Applications for Presidential Leadership Academy now open

January 04, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Each year, 30 first-year students at Penn State's University Park campus will be selected for membership to the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA).  

Founded with a lead gift from Edward R. and Helen S. Hintz in 2009, the PLA was established to develop critical-thinking skills and educate students to understand issues broadly. A diverse pool of members promotes consideration for the complexity and variability of world matters and current events, as well as for varying decisions and life circumstances. PLA values the idea that critical thinking on issues is not black or white, but instead, somewhere in the gray.  

Any first-year student at Penn State University Park with a GPA of 3.2 or above may apply. Applications close at midnight Monday, Feb. 8. Penn State faculty and staff members may nominate qualified first-year students through the PLA online form by Friday, Jan. 29. More information can be found here.

"The PLA is an amazing opportunity for students. The one most unique aspect is for students to share a class not only with President (Eric) Barron, but also to hold discussions with peers from different perspectives," said Presidential Leadership Academy Director Melissa Doberstein. "Each cohort has students from across academic majors and all students share their own unique experiences and backgrounds with one another. Along with the classes, the opportunity to participate in field trips, network, and hear from a wide range of speakers, the PLA strives to enhance each student’s learning."  

In addition to program coursework, students attend leadership seminars, engage in community programs, and, when travel is permitted, participate in fully funded field trips planned each academic semester that aim to shed light on social, political and environmental issues outside of Penn State’s campuses. 

Penn State President Eric Barron teaches a weekly seminar course for new sophomores, with additional honors courses led by the dean of the Schreyer Honors College and Doberstein focused on policy development. In one of these classes, students work together to draft culminating policy papers. The final year in PLA concludes with a capstone experience and the creation of an e-portfolio project.

"Throughout my time in the academy, I’ve had too many amazing experiences to recount them all," said Aidan Neigh, a senior studying human rights, political science, and Arabic. 

Though he will always remember working with an after-school program in Los Angeles on a PLA-funded trip, and visiting Second Chance, an organization that provides workforce development in Baltimore, Neigh added that the most unforgettable things about PLA were the other people in the academy. 

"You’d be challenged to find a more interesting, engaged, diverse group of people on campus (or elsewhere), and I’ve made some of my closest friends there,” he said. “PLA has taught me innumerable lessons, but among them are confidence in public speaking and debate, the importance of defending my opinion, and the ability to work with others from diverse perspectives on an issue to find common ground."  

The PLA fosters an environment that promotes and develops values critical for potential leaders including civility, philanthropy, respect for diversity, and student engagement. Within this academic community of students, faculty and administrators, multiple dimensions of issues are explored, wide-ranging viewpoints are encouraged and heard, and fully informed and respectful discourse ensues, often leading to sound action.  

All questions and inquiries about nomination and application may be directed to Doberstein via email at  

Last Updated January 04, 2021