Amaechi encourages University employees to 'recognize the invisible'

March 27, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- Seats were a scarce commodity as nearly 200 people crowded into the Bryce Jordan Center's Founders Room for a talk by Penn State alumnus and former NBA player John Amaechi. The March 25 talk was the first of four sessions dedicated to the University's technical services employees.

No one knew exactly what Amaechi would talk about, and admittedly, neither did he as he dubbed his talk as "the Hoss' salad bar of speeches."

He began Wednesday's session with a story about how strange central Pennsylvania people and their dialects were to him. That sent Amaechi off on a winding journey through his time at Penn State and the people who made a difference.

He expressed the importance of appreciating people for who they are and not for who they are perceived to be. He then took this opportunity to extend genuine thanks to the "invisible employees" who helped him cope with his time at Penn State.

"You set a tone that other parts of the campus cannot," he said to the audience. "You are the people who do things that make everything hum."

As he transitioned from topic to topic about his experiences with University staff, he conjured stretches of dead silence with heartfelt anecdotes and bouts of laughter with charismatic wit.

Most notably, the story about the death of his mother fell heavy on the ears of listeners while he explained how she would frequently send him intricate cards and gifts. After her death the gifts stopped coming, but Amaechi kept going to the commons desk, as he always did, and asked, "Has anything come for me today?" The attendant knew the answer, but would humor and chat with him for a few minutes each time. "She was there for me when I needed somebody," he said.

Another story featured a Food Services kitchen employee who helped Amaechi escape the burdens of being a college basketball player. She kept up with international news and was able to bring a touch of "home" (England) to Amaechi. They never talked about basketball and Amaechi appreciated that most.

The speech, which ran 15 minutes over the allotted time frame, captivated an audience that was reluctant to quit listening near the event's end.

"Reject any philosophy of life that promotes blindness -- you'll be more inquisitive," he said in closing before the floor was opened to questions. "The real key to diversity is knowing where someone’s uniqueness is."

Dorothy Witmer, a shuttle driver for Transportation Services, said the event was fascinating.

"It was a good reminder that we should look at people individually and not put them into categories," Witmer said, adding that Amaechi was very pleasant to listen to.

Following the event, Amaechi greeted and shook hands with audience members as they filed out of the room.

"My experience [at Penn State] was made exponentially better by the technical services staff whose jobs are normally overlooked," Amaechi said after his speech. "This is an opportunity to tell them a message that they probably don’t often get."

In addition to John Amaechi’s fame as a Penn State and NBA basketball player, he has become a clinical psychologist, author, speaker and community leader.

Jennifer Wilkes, director of Human Resources for Auxiliary & Business Services added to the purpose of Amaechi's speeches.

"We thought it would be a wonderful and special opportunity for him to come and speak to our technical service employees," she said. "We wanted to be able to offer them an exciting training opportunity."

  • John Amaechi spoke to Penn State technical services employees about diversity, respect and civility in the workplace in the Founders Lounge at the Bryce Jordan Center. For additional photos, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Jerilyn Brom

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010