowned meteorology program. She had been offered admission but was hesitant because Penn State was more than 1,500 miles from her hometown of Breckenridge, Colorado.

Then she received a handwritten letter in the mail, which helped solidify her choice.

"I opened it and it was from someone who had just been elected president of the GEMS board. He worked about a mile from where I lived, so his family and my family went to dinner downtown and talked about Penn State," she said.

The letter was from Joel Reed, a Penn State ceramic science and engineering alumnus who is principal at the consulting company Mereo. Even though Reed had graduated from a different program than what Rennie was interested in, he knew he could offer her useful advice.

"He was able to answer the questions I had, like what were my living options. The one thing Joel was adamant about was joining EMS Student Council, so I did when I got to campus. I came here knowing what to look for and that worked out for me," said Rennie, who served as secretary of EMS Student Council for the 2016-17 year and was elected vice president for the 2017-18 year. "I thought it was helpful to see how much our college cared, even about someone who hadn't committed to going to Penn State yet. It really showed the full alumni base and helped reinforce my decision."

Reed, who has served on the GEMS board for seven years and is now president, not only writes letters to prospective students but also visits campus twice a year to serve as judge in a semester-long competition in a materials design course.

"The most rewarding part of being on the GEMS board for me has been the opportunity to interact with students and faculty," he said. "I get to know students when I write them letters before they come to Penn State, and I get to see them all the way through their degree program and help connect them with people to provide them with career advice."

The letters alumni write not only share perspectives but also invite students to meet in person at the annual, student-run open house, Earth and Mineral Sciences Exposition, known as EMEX.

Erik Pytlak at EMEX

Erik Pytlak, right, chats with David Titley, professor of practice in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, and the family of a prospective student at the 2017 EMEX event.

Image: Penn State

That type of giving back — sharing experiences and advice and helping to build professional connections — is what inspired many of today's GEMS board members to get involved in the first place. Bernadette Placky, who received a bachelor of science in meteorology in 1999 from Penn State and now works for Climate Central, has been involved in the GEMS board for three years.

"A lot of people helped me along the way. I definitely didn't get to this place in my career on my own. If I can do anything to help out, I will," she said.

Placky said helping students has many benefits for EMS alumni, too.

"In some ways I feel selfish because I get so much out of being part of the GEMS board and reconnecting with the University, with students and with alumni," said Placky. "To learn where we are and where we're headed as a college is fascinating. I'm just happy to do my part to help out."

Bernadette Placky at EMEX

Bernadette Placky, left, chats with the family of a prospective student at the 2017 EMEX event. 

Image: Penn State

Pytlak, who works in Portland, Oregon, mirrored her sentiments. He calls his twice-annual visits to University Park for GEMS board meetings "vacation."

"It seems like every year I come back, I get more out of it than I give," he said. "I'm really excited about the mentoring program because I'm already seeing the benefits of informal mentoring with our students, especially the ones who have graduated and want to start immediately giving back to the college and the next generation that's coming through. That's really exciting to watch grow."

A pilot of the EMS Mentoring program will launch during the 2017-18 academic year. For more information on the program, visit http://www.ems.psu.edu/mentoring.

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Last Updated May 15, 2017