Philanthropic spouses Hamer and Lang make simultaneous gifts to liberal arts

Susan Burlingame
July 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —Jennifer Hamer, professor of African American studies and senior faculty mentor in the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, and Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, say they are a team.

“We go to work every morning consciously thinking about what we can do to make the world a better place,” said Hamer.

Recently, they reached a point in their lives where they had the financial resources to make philanthropic gifts in support of those causes. Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts — and specifically its students — are their most recent beneficiaries.

With a $25,000 pledge, Hamer created the Jennifer Hamer Fund to Enhance Student Success in the College of the Liberal Arts, which will help students in the Department of African American Studies. Lang pledged to add approximately $50,000 to the Emergency Scholarship Fund in the College of the Liberal Arts. Lang and others provided seed money to create the fund in April, shortly after realizing the alarming number of undergraduate, graduate and Penn State World Campus students experiencing financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With their generous gifts, Clarence and Jennifer demonstrate their deep and abiding commitment to access and equity,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “They arrived at Penn State only a year ago, yet through their actions, their leadership and their philanthropy, they have already made a tangible impact on students in need, especially first-generation students and those from marginalized or underrepresented populations. They embody the Penn State spirit, and I am deeply grateful to them both.”

“Everything I do is about equity.”

Hamer’s gift stems from a lifelong commitment to equity and to “creating places where all communities and all peoples have what they need to be successful in their endeavors,” she said. The fund is designed to support diversity, equity and inclusion programming expenses or to supply scholarship support in the Department of African American Studies, especially to enhance the success and inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally community.

“I’m a first-generation student from a working-class family, and for all of my life I have been very aware of race and gender and all of the intersections of race and gender,” said Hamer, who holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Texas-Austin. “Everything I do is about equity, which I separate from diversity. Diversity is about appreciating all communities and all peoples, and equity is about how we get there.”

Hamer said she decided to attend graduate school because her first Black professor encouraged her; she was also inspired by a position she held with child protective services in San Antonio, Texas.

“I was working with the most marginalized people, and it was really hard not to be in a position to improve their lives when my role, oftentimes, was to take children away from poor parents,” she said. “We had poverty in our family, but this was a level of poverty I had never really witnessed, and I felt like I should and could do more.”

After graduate school, Hamer went on to an accomplished career as a faculty member and administrator at several top universities. Throughout her career, Hamer said she witnessed the struggles of students who not only had financial challenges but also challenges connected to who they are. She developed a particular empathy for students of color who identify as queer or trans.

“I think of the continuum of violence as being from the most extreme, such as physical harm, to the less visible microaggressions that make students, especially students of color from the LGBTQA community, feel like they don’t belong,” she said. “As educators and as a public institution, we have an obligation to ensure that our environments are equitable and that no matter what students are bringing to our classrooms and working spaces, that we can work with and support them, whatever their journey is in life. That’s what this fund is really about.”

Cynthia Young, head of the Department of African American Studies and associate professor of African American studies and English, said Hamer’s gift is especially meaningful to her.

“I was that kid, the one who almost had to leave school because I was too poor to pay my share of the tuition,” she said. “I remember the incredible sense of hope and relief I felt when a generous donor, like Jennifer Hamer, made it possible for me to stay in school. I am so proud that the Jennifer Hamer Fund gives my department the resources to fill in that same gap for some of our majors and minors.”

True to his values “as an educator, as a dean, and as myself”

For his gift to the Liberal Arts Emergency Scholarship Fund, Clarence Lang harkened back to the original goals he brought with him to the College of the Liberal Arts when he became its dean in July 2019.

“Access, affordability and career readiness were vital to me from the outset,” said Lang, adding that he found the college was well positioned and already committed to his goals when he arrived. “The first year of my being dean went in a number of different directions that I couldn’t have anticipated, but making this gift became an opportunity for me to make good on my commitment to that goal. This is my way of responding to the COVID-19 crisis while also being true to the values I have as an educator, as a dean, and as myself.

“Career readiness is meaningless if people are trying to figure out how to buy groceries, cover rent, buy books and cover all of the other expenses that become even more amplified in an emergency like this,” he continued. “As a first-generation student myself, I can empathize and imagine how difficult it must be for our students to meet their expenses, especially during this pandemic.”

Echoing the words of his spouse, Lang said he and Hamer “have always, both individually and as a couple, thought about how we can give of ourselves and our time.”

“It’s only fairly recently that we’ve been able to think about how we can make a meaningful financial commitment,” he explained. “Both Jennifer and I are first-generation students. We don’t come from families of people who could be patrons and benefactors, but we now see our giving as an extension of the other ways we’ve given time, energy and attention to things that mattered to us.”

Lang said he sees his giving as in keeping with the spirit and history of the land grant university.

“Access to a quality public higher education is a way of allowing people to flourish, to experience self-actualization, to fully realize their potential, and to be able to be fully participating members of society,” he said. “We take that charge of the public land grant university seriously and see the public university as a vehicle for mobility for people who do not come from privileged or monied backgrounds. We feel a very strong sense of responsibility to other first-generation students.”

In making his gift, Lang said he was inspired by the generosity of liberal arts alumni as well as his predecessor, Susan Welch, who retired in 2019 after 28 years as dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. Welch made several philanthropic gifts to the college during her tenure.

“Despite all that has happened since the pandemic hit, it has been a wonderful year,” Lang concluded. “I am very happy and proud to have graduated now to being a donor of the college as well as a steward of the college in terms of its resources.”

“We have only been here a year, but we didn’t want to wait any longer to do something for students in need,” added Hamer. “If you can make a difference in at least one person’s life, that’s what matters. The only way to really make the world a better place is to make it a better place for everyone.”

To date, the Emergency Scholarship Fund in the College of the Liberal Arts has grown significantly and will increase substantially as Dean Lang makes monthly contributions to the fund. Students already helped by the fund include undergraduates, graduates and World Campus students who have reported job loss, family-related health concerns, and food and housing insecurity as some of the top reasons for seeking assistance.

To contribute to the Emergency Scholarship Fund in the College of the Liberal Arts, visit raise.psu.edu/LiberalArtsEmergencyFund. To make a contribution to the Jennifer Hamer Fund, contact Geoff Halberstadt, senior director of development, at glh5028@psu.edu.

These gifts 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 greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 21, 2020