Geography’s board representatives strengthen connections to alumni

Angela M. Rogers
April 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Department of Geography has three representatives serving on the Graduates of the Earth and Mineral Sciences (GEMS) board this year: Emily Starin Connor who earned a bachelor of science in 2012 and now works as an associate with CleanCapital; Susan Lechtanski, who earned a bachelor of science in 1997 and now works as a project manager for Penn State Auxiliary and Business Services; and Wendy Zeller Zigaitis, who earned a bachelor of science in 1999 and is currently a doctoral student.

The GEMS Board of Directors is comprised of 16 nominated and/or elected by the general GEMS membership and the active board of directors. Board members have a three-year minimum term of office, are committed to attending two board meetings each year on the University Park campus, actively serve on at least one committee, and provide assistance in developing the society and its programming. The officers are selected by the current board for a two-year term.

Lechtanski said she first became aware of GEMS when Colleen Swetland, assistant director of alumni relations, recruited her to volunteer for an event in 2015. Zeller Zigaitis said she had been aware of the GEMS board since she graduated in 1999, but was not very familiar with everything that the board does until recently.

“Actually, it was a co-worker who had previously served on the GEMS board who encouraged me to stand for election,” Zeller Zigaitis said. “With my return to State College this fall as a full-time graduate student, I realized this was the perfect time in my life and career to serve on the board. I have previously served on board for the Penn State Alumni Association Greater St. Louis Area Chapter and realized GEMS was a natural next step.”

Connor — who first learned about GEMS during an Earth and Mineral Sciences Exposition, the annual student-run open house — said she wanted to be more involved in providing support to students through mentoring and to also encourage younger alumni to stay involved and engaged with the college.

“I wanted to act as an ambassador for the college in a more formal capacity,” she said. “The research and work coming out of EMS is increasingly relevant to challenges we are facing in addressing climate change, changing energy landscapes and in understanding the impacts of an interdependent global community — and I think students and alumni of EMS and geography are uniquely well-suited to tackle those challenges.”

Lechtanski said she thought joining the GEMS board “would allow me to make the biggest impact on the College of EMS.” She volunteered to sit on the outreach committee her first year of service in 2015. “The following year, I was elected to the executive position of director of communications,” she said. “In that role, I expanded our social media reach by adding Facebook and Instagram to our existing Twitter and LinkedIn platforms. I branded all of our social media accounts: Penn State GEMS.”

Highlighting the academic breadth of geography, all three bring different experiences and perspectives to the board. Newer members Connor and Zeller Zigaitis said they are currently enjoying learning more about initiatives within EMS and how GEMS connects alumni to students and faculty.

“Additionally, I really enjoyed participating in last fall's EMS mentoring kick-off event,” Zeller Zigaitis said, adding, “as the only, and possibly first, board member to also be a current full-time student back in EMS, I have a unique opportunity to express current student perspectives.”

“The thing I have enjoyed the most about serving on the board is working with the other board members,” Lechtanski said. “Their love for Penn State and EMS is evident in everything that we do and the new initiatives that we are constantly brainstorming and implementing to make an impact on the students. For example, this past fall, we took our last GEMS board meeting on the road to Denver, where we have a large alumni base. We were able to expand our outreach events to a new audience in several exciting forums.”

Lechtanski said she has been working closely with the EMS student council on several events and has been able to make connections between EMS and the service dog program on campus she advises. “We recently hosted a doggie destressing event during finals week in December,” she said. “Of course, this event was well received and I even recruited a few EMS staff members to the program.”  

Connor, Lechtanski and Zeller Zigaitis said they are enthusiastic about contributing to GEMS board work in support of college strategic planning, strengthening connections between alumni as well as academe and industry, providing role models and mentorship for students, as well as helping to recruit the next generation of EMS students

Connor said she is particularly interested in contributing to conversations about efforts around sustainability and the critical skills students and graduates of the college need to succeed in their careers after Penn State. “I would hope that through my service I can ensure students have the same support and opportunities that I found so valuable during my time at Penn State,” she said. 


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Last Updated April 20, 2020