Transformation frames Presidential Leadership Academy fall field trip

By Caroline Briselli, Schreyer Honors College Scholar
December 11, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Members of the Penn State Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA) and staff heard from business and community leaders when they traveled to Pittsburgh and surrounding locations last month as part of the program’s fall field trip. In addition to tours of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Google and Deloitte Consulting, the packed schedule included programs outside the city to visit Penn State's New Kensington campus; Braddock, Pennsylvania; and the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville.

Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto shared his perspective with PLA members as a leader in government. Cultural Trust President Kevin McMahon explained the process and the impact of the revitalization of a section of downtown Pittsburgh into a world-class cultural district that attracts artists, students and millions of visitors each year. David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president for Eat’n Park, also addressed the students.

Victoria Vargo, executive director of the Braddock Carnegie Library, and Dana Bishop-Root, program manager for the national historic landmark, arranged for a youth dance corps to perform for the group. They spoke with students about the importance of accessibility to a communal space, resources and lifelong learning. The trip concluded at the Flight 93 National Memorial, where former state Rep. Bill Bastian, grandfather of sophomore PLA member Sarah Bastian, welcomed the group. During the tour, expressive guides describe park features and the events that lead to the heroic measures of the passengers and crew on Sept. 11, 2001. 

“One of the hallmarks of the academy experience is the field trip, one during each semester, which enable our students to gain a broader perspective on social, political, economic, and humanitarian issues,” said Melissa Doberstein, director of the Presidential Leadership Academy. “Through our classes and our trips, we emphasize to our PLA members that leadership has many forms; it doesn’t matter what title a person may have, but, rather, how they impact their community.”

The fall PLA trip is a weekend trip that spans Friday through Sunday and usually features an environment within driving distance of State College. Pittsburgh was selected so students could examine an area that moved or is transitioning from an industry-specific focus and is experiencing rebirth.

“I think one of the best aspects of the trip to Pittsburgh, and the PLA in general, is the opportunity to have learning experiences that are as out of the ordinary as they are enriching,” said Dennis Jett, a member of the PLA Advisory Board who went on the trip. “I am sure they helped our PLA students think more deeply about the problems that we face in our society and about what their future careers might be.”

Akshil Patel, a sophomore in the academy, said he appreciated the variety of sites and speakers on the Pittsburgh trip, and was particularly impacted by the visit to Braddock, a city that became economically depressed after the collapse of the steel industry.

“Our PLA trip to Pittsburgh exposed me to the stark and cold reality of today's world in a way I hadn't experienced before,” Patel said, comparing the business district of downtown Pittsburgh to Braddock. “The juxtaposition of these two locations on the same day was a very powerful reminder of the nature of the ‘real world.’”

“I really appreciated the Pittsburgh trip for so many reasons,” Nicole Keller, a junior in the academy, said. “Even though I grew up in that area, it gave me the chance to view the city critically through a unique lens. The speakers we hear on these trips are beneficial to each and every one of us, regardless of our interests or majors.”

Many of the students agree that the opportunity to interact with other members of the academy is one of the greatest strengths of the program. John Miller, a junior in the academy, said that the Pittsburgh trip, and all of the academy trips, have been incredible experiences, and he emphasized the social aspect of the PLA.

“When people ask me my favorite part of PLA, I always say it's the other members,” Miller said. “I have met so many passionate people through the PLA that I otherwise probably would not have met. The people in the PLA repeatedly inspire me to become a better person, student and leader.”

Past field trips have included trips to Puerto Rico, Boston, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon and Washington, D.C. Next semester’s trip, which takes place during spring break, will visit sites related to the civil rights movement’s Freedom Trail.

The PLA fosters an environment that promotes and develops values critical for potential leaders including civility, philanthropy, respect for diversity, and student engagement. Within this academic community of students, faculty and administrators, multiple dimensions of issues are explored, diverse viewpoints are encouraged and heard, and a fully informed and respectful discourse ensues that leads to sound action.

Student applications are now open for membership in the fall 2016 PLA class and faculty members are encouraged to nominate candidates. More information about the program, application process and requirements can be found at

Last Updated January 26, 2016