Alumna gifts endowed scholarship to architectural engineering

Mariah Chuprinski
August 26, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Architectural engineering (AE) alumna Karen (Kalenak) Sweeney has given to Penn State over the past 30 years. This year, she redoubled her generosity to establish an endowed scholarship for AE students.

Sweeney, a graduate of Penn State, established a $50,000 scholarship to give back what she received during her undergraduate years: a world-class education in architectural engineering, which jumpstarted her career in construction management.

The scholarship will be named the Karen and Charles Sweeney Architectural Engineering Scholarship, after Karen and her husband, Charles, and will be awarded to one full-time AE undergraduate student per academic year. Special preference will be given to students who participate in programs that promote equity and inclusion, such as the Women in Engineering Program.

“Karen Sweeney has been a strong supporter of the architectural engineering department, having served in various advisory roles for several decades,” said Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and head of the Department of Architectural Engineering. “We are fortunate, proud and thankful to have such an engaged alumna committed to improving our students’ educational experiences. Every contribution makes a difference in our students’ lives.”

In establishing the scholarship, Sweeney was inspired by a donor who helped her with her own education. 

“I received a $500 scholarship from the Pittsburgh Builders Exchange,” said Sweeney, who earned her bachelor of architectural engineering degree in 1980. “That was so impactful. As a fifth-year student, I struggled with the cost of tuition and was working summers just to pay for books. It really made a difference and made me happy that someone would give me that help. For the rest of my career, I didn’t forget it.”

Encouraged by an AE professor who had a wonderful experience working for Turner Construction Company for over 40 years, Sweeney joined Turner immediately following her graduation, where she has remained over the past 39 years.

In her first 28 years with Turner, Sweeney worked in operations. She started in the field and moved on to mechanical and electrical coordination on a hospital project. She then became a project manager and ran Turner’s special projects division before becoming vice president of Turner in 1998.

In 2000, Sweeney was named the first woman general manager, and for the last 10 years, she has overseen diversity and inclusion efforts across the company, as well as community outreach efforts more recently.

“It’s a position centered on people, but it’s also strategic: planning what we need to do for technical implementation while also bolstering company culture and community service work,” she said.

Turner Construction will add $12,500 to Sweeney’s gift through a corporate gift matching program, bringing the total to $62,500.

In addition to her numerous professional accomplishments, Sweeney has been involved with the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society (PSEAS), serving as a board member for 10 years and as president from 2011-12.

“When I became involved with the PSEAS Board in 2004, I asked, what are we doing to help our students financially? Do we have scholarships?” Sweeney said. “At the time, the College of Engineering had a very small scholarship endowment. We looked at what other colleges were doing, especially the College of Agricultural Sciences, which has a very successful model to raise money for student scholarships through their annual tailgate event. So we pulled together a committee to implement our own College of Engineering tailgate, which is now an annual event. All of the money raised each year through ticket sales, the silent auction and raffles now goes directly to the PSEAS student scholarship fund.”

In addition to advocating for fundraisers in PSEAS, Sweeney has given regularly to the College of Engineering’s student scholarship fund. She also has given to Penn State Health’s Palliative Care Program, which was bolstered by Karen’s uncle, Dr. Alexander Kalenak, an orthopedic surgeon who served as the team physician for the Penn State football team.

Karen and Charles Sweeney have two children who earned degrees from Penn State: one in engineering, one in liberal arts. Charles earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.

“Our family has had this great history of being involved with Penn State,” Sweeney said. “I thought this was a great way to see that involvement continue.”

This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

  • Head shot of a woman smiling with short, brown hair

    Karen Sweeney recently established a $50,000 scholarship that will be given to full-time undergraduate students who are enrolled in the architectural engineering program, with special preference given to students who participate in programs that promote equity and inclusion, such as the Women in Engineering Program.

    IMAGE: Karen Sweeney

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Last Updated August 29, 2019