New Group to Support, Engage Black Alumni and Students

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

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Tesha Nesbit ’93 speaks at a commencement ceremony at Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend’s Alumni Society recently opened a new chapter in the college’s Black history – an affiliate programming group (APG) known as the Behrend Black Leadership Alumni Coalition (BBLAC).

This summer, when college leadership identified a need to reach out to individual subsets of alumni, one of the first groups they wanted to reach out to was Behrend’s Black alumni, as it’s one of the largest segments of the alumni population.

The initiative began as a conversation among college administration, faculty, staff, and alumni to explore opportunities to celebrate diverse voices and viewpoints.

“Many members of the Behrend team were instrumental in bringing BBLAC to life,” said Kristen Comstock ’06, assistant director of alumni relations. “We recognized Black alumni are an integral part of the Behrend Alumni Society. We sought input from alumni and campus community to enhance our relationships with Black alumni.”

After months of collaboration, BBLAC was chartered to serve as a direct connection for Black alumni to share their unique perspectives and engage with current and potential Black students. Spearheaded by a group of Black Behrend alumni, the group is the first APG the Behrend Alumni Society has had in at least dozen years.

“We believe that establishing a specific APG for Black Behrend alumni members will improve relations with an important Behrend constituency,” said BBLAC president Brandon McGraw, a 2009 Accounting and Finance graduate who is now the senior manager of accounting operations at The Knot Worldwide, Inc. “We further believe this group will help Behrend leadership guard against systematic biases and mitigate the challenges faced by Black Students as they pursue a Penn State degree.”

BBLAC has hit the ground running with a robust membership and a board of directors who have already formed several committees around the areas of campus engagement, professional development, coalition events, collegiate recruitment, fundraising, and more.

A donation from alumna Tesha Nesbit, a 1993 Communications graduate and director of diversity and inclusion for Erie Insurance Group, will help advance BBLAC’s mission (See BBLAC’s mission statement below).

“Penn State pride pervades the association; we have alumni all over the world,” Nesbit said. “I want to do my part to ensure that Black Behrend students have the full scope of support they need to be inspired and successful in the classroom and in our communities. If we can help them preserve this rich legacy of excellence that is a high-quality education, which has not been equally afforded to everyone, then they also become historians and models for generations to come.”

Comstock is excited about working with BBLAC to expand and enhance current Behrend Alumni Society events and initiatives.

“I’m looking forward to working with this wonderful and enthusiastic group of volunteers as we plan meaningful events for our Black alumni,” she said. “BBLAC leaders are engaged and I’m really looking forward to the programs that connect our Black alumni to current and prospective Behrend students of color.“

While the pandemic currently presents  challenges to hosting in-person events, BBLAC is developing virtual events, including a professional development offering for students, and handwriting notes to accepted Black students encouraging them to attend Behrend.

“They’re also planning a Black Alumni Reunion event this fall for Behrend’s Parents, Families, and Alumni Weekend, which I can confidently say we all hope will be an in-person event this year,” Comstock said.

MISSION OF BBLAC

The mission of the Behrend Black Leadership Alumni Coalition (BBLAC) Affiliate Programming Group is to provide a direct connection for the college’s Black alumni to share their unique perspective as alumni. BBLAC is positioned to: engage with current Black students to support educational opportunities; mentor current Black students as they make the transition to higher education; provide a conduit for Black alumni to advise Behrend leadership; assist in recruiting Black students; help develop greater financial support for Black students; facilitate allyship; and help improve the overall educational environment for students of color.”

Leadership/Board of Directors

Executive Board

  • President: Brandon McGraw ’09
  • Vice President: Adell Coleman ’09
  • Treasurer: Jeremy O’Mard ’13
  • Secretary: Angela Coston Jones ’95
  • Emerita: Conchita Dixon ’97

Committee Chairs

  • Conchita Dixon ’97, Fundraising
  • Tesha Nesbit ’93, Professional Development
  • Shelley Askew Floyd ’92, Campus Engagement
  • Jeffrey Grant ’90, Membership
  • Stanley Husband ’90, Collegiate Recruitment
  • Sasha Singh ’09, Coalition Events

To support BBLAC with a donation, visit raise.psu.edu/BBLAC. To join the alumni group, visit behrend.psu.edu/alumni/alumni-organizations/bblac.  

