President Barron impressed with New Kensington's student-centered initiatives

Prior to assuming the top position at Penn State, President Eric Barron made a stop at Penn State New Kensington on April 25, during his two-week blitz of the University’s 24 campuses. He and his wife, Molly, were greeted by the Nittany Lion holding a sign that read ”Welcome Mr. President to PSNK.”

Barron, who took over for the retiring President Rodney Erickson on May 12, talked with New Kensington students, faculty and staff in one session, and the campus advisory board and alumni in another session. Accompanied by Madlyn Hanes, vice president for Commonwealth Campuses, the new president stressed six imperatives that will define his administration: academic excellence, student engagement, technology in teaching and learning, partnerships of academics and industry, accessibility, and diversity and demographics. Barron sees these imperatives as the starting point in an ongoing exchange with the entire Penn State community, and said he hopes to add to the list with the benefit of the community’s input.

“These concepts are not new,” Barron said. “The object is to push the envelope in these areas. All of these are things that great universities do very well.”

During the initial session, Barron narrowed the focus to the New Kensington campus. He asked for comments on how the campus was in-tune with each of his initiative and for examples of the campus’ strengths and successes the areas. More than 15 members of the campus community stepped up to the microphone and extolled the campus’ commitment to excellence and the student-centered programs that are the hallmark of the six-year leadership of Kevin Snider, New Kensington’s eighth chancellor.

Under Snider, numerous programs have been established, such as Chancellor’s Fellowships, Research Stipends and Penn State Electro-Optics Center Internships, to foster collaboration among student, faculty and industry. The Chancellor Fellowship program allows students to collaborate with faculty on specific projects. The Research Stipend program supports student research by encouraging faculty members to design undergraduate research projects. Under the internship program, students work with EOC professionals on technology systems for government and commercial sectors.

Senior Hannah McBean, an adult learner in the organization leadership program, touched on the community aspect of Penn State’s longtime mission of teaching, research and service. Barron had noted the importance of the University to be active and give back to the community.

“Penn State New Kensington does a great job of community service as the SGA (Student Government Association) requires student clubs to complete a community service project each semester,” said McBean, the campus’ 2014 Walker Award recipient. “The Multicultural Club did volunteer work at Tri City Life Center in Lower Burrell."

Tri-City is a nonprofit organization that assists young pregnant women and mothers with the tools to make informed and healthy decisions about their children. Club members folded and organized the donated children’s clothing, and provided child care for mothers who needed to shop for items at the center. McBean is the president of the Multicultural Club

Sandra Muhhuku, an international student from Uganda, had special praise for the diversity and demographics of the campus. A sophomore petroleum engineering major, Muhuuku has been in the United States for less than a year, following her sister Samantha, who arrived in Upper Burrell in fall 2012. Samantha graduated in May with an associate degree in biomedical engineering technology.

“It feels like family here because someone is always willing to help you no matter what your issue is,” said Sandra, who grew up in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. “The faculty is just incredible. Even though I am far from home it doesn't feel like it, but feels like home away from home.”

Diversity is a major part of the Penn State experience for Eric Bennardo, a senior communications major. He told President Barron that in addition to benefiting from diversity in the classroom, he benefits from the diversity of the Nittany Highlands apartment, which is adjacent to the campus and houses nearly 100 campus students.

"As a tenant of the apartments, I have had the opportunity to get to know several international students,” said Bennardo, a product of St. Jospeh High School in Natrona Heights. “This has expanded my knowledge and view of the world in ways that I never thought were possible at such a young age. It has been an incredibly positive contribution to my experiences here at Penn State New Kensington.”

Ryan Barton, a junior in the information sciences and technology program, weighed in on the campus’ veteran and adult learner population, which makes up approximately 31 percent of the student body. A petty officer second class while serving in the Navy, Barton worked with the confidential computer network aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier. He was drawn to New Kensington by the quality of the campus’ IST program, which provides a bridge between his military service and civilian career. Barton praised the adult and veteran culture at New Kensington.

“We have a very strong group when it comes to adult students, including veterans,” Barton told Barron. “Our campus works hard to be able to accommodate these groups because more adults and veterans are returning to school for a higher education.”

Faculty also had a say about what makes the campus distinctive. Craig Hammond, assistant professor of history, pointed out the teaching and researching successes of the faculty. He boasted about colleagues Jennifer Wood, associate professor of communication arts, a recipient of a 2014 teaching fellowship, and Robert Mathers, associate professor of chemistry, who earned a sabbatical to conduct research at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Our faculty has been awarded a disproportionately large share of University-wide teaching awards,” said Hammond, a 2012 recipient of the campus’ Excellence in Teaching award. “They are excellent researchers and scholars.”

Barron said the opportunity to hear from so many members of the New Kensington campus community was informative as he begins to shape his strategic vision for the University.

“I’ve really gotten a sense for what the campuses are proud of, and the list is impressive,” Barron said. “The students, faculty and staff all talk about the sense of family and community; about their pride in the accomplishments of their colleagues and peers; about the strong connections between students and the faculty and staff; and about student success. There also is a very obvious and tight connection between each campus and the surrounding community, which has tremendous value for everyone involved.”

At the meeting with the advisory board, alumni, elected officials and campus donors, Barron reversed his strategy of asking questions. He laid out his vision and took questions from the audience.

Robert Arbuckle, retired president of Lake Superior State (Michigan) University and former chancellor at the campus, asked about the rising cost of attending Penn State and its impact on accessibility to higher education for future students. Barron said he will work with the Pennsylvania state legislature to restore educational funding that has decreased over the years. State Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-54th, whose district encompasses the New Kensington campus in Upper Burrell, was in the audience. He vowed to engage the new President and help keep tuition under control.

Barron also talked about student’s choice of majors. He encourages students to choose a major based on its intrinsic value rather than its financial value. Although there is a general disparity in earning power among majors, such as business majors, technology majors and sociology majors, all degrees are valued in the community. He wants Penn State to reach out to students in academic programs where the economic potential is not as great as other programs.

Before ending the session, Penn State’s 18th president reiterated that the opportunity to hear from so many members of the Penn State community was informative as he begins to shape his strategic vision for the University.

“If I take a step back from all of these conversations, I have to say I have full confidence that we are operating at a high level of excellence – that’s something that great universities with great faculty do very naturally,” Barron said. “Part of what I’m looking for are the opportunities that we’re missing – making sure that we’re not just focused on success at the individual and program level, but that the work we do also is focused on the overall health of the institution and the success of our students.”

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Last Updated May 28, 2014