Schreyer Scholars glean career and life lessons from Distinguished Alumni

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State alumnus Donald P. Bellisario advises today’s college students to be flexible as they begin their careers.

“Take the closest thing you can find in the area you want to work in and go from there,” the 1961 graduate said. “You don’t wait around to get a specific area you want, because if you do, you’re liable to be waiting for years.”

Bellisario wasn’t afraid to take chances as he worked his way from an advertising executive at the Centre Daily Times to one of the most successful producers in television, but he also had help. Today, the 2001 Distinguished Alumnus provides guidance to current Penn State students as part of the Society of Distinguished Alumni Mentoring Program, a partnership between the Penn State Alumni Association and the Schreyer Honors College.

Bellisario credits former Penn State journalism professor Roland Hicks, who would meet with him almost daily, with giving him encouragement and sound philosophical advice during his days as a Penn State undergraduate. When he made the jump from a Dallas advertising agency to Hollywood in his early 40s, he learned a lot about the business from producer Stephen J. Cannell, a man six years his junior who helped him make important industry connections. That spirit of mentorship stayed with him.

“I love showing people how to do things or talk about how to help them get advanced,” Bellisario said. “I liked the way Steve did it and I try to emulate Steve as much as I can.”

One of Bellisario’s recent protégés is rising junior Schreyer Scholar Rachel Ebner, who first met him by phone last fall after interning at a Pittsburgh film office that summer, then had dinner with him this past spring when Bellisario was in State College to endow the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

“There’s so much pressure to feel like we have to pick a career now or know what we want to do or choose a major based on where we want to spend the rest of our life,” Ebner said. “But to see the way that he talked about his decisions, and the way he really just wasn’t afraid to go after it, when he felt like the time was right, it just gave me a sense of relief and made me feel like I had that much more control over my life going forward.”

The Distinguished Alumni Mentoring Program matches roughly 30-35 students with mentors in related fields each year for what is a one-year commitment for both protégé and mentor. Those matches result in face-to-face meetings, phone conversations, email correspondence, or sometimes all three.

Penn State rising junior Scholar Ivan Yen was impressed at the personal interest he received from Donald Devorris, an Altoona businessman and 2015 Distinguished Alumnus, who stressed the importance of networking.

“He was making sure I stepped out of my comfort zone a little bit just to make some friendly conversations with people,” said Yen, a double major in mathematics and economics, “because you never know where those conversations can take you.”

Mary-Linda Armacost, who received her doctorate in speech communication from Penn State in 1970 before taking several leadership positions in higher education, typically takes on two students per year as protégés.

“It keeps me in touch,” she said.

A connection to Armacost has already paid off for Penn State rising senior Scholar Madison Taylor. Armacost’s daughter, Becca, worked for World Vision International, a global humanitarian organization, and gave Taylor, a biology major who was considering travel to Africa this summer, some informed advice that helped her decide on Tanzania, where she did field work for Penn State’s Global Health Minor Program.

“She was somebody who is smart, competent, and had a real heart for other people and a real desire to act on service learning,” Armacost said of Taylor. “It pleases me that the Honors College encourages that, that we’re not insular. To me, that’s going to be so critical for young people and the world they’re growing up in.”

Taylor plans to take a gap year after graduating next spring. She said Armacost told her that most people would probably advise her to take a job and save money for graduate school.

“But, her advice was to spend my gap year doing something off the beaten path — travel the world, do service work, take an unpaid internship — essentially get out of my comfort zone,” Taylor said, “because I have the whole rest of my life to work and make money.”

Ebner, who is doing communications work for Johnson & Johnson this summer, said Bellisario encouraged her to think about how she wanted to “make her mark on the world” and how she could bridge her career with her interests. It has both relieved some internal pressure and made her look at her future differently.

“You major in marketing and you get a job in marketing right after school, it doesn’t mean you’re bound to marketing forever,” Ebner said. “I don’t need to land my dream job right after undergrad, but if I’m not landing my dream job, what job can I get that’s going to give me the skills to end up where I want to be?”

Last Updated July 18, 2017