Put a Little Love in the World

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

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“What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Jackie DeShannon’s words ring as true in 2021 as they did in 1965.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, why not put a little love in the world?  Here are some pandemic-friendly Random Acts of Kindness and other good-deed ideas from the Office of Civic and Community Engagement.

Behrend-Specific Acts of Kindness

  • Volunteer to support our students who are in quarantine and isolation (staff and faculty only). Get more info or sign up to help
  • Give money or donate food and/or personal care items for packages that are delivered to students in quarantine and isolation. See the graphic below for a list of items needed and how to donate them.
  • Reach out to an office/department that has been essential in keeping campus open and our students safe and cared for during this time. An acknowledgment is enough but sending a treat would be even sweeter. A few ideas: candy, donuts, flowers, popcorn, or cookies.
  • Message someone you know has been struggling with the circumstances brought about by COVID-19. Some staff and faculty members are working extremely long hours, others have had their hours reduced, some may have lost loved ones during this time, while others may be feeling isolated or overwhelmed.
  • If you are a current student, join a service club at Penn State Behrend, such as the Random Act of Kindness club, Reality Check, Circle K, or Project Paws. You can find a list of service-oriented clubs here.

Fifteen General Random Acts of Kindness

  • Paint small rocks and place them around campus, parks, or other public areas for others to find. Find directions and lots of ideas on Pinterest.com.
  • Leave a note and water or snacks for delivery drivers.
  • When you’re getting coffee or a snack at a fast-food restaurant, pay for the car behind you.
  • When you get great service, call the number or take the survey printed on your receipt and praise the worker who helped you. Those comments do get back to the workers.
  • Leave positive online reviews for restaurants or businesses you frequent. If you buy items from Etsy, take the time to write a short review; sellers are rewarded with more visibility when they get good reviews.
  • Whenever possible, try to buy local and support small businesses, even if it costs a few dollars more. Those businesses need you now more than ever.
  • Add encouraging messages to a public sidewalk using chalk, or just draw something colorful to share your art with the world.
  • Write a positive message on a sticky note and put it on a bathroom mirror or some other public place.
  • Start a virtual book club. It’s as easy as picking a book and inviting fellow readers to join you in a future Zoom discussion of the book. Many people are longing for connection today and books provide a shared experience and brief escape from reality.
  • Call the older people in your life, whether your parents, grandparents, or friends. It’s likely they are feeling especially isolated and would welcome the opportunity to talk.
  • When you brush snow off your car on a snowy day, do the same with a few other cars around you.
  • Set up a Zoom meeting with young relatives – even kindergarteners can handle a tablet or phone meeting. This past year has been draining for parents of young children. It’s likely they will relish the break while their little ones talk your ear off and show you all their toys.
  • Offer to tutor younger relatives or friends struggling with remote learning. Not only will you help them but explaining concepts can help you better understand them yourself.
  • Check out the wish list for a local animal shelter (most have one online) and see what items you might be able to donate or collect.
  • Be considerate of others – hold the door for someone behind you, return your grocery cart, let some go ahead of you at the grocery store or in traffic, and, of course, wear your mask.

If nothing here speaks to you, Chris Fox, assistant director of Civic Engagement and Smith Chapel, suggests simply focusing on putting yourself in another person’s shoes and go from there.

“Any act that demonstrates empathy will have a positive impact,” Fox said. “Empathy is a great tool for healing and can help us get through difficult times.”

COVID care boxes

Building on her MBA

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

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Bob and Jacqueline Masek DiPlacido ’18 M.B.A.

While a lot of professionals pursue an advanced degree as the next step in their career trajectory, they sometimes spark personal projects as well.

By day, Jacqueline Masek DiPlacido ’18 M.B.A., works at Parker LORD as a program manager/production planner for the company’s aerospace new products team. But, on evenings and weekends, she puts her Penn State Behrend Master of Business Administration degree to work helping to build DA Woodworking, a small business she owns with her husband, Bob.

