Presidential Leadership Academy selects class of 2019

Nakul Grover
September 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Home to many of Penn State’s most promising student leaders, the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA) recently celebrated the acceptance of 30 new members. The students in the class of 2019 began their experience this fall semester with a seminar taught by Penn State President Eric Barron.

Founded with a lead endowment from Edward R. and Helen S. Hintz in 2009, the PLA aspires to hone critical-thinking skills and educate students to acknowledge the "gray areas" of global and local decisions. 

The group includes representatives from 13 of Penn State’s undergraduate academic colleges, 16 students from Pennsylvania, three from Maryland, two each from Virginia and New York, one each from Florida, Illinois, Ohio, two students from India, and one student each from Zimbabwe and Kenya.

To highlight a few new members: Belinda Mativenga received a scholarship that supports just 40 students from the entire continent of Africa; Sebastien Kraft has produced films that have appeared in film festivals across the world. These are just two of the 30 fresh faces in the Academy. 

Melissa Doberstein, director of the Presidential Leadership Academy, is impressed with the diverse cohort. 

“I am excited to begin this journey with this new class. I am always impressed with each cohort’s diversity and experiences,” Doberstein said. “Having a multitude of perspectives in class and our field trips enhances each student's learning.” 

The Presidential Leadership Academy received 178 applications for the class of 2019 and approximately 60 individuals advanced to the interview portion of the process. The final group of 30 members was selected after a review of their accomplishments and academic performance and assessment of their interviews.

The students have participated in a diverse portfolio of activities, including, but not limited to THON, EcoReps, University Park Undergraduate Association, and musical theater. As the academy is committed to expanding global and cultural exchanges, seven students are fluent in at least two languages. 

An orientation, themed “How to be Mindful in a Gray World,” stressed the importance of mindfulness in positions of leadership.

“I’m excited for taking a class with President Barron himself," said YuNa Choi, a sophomore double majoring in economics and international politics. "I cannot wait to meet and learn from all of the inspiring students from my class.”

After the seminar is completed, students will draft policy papers under the supervision of Schreyer Honors College Dean Peggy A. Johnson. Previous policy themes have included fairness, sustainability, mental health, alcohol education, and educational equity. The students’ final year in the academy concludes with a capstone experience and creation of an e-portfolio.

In addition to the seminars, the students will participate in fully funded field trips across the United States. Some of the past trip sites include Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, New York, Chicago and Seattle. In addition to the trips, students will blog regularly to reflect upon critical experiences that shaped their leadership portfolios. Students also receive a certificate on their transcripts upon completion of academy requirements, which includes coursework and field-trip participation.

The academy also supports student internship, entrepreneurship and study-abroad experiences through grants and additional funding.  

Michael Miller, a junior in the PLA, co-founded a mobile application that helps graduates better understand, manage and repay their student loans. 

“A grant from the PLA allowed us to travel to San Francisco to meet and learn from Penn State alumni working at tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple,” said Miller, a double major in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship and Chinese. 

To be considered, prospective first-year students must have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.2 or above at the time of application. They must include a current resume that showcases external leadership activities. Two letters of reference, one from a Penn State faculty member, staff member or adviser, and one in regard to external activities from someone such as a coach, mentor or supervisor, must be submitted with the application.

In addition to student-submitted applications, the academy also accepts nominations of qualified students from Penn State faculty and staff. Nominations are due at the end of January. Students may apply from December until the beginning of February of each academic year. The topics for the two required essay questions will be announced late in the fall semester.

For more information on Penn State’s Presidential Leadership Academy, visit

Last Updated September 03, 2020