Homecoming 2014 bridges generations with week of events

Heather Hottle Robbins
September 23, 2014

For many, Penn State Homecoming is steeped in tradition — alumni coming back to campus, the parade, the Homecoming court and the football game — but one tradition that might not immediately come to mind is the fact that students are the ones who work year-round to organize the annual celebration.

Senior Claudia Bonilla, who is from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and majoring in labor and employment relations, leads the 17-person Homecoming 2014 executive committee, chosen just weeks after the 2013 celebration concluded. The group has been integral to planning every detail of the weeklong event for the past 11 months. From the start, there’s not a lot of leisure time, Bonilla, this year’s executive director, said.

One Penn State Homecoming tradition that might not immediately come to mind is the fact that students are the ones who work year-round to organize the annual celebration.

One of the first tasks of the newly formed group is to choose the theme, which is usually a four- to six-hour process in which the executive committee brainstorms what Homecoming means to them and what words best represent that meaning. Bonilla said that the words “honor” and “pride” were particularly important to this year’s executive committee, resulting in the theme “Honor the Purpose, Carry the Pride.”

Since the Homecoming theme isn’t released publicly until the third week of February at the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, the creators had to keep it a secret for months. “You come up with something from scratch. Every day it gains a little more meaning,” Bonilla said. “Every day, I’m more in love with it. Once you announce it and you hear what it means to other people, you know you did a good job.”

The process

Each new group of student leaders brings with them their own dynamic and mission, said Jen Grossman Leopard, the Student Affairs adviser for Penn State Homecoming, one of more than 1,000 student organizations on campus. She has been working with student Homecoming leaders since 2008. She often lends her opinion and advice when the groups are trying something new or expanding an event, but, ultimately, it’s the students who run the show.

“Every executive committee takes on a personality of its own. They all have a different vision every year,” Grossman Leopard said. “This year, their vision overall — which comes from Claudia — is to make sure that it’s more than just the Homecoming week. She wanted to roll the red carpet out year-round for when alumni come back and for the students, community, and faculty and staff. It’s part of their mission to serve all of those constituencies.”

One goal Claudia Bonilla and the rest of the Homecoming executive committee have this year is to involve the Penn State community, including faculty and staff, their children and residents in the surrounding areas in Homecoming events.

Once selected, executive committee members, or directors, hit the ground running, securing contracts nearly a year in advance and reaching out to different administrative and academic units across the University Park campus. Each director heads up one of 16 Homecoming committees. Next up is choosing captains and then committee members for each of the committees. “All of a sudden, you gain 160 people into the family,” Bonilla said. “It’s one of my favorite parts of the Homecoming process.”

Soon after, captains and their committee members get to work on developing designated events and areas of expertise while the executive committee votes on a Homecoming logo — created by graphic design students as part of a class project — to be revealed during the Blue-White game in April. “Once you’re in Homecoming, you’re working constantly,” she said.

The pride

Since Homecoming 2014 falls earlier than it has in years past, the group did a little rearranging and moved the Day of Service and Legacy Celebration up earlier to the spring 2014 semester. This move has also helped Bonilla work toward her goal of keeping Homecoming and its mission of celebrating tradition and instilling pride in the forefront of the minds of Penn State community members year-round.

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Special guests, music, dancing and of course cake were all part of the 2014 Penn State Homecoming Committee's legacy celebration held April 16 at the HUB-Robeson Center.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“I love when people say that once a Penn Stater, always a Penn Stater,” Bonilla said. “Over the years, Homecoming has added events to the week. In the ’80s, it started on a Wednesday. Today, it starts on a Saturday. We do our Day of Service, we go on to a concert and a dance competition, we’re now in East Halls, we do a talent show, we do a HUB takeover, we have a carnival. We have our parade, our game. We just keep on adding things to the list because Penn Staters are happy to come back and be a part of it. I think it’s a special quality, too, that our student community is very welcoming.”

Those who have only experienced a Penn State Homecoming celebration might not realize it, but a student-organized weeklong homecoming is a unique thing.

“We’ve done benchmarking against other homecoming celebrations at similar institutions in the Big Ten and outside the conference, and usually it’s just a Friday and Saturday thing,” Grossman Leopard said. “The fact that we do something more than a week is quite rare. It really, truly is a University-wide experience here at Penn State compared with other places.”

In addition to the spring events, other activities and announcements during the first few weeks of the semester have led up to the celebration. Michael Paul, team leader of the Penn State Lunar Lion team, was named honorary grand marshal in April and “Good Morning America” co-anchor and Penn State alumna Lara Spencer was named grand marshal in August. In September, the Homecoming Court “crash” announced this year’s Student and University court members over social media, and more than 10,000 community members participated in The Color Run.