“The business began with my husband’s love of woodworking,” DiPlacido said. “We started out making small pieces, signs and simple furniture, but it’s now expanded into high-end quality pieces, including custom-made hutches, cabinets and built-ins, china cabinets, fireplaces, dog crates, and even family room sets.”

DiPlacido, who earned a degree in Supply Chain Management at Penn State’s University Park campus, said what started as a hobby for her husband, who works as a mechanical engineer, has grown into a serious business. DA Woodworking currently has pieces on sale at Traditions Unlimited, an Erie home décor store.

DiPlacido helps design the pieces and market the business, something she learned a lot about in her MBA classes.

“We have worked hard to advertise the business without an advertising budget, using social media and leveraging word-of-mouth as we complete pieces for customers in the area,” she said. “We were planning to host a Gallery Night for the Erie arts community in the spring of 2020, but COVID-19 forced that event to be canceled.”

DiPlacido said she and her husband also hit on another winning formula – giveaways, which are even more popular when paired with a charity.

“I am an avid dog lover and volunteer for the Erie Humane Society,” she said. “I knew how many of their fundraisers were canceled last year, and Bob and I wanted to help. So, we combined our love for woodworking with our love for animals and built a custom coffee table that we donated to the humane society to raffle off.”

DiPlacido has plans to help Behrend’s alumni organization as well, once events can be resumed.  “We always enjoy giving back, and every time our pieces are showcased at an event, it gets our name out there.”

The new year brings yet another new challenge for the DiPlacidos. “We are expecting our first baby this year, so we’re in the middle of some great projects around the house!”

Check out DA Woodworking on facebook.com/DA.Woodworking and on Instagram.com/da.woodworking.

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Tube Time Well Spent

Faculty and staff recommend television worth watching over winter break

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By Heather Cass, publications manager, Penn State Behrend

If you ask Penn State Behrend faculty and staff members what television shows or movies they’d recommend students enjoy over break, they’ll often suggest books instead. (You can take the professor out of the classroom, but…). If you press them, though, they may admit to occasionally indulging in a few flicks or bingeing on a streaming series, whether it’s something with an educational aspect to it or something that’s just plain fun to watch.

Here are the shows/movies that Penn State Behrend faculty and staff members recommend relaxing with over your well-earned holiday break. Please note: These suggestions are for adults; some shows may not be appropriate for younger audiences.  

Dr. Laurie Urraro, assistant teaching professor of Spanish

I recommend students watch the series Cobra Kai, a martial arts comedy-drama on Netflix, because we could all use a little more physical activity and inspiration in our lives right now.

I have to add a prerequisite, though: You must first watch the original Karate Kid movies (I and II)  so you can appreciate the series, which is based on the 1980s-era movies and features the main characters from the films. 

Dr. Robert Speel, associate professor of political science

Here are my recommended shows, all on Netflix, but some may be found elsewhere, too.

Occupied. This is a Norwegian political thriller that involves climate change and Russian subterfuge.

Learn something about European politics from this series, which includes all the elements of any political drama – sex, violence, and assassinations – mixed with efforts to save the environment.

Kim’s Convenience. Laugh while learning how everyone fits into a multicultural city in Canada in this funny sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family who owns a convenience store in Toronto.

Bodyguard. Learn a little bit about British politics and the civil service while trying to solve a mystery in this political thriller centered around the bodyguard of an ambitious government minister.

Evil Genius – This is a true crime documentary about the most famous criminal case to take place in Erie in the last quarter century. It tells the odd tale of a bank robbery heist that ended in the death of a pizza deliveryman who died when a collar bomb exploded around his neck.

Dr. Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, professor of psychology

I’m a big sci-fi fan, so I recommend any of the Star Trek movies or series, as well as Farscape and Babylon 5.

Not only are all of these shows incredibly entertaining, but they also provide us an opportunity to examine the social issues we discuss in psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology in a way that allows us to escape the constraints of real life.

There are significant ethical dilemmas, interpersonal conflict, issues related to discrimination and oppression, and more. It also allows us to see the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of approaching life and various moral and religious compasses. Also, there are transporters!

