College of Education students among Presidential Leadership Academy participants

Annemarie Mountz
May 24, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Each spring, 30 first-year students on the University Park campus learn they have risen to the top in a highly competitive selection process to become part of the next class of sophomores in the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA).

“We had 161 applications this year and all the colleges are represented [in the incoming class]," said Presidential Leadership Academy Director Melissa Doberstein.

College of Education first-year student Valarie Hibbard is excited to have been included in that elite group.

“Being selected for the next PLA class is a fantastic honor, and I am so humbled to have been chosen for this experience,” Hibbard said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about leadership and acquire the skills that will allow me to make a difference not only in my community but possibly in my future career. I am being given a chance to learn how to navigate a challenging and ever-evolving world and learn how to work effectively and efficiently with others.”

Hibbard, who also plays trumpet in the Penn State Blue Band, joins fellow College of Education student and Blue Band percussionist Ashley Griffith in the PLA. Griffith is a fourth-year student, entering her final year of the three-year PLA program.

“Being in the PLA means that I get to have in-depth and real conversations with people from diverse backgrounds,” Griffith said. “I am constantly impressed and challenged by the people and topics that are brought up in the PLA.”

Griffith said participating in the PLA demands high levels of critical thinking.

“I have been able to break down my preconceived notions of the world to recognize that every issue or situation has multiple angles. I get to see more of these angles, angles that I wouldn't have seen before, from my classmates,” she said.

In addition to both being students in the College of Education and both being in Blue Band, Hibbard and Griffith share one thing in common that led them to apply for the PLA: people who believed in them. Griffith’s first-year seminar instructor, Emil Cunningham, suggested she apply based on how well she did in his class.

“Around the same time during a Blue Band rehearsal, I was standing on the sidelines of the practice field by myself. Dr. Buzminski (Dr. Buz), the band's percussion instructor and arranger, came up to me and said, ‘There's leadership in you,’ and walked away,” Griffith said. “People don't realize the impact that their words have on you, but Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Buz believing in me and seeing potential in me really led me to apply. I have held on to what Dr. Buz has said since and still try to fulfill his belief in me.”

Hibbard learned about the PLA through Education Student Council (ESC) President Taylor Marie Young, who shared information with council members and encouraged first-year students to apply.

“Taylor supported me throughout the process as well and was always sending me the most encouraging text messages. She was one of the first people to celebrate with me when I found out I had gotten in,” Hibbard said.

“People don't realize the impact that their words have on you, but Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Buz believing in me and seeing potential in me really led me to apply. I have held on to what Dr. Buz has said since and still try to fulfill his belief in me.”

— Ashley Griffith, student, College of Education

College of Education Dean Kimberly Lawless also celebrated with Hibbard. Lawless first got to know Hibbard through the first-year seminar class she co-taught last fall.

“Valarie always sat in the first row in our class, and I could always count on her to contribute to the discussions in very thoughtful, informed ways. Then Valarie joined the ESC and became very involved in the life of the college, and I saw how quickly she immersed herself in the work of that group,” Lawless said. “I have every confidence that Valarie’s involvement with the PLA will help prepare her to better work with the students, parents and faculty that she will encounter as a future educator.”

Suzanne Brokloff, who is Hibbard’s academic adviser as well as co-adviser to the ESC, said, “Since the day she accepted her offer at Penn State, Valarie has shown time and time again how she takes initiative, supports others and embraces the ‘We Are’ spirit. She inspires others and shows many qualities that the PLA will help to develop even more fully. She already took the lead on a few occasions this year to serve on various committees within the ESC and has definitely made a positive impression and a name for herself in that organization.”

A third College of Education student, Maude Tarbox, just graduated from the program.

“Being a part of PLA has been an incredible experience,” Tarbox said. “I have been challenged to think from new perspectives, defend my ideas and to work collaboratively with those who have differing opinions. I have been able to learn about myself and others through both in- and out-of-class experiences. To me, this means I am taking actionable steps toward creating a better me and a better Penn State. PLA has made me a more informed citizen, a stronger leader and an empathetic friend.”

Hibbard is looking forward to immersing herself in the opportunities afforded through the PLA. Griffith and Tarbox both know what’s in store for her.

“Something that stood out to me the most in my sophomore year was having class with President [Eric] Barron,” Griffith said. “He talked openly about issues that face our University and universities around the nation. We get to look at leadership and decision-making through his eyes and, in the process, learned how to better evaluate issues and biases. President Barron, I believe, learns from the members of the class as well.”

This past year, Griffith served as an intern for the PLA, working closely with Doberstein to create programming and work to select the next class of PLA members. 

“We worked with unique challenges while being virtual to try to build community and give academy members and alumni the chance to engage in professional and wellness development from home. I am currently majoring in education public policy and plan to go to graduate school for higher education administration and leadership, so being able to see the inner workings of the PLA was a very valuable experience for me,” Griffith said.

As a fourth-year student this fall, Griffith is looking forward to working closely with her PLA alumni mentor to prepare to apply for graduate school.

“I also am looking forward to hopefully going on another PLA integrated trip,” Griffith said. “These trips are very valuable experiences in getting to see leadership in action in other places across the nation. It builds off the work we do in our PLA coursework and gives us totally unique professional experiences. The trips also allow me to connect with PLA members outside of my cohort and learn more about how they see the world.”

Tarbox said being in PLA has allowed her to become a more intentional, well-rounded and reflective individual.

“There are so many moments, lessons and memories from PLA that I will carry with me for years to come. From engaging speakers, fun dinners and unforgettable field trips, these memories are hard to narrow down to just a few favorites,” she said. “As an educator, I am more a confident teacher because I am equipped with the skills necessary to create a classroom environment where respect is a cornerstone and intolerance becomes unacceptable.”

Griffith and Tarbox have some advice for Hibbard as she embarks upon her first year in the program.

“The best advice I have for Valarie in PLA would be to be yourself in class. Everybody comes into class with their beliefs and perspectives, and it is worthwhile to have your own. In PLA, it is not about ‘talking the loudest’ and it's not about agreeing. PLA is about being real and vulnerable and honest amid a confusing world,” Griffith said.

She added, “Another piece of advice would be to ask questions. As education majors, we know that the only way to become better versions of ourselves and for others is to become educated and educate others. Always seek understanding and knowledge, even if it doesn't lead to a concrete answer.”

Tarbox said, “I would first love to offer Valarie my sincerest congratulations. I am so excited to see more students from the College of Education joining PLA. The best advice I can give her is to say ‘yes’ to as many PLA opportunities as she can throughout these next three years, including being present in class discussions, hanging out with classmates, dinner with the Hintzes and going on field trips.”

She continued, “There are endless opportunities within PLA, but you must invest your time. I never regretted a time I said yes, and now I have incredible memories and friendships that I will always cherish.”

Founded with a lead endowment from Edward R. and Helen S. Hintz in 2009, the PLA was established with the goal of developing critical-thinking skills and educating students to understand issues broadly with consideration for the complexity and variability of world matters, decisions and life’s circumstances – that is, the “gray areas” of global and local decisions.

To be considered, prospective first-year students must have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.2 or above at the time of application. For more information on Penn State’s Presidential Leadership Academy, visit

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Last Updated May 24, 2021