Presidential Leadership Academy students broaden horizons in nation's capital

Nakul Grover
November 11, 2019

WASHINGTON — Every semester, the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA) hosts trips to various parts of the United States to hone critical thinking skills and broaden the students’ portfolio of leadership experiences. This September, the PLA students visited Washington D.C., to hear from a variety of speakers, immerse in the city’s cultural highlights, visit museums, and bond with their cohort.

Discussing politics 

The students attended a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in the heart of D.C. The students heard from diverse speakers, and asked tough questions ranging from American demographics to Middle East foreign policy. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) shared some of his most memorable and challenging experiences working in the Senate.

Later in the day, students had a chance to interact with Penn State alumnus Ben Howard in the Office of Legislative Affairs in The White House, while enjoying dinner at the District Chop House. The next morning began with thoughtful discussion with Penn State alumna Laura Rosenberger and Karuna Seshasai, deputy general counsel to the mayor, who spoke to the students about their careers and working in Washington, D.C. Students also visited Abraham Lincoln’s Cottage to walk through some of the tough decisions that Lincoln made during his tenure as U.S. president.


A highlight of the trip was when students visited IBM and networked with Penn State alumnus Greg Souchack, the company’s vice president of global business services. The presentation was brought together by PLA and Schreyer Honors College alumna Alayna Kennedy, cognitive consultant in the federal practice at IBM in Washington, D.C. The students learned about some of IBM’s latest technologies and ask them questions about the company’s commitment to producing world-class solutions.

“It was lovely to host the group from the alumni side,” Kennedy said. “I got to merge my identities as a PLAer and IBMer while sharing my experience with current students. It was a joy.”

To end the day and continue celebrating the work of PLA alumni, alumna Sara Silversmith, a graphic designer with exhibits in the Holocaust Museum and Lincoln’s Cottage, shared the risks she took after graduating and how they have led her to unexpected success. Afterwards, current academy members joined Silversmith and eight other PLA alumni for dinner to watch Penn State take on Maryland. This was followed by bowling at Pinstripes Bowling and Bocce.

Young connoisseurs of culture

PLA students visited the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts, hearing from Deborah Rutter, the president of the organization, and touring the campus to visit its several highlights.

All museum tours are designed to chisel the students’ cultural understanding of the city they visit every semester. The students visited the Holocaust Museum, Newseum, and the National Museum of American History.

“Overall, although devastating, the Holocaust museum was a highlight of the trip,” said Siena Baker, a junior majoring in economics and community, environment and development. “The way we present and talk about our collective and individual histories is so important and enriching our knowledge and understandings of such history is essential. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from the museum and have discussions about it with my peers, especially those who are part of the Jewish faith for whom this resonates even deeper and harder.”

An exclusive inside tour of the Smithsonian National Zoo marked the beginning of the trip’s final day. PLA students heard from Drew Portocarrero, senior major gifts officer, about zoological preservation. 

For the sophomore class, the trip allowed the students to introduce themselves to the cohort and get a taste of PLA. For juniors and seniors, the trip served as an opportunity to strengthen the connections among the cohort. The senior class visited D.C. during its sophomore year, so the trip allowed the seniors to reflect upon their PLA journey.

“Through these trips, I have developed long-lasting, authentic friendships with people who have supported my endeavors, challenged my perspectives, and who I have grown with and learned from throughout my three years in the PLA,” said Emma Sinkoff, a senior majoring in health policy and administration.

Previous PLA trips have included visits to Los Angeles, New York City, Puerto Rico, Seattle, Chicago, Pittsburgh. Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the Grand Canyon.

How to apply

Applications for the Presidential Leadership Academy will be open early in December. 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 with campus 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, Penn State faculty and staff also submit nominations for qualified students for membership in the Presidential Leadership Academy. 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 November 14, 2019