The official week of Homecoming (Sept. 21-27) is packed with events, too. Every event, however, has a plan and purpose. “We don’t want to throw an event just to throw an event,” Bonilla said. “We want it to have a purpose, whether it be to educate someone about Penn State or to celebrate our organizations or clubs that do community service. We want everyone to know why we’re doing it.”

One goal Bonilla and the rest of the executive committee have this year is to involve the Penn State community, including faculty and staff, their children and residents in the surrounding areas. Some Homecoming events are tailored to different audiences, but all are open to everyone. The carnival, for example, is a family friendly event held from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday on the Old Main Lawn.

“Penn State is lucky to have such a gracious community. Students comprise so much of State College, and it’s very important for us to acknowledge the community that we’re in and how much State College does for us."

– Claudia Bonilla, executive director, 

Penn State Homecoming 2014

“Penn State is lucky to have such a gracious community,” Bonilla said. “Students comprise so much of State College, and it’s very important for us to acknowledge the community that we’re in and how much State College does for us. It’s such a great relationship because there are organizations on campus that are committed to giving back to the community and making them a part of Penn State. You don’t have to be a Penn State student to be a part of our campus. We consider them part of the family.”

The purpose

It’s this commitment to giving back that has led Bonilla and other executive committee directors, such as Kristine Zangrillo, to put so much time and effort into Homecoming. They attempt to put “Honor the Purpose, Carry the Pride” into action every day.

“It’s tailoring your Penn State experience, whatever that may be, and carrying it throughout your life,” Zangrillo, the Homecoming 2014 public relations director, explained. “Penn State has given me the opportunity to do that.”

Zangrillo, a senior from Bridgewater, New Jersey, majoring in public relations, said that she values the friendships she has made and the experience she has gained through getting involved. “You have to enjoy the people you’re working with. That’s one of the things I love about Homecoming. Pride is something that we all share,” she said. “It also helps me learn more about what I want to do in the future professionally, and how to be a leader and how to take the things I learn inside the classroom into the outside world once I leave here.”

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The annual Penn State Homecoming parade is just one of many events organized and hosted by the Homecoming Committee yearly.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Bonilla said she’s usually not a public speaker and never thought she’d be in the type of leadership position she holds today, but when the opportunity arose, she embraced it.

“I really enjoy the human resources aspect of it. If you credit people and motivate people to do their work and to feel like what they’re doing matters, then they work best,” Bonilla said. “Little by little, I’ve been implementing what I learn in class. I feel like Penn State’s given me 50 percent education and 50 percent professionalism.”

Both of the young women and the rest of their executive committee peers have spent countless hours organizing events and answering emails, but for them, it’s just part of their Penn State experience.

“I am in awe of them every day when it comes to how much time and effort they put into this. They relish in this idea that they are the behind-the-scenes folks. They do it because they truly want to serve Penn State,” said adviser Grossman Leopard. “It really, truly is a 365-day job for them.”

While more than 400 students will volunteer their time to organize this year’s celebration as a member of Penn State Homecoming, many more students will get involved in other ways by the end of the week.

About 75 student organizations will team up to compete in pairs at the different Homecoming events throughout the week. More than 300 groups consisting of students, alumni, faculty and staff, and other Penn State community members will participate in the parade.

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Alumni from the Penn State Greater Hampton Roads, Virginia, chapter proudly marched in the annual Homecoming parade. Alumni from around the nation return to Penn State yearly to take part in Homecoming festivities.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“Typically in colleges and universities, it’s really housed just for alumni in my experience, but the thing with Homecoming here at Penn State, I think we really try to collaborate across campus with not only current students, but also with alumni,” said Ashley Martin, Penn State Alumni Association associate director of student involvement. “I think Penn State’s unique because we have the pride and traditions that span across so many generations, and I think by showcasing them throughout the week and the weekend, it brings alumni together in a way that mingles both the current students and the alumni because of our history and the rich traditions that we bring out during that weekend.”

Students get involved in other ways, too, through student groups and academics. Lion Ambassadors, the student alumni corps that works closely with the Alumni Association, plans the Guard the Lion Shrine event each year in conjunction with Penn State Army ROTC, whose Lion’s Guard club members volunteer their time to stand guard at the shrine. In addition, College of Communications students coordinate a live webcast of the Homecoming parade for alumni worldwide who couldn’t make the trip to State College.

When it’s all said and done, Homecoming is all about coming together and making the experience special for each other. “Penn State’s your home and as long as you understand the way it helped shape you, you don’t necessarily have to come back, but if you find another Penn Stater, you’ll find your home,” Bonilla said.

Last Updated September 23, 2014