Tracy Halmi, associate teaching professor of chemistry

Breaking Bad is an older television series about a chemistry teacher with cancer who resorts to cooking meth to make as much money for his family as he can before he dies. The show features plenty of chemistry and science, but also a lot of drug use, swearing, and violence, so it’s definitely not appropriate for younger audiences!

I’d also suggest HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, a great docudrama that is available on Amazon Prime.

Two great movies that I’d recommend: Radioactive, a movie on Amazon Prime, is about the famous scientist, Marie Curie, and it delves into her life and the aftermath of her discoveries. Hidden Figures is a 2016 movie about three brilliant  African-American women at NASA who helped put John Glenn on the moon, though their efforts went largely unnoticed, hence the title of the movie.

Angela Davis, reference instructional librarian at Lilley Library

I find nature documentaries soothing, so I’d suggest students watch the Our Planet series. It’s actually on YouTube right now as Netflix allowed it to be placed there so educators could access it for free during the pandemic.

The series focuses on how climate change affects various species in every habitat on Earth. Those who enjoy animals or are interested in climate change and the environment would enjoy the series, which isn’t too science heavy.

Dr. Jay Amicangelo, professor of chemistry

My wife and I have been enjoying a related set of historical fiction series over the last few months. These miniseries, available on a few premium streaming services such as Starz, Hulu, and YouTube, each portray drama related to the monarchy of England during the time period from about the mid-1400s to the early-1500s. 

I’d suggest watching them in the following chronological order:  

  • The White Queen – This series is mainly about Catherine Woodville, who was the wife of Edward IV.
  • The White Princess – This series is centered around Elizabeth of York, who was the wife of Henry VII
  • The Spanish Princess – This series is mainly about Catherine of Aragon, who was the first wife of Henry VIII

Riki Hay, regional global education coordinator, International Student Services

During Behrend’s recent International Education Week programming, we did a “daily digest” which, among many things, included some recommendations from the experts on ways to learn interculturally.

Here are some TED talks they recommended that students may want to check out while they are on break:

You can find a whole collection of  TED talks (and more) on the topic of diversity at ted.com.

 

 

Building stronger student athletes

By Heather Cass, publications manager, Penn State Behrend

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Chris Viscuso, coordinator of strength

Earth, Wind & Fire is just one of the many tools Chris Viscuso, the college’s new coordinator of strength training, uses to motivate his student-athletes.

“I try to make it fun and keep things lively and upbeat,” he said. “I make them listen to my music, which drives them nuts. They tease me about it, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, this group is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If you can tell me who it is, you can cut your workout short.’”

Rare is the 20ish-age college student who gets to skip out of strength training early.

Like any good coach or fitness guru, Viscuso takes an approach that mixes pleasure with pain, walking  a line between the two. He looks the part of a bodybuilder—he’s bald, bearded, muscled, and tattooed. He’s often grinning, but with just enough seriousness to convey without words that if you slack off, he’s going to call you on it.

Throughout December, an Elf on the Shelf perched on the bleachers in Erie Hall, where additional fitness equipment is set up for students. Viscuso’s elf didn’t move very much, but every day the holiday mischief-maker posted a new workout.

“Sometimes, he was a kind elf and it would be an easy workout,” Viscuso said. “Other times, he was an angry elf in a bad mood, and he’d make students do 150 body squats, run a half mile, and crank out some push-ups and pull-ups.”

Back to Behrend

Viscuso joined Behrend’s Athletics staff in September of 2020. It was a homecoming for the 1992 History graduate who had played basketball for the Behrend Lions. He has bragging rights as the first player to score a basket in the newly renovated Erie Hall when it reopened in 1992.

Nearly twenty years later, Viscuso is back in Erie Hall, though the building will soon be replaced by a new fitness and recreation center. It’s bittersweet for Viscuso, since he has made a lot of memories in Erie Hall.

He has several more months to imprint that facility on the college’s student-athletes, though, and he’s making the most of it.

“I’m the only ‘coach’ on staff who works with all 300 of our student-athletes,” he said. “And, I get to work with them year-round, not just when they are in season.”

One could argue that good athletes are built in the off-season.

“If you get stronger, you’re going to be a faster runner, a more explosive basketball player, a better soccer player,” he said. “There is not a sport you can play that you can’t play better with a stronger body.”

Hard? Yes. Complicated? No.

Like his musical taste, Viscuso is old-school when it comes to building stronger bodies. He likes the classic moves.

“The biggest mistake people make when it comes to strength training is making it too complicated,” he said. “Fads come and go in fitness, but the basics never really change. I’m going with meat-and-potatoes workouts – lunges, plyometrics, squats, sprints, pushups, etc. We use the weight room, but we also just add weight doing movement-based workouts.”

He likes to work unilaterally. “We do a lot of one-legged squats and one-arm dumbbell exercises, things like that,” Viscuso said.  It’s important for almost all athletes, but especially those who do a lot of pivoting on the playing field, like those in basketball, soccer, and tennis.

He’s also big on flexibility, another thing that benefits every athlete. “If your heels are coming off the ground when we are doing squats, everybody thinks of hips and sometimes it is that, but it can also be tight Achille’s tendons; all of these parts are in play.”

That’s why Fridays are for yoga, but if student-athletes think they are going to find inner peace, Viscuso sets them straight pretty quickly. “It’s actually more stretching and more of workout than they expect,” he said.

You might call Viscuso’s approach intense, and he’s perfectly OK with that. It’s one of his three ingredients to success. “Intensity, effort, and enthusiasm are key,” he said. “It’s hard to stop a determined man or woman.”

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Viscuso Vitals

Before Behrend: Assistant basketball coach at Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky, then at Gannon University in Erie for fourteen years. At Gannon, he also served as the director of performance enhancement for the men’s basketball team, too.

On one measure of athletes: “I ask them to do 40 unbroken pushups and 10 pullups on their own; it’s not a huge challenge, but it tells me where they are, physically. Then we have a starting point.”

On pandemic-era training: “With no sports happening right now, it’s been a great time for strength training. Our philosophy has been, let’s just work on getting stronger, then.”

On a long winter break: “I told the student-athletes, ‘I’ve spent months working on you. Don’t you go home and let it all go. Do the workouts I post on Instagram (a private page for student-athletes).’ I’ll know if they didn’t.”

On Behrend student-athletes: “As a whole, our athletes have impressive GPAs, unheard of in sports-scholarship-level schools. Personally, I have found them to be hungry for information; they love feedback. In general, they are just good kids—smart, hardworking, respectful.”

A Winter To-Do List for Career Success

 By Heather Cass, publications manager, Penn State Behrend

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With the Spring 2021 semester starting a week later than normal, Penn State Berend students have the luxury of an extra-long holiday rest.

Just kidding, students. You’ve heard the phrase, “No rest for the weary,” and that definitely applies to college students, particularly, juniors and seniors. You have some recommended winter work to prepare for your future.

None of these “assignments” are difficult or required, or will be graded, but if you complete these tasks suggested by Christina Moreschi, career counselor in Behrend’s Academic and Career Planning Center, you will be setting yourself up for future career success.

Here are suggestions for making the most of your extra time over winter break:

  1. Log into Nittany Lion Careers (NLC), Penn State’s job and internship search platform. Once you log in, take a few minutes to fill in the required information under “My Account,” so you will be ready for Penn State Behrend’s Virtual Spring 2021 Career and Internship Fair, which will take place on the NLC platform Wednesday, February 24.
  2. Create/update your resume. Check out the ACPC’s samples and suggestions for help.
  3. Create/update your LinkedIn profile. Watch LinkedIn Like A Pro to learn how to leverage your profile and make LinkedIn work for you.
  4. Practice interviewing by scheduling a mock interview session with an ACPC career counselor via Zoom. A mock interview is one of the best ways to refine your interviewing skills, and the counselors are available during the extended winter break to help you!
  5. Build/check-in with your network virtually. Consider sending a card or email to reconnect with friends and former colleagues and let them know what you are doing. The main idea is to have an annual check-in with people who might be helpful to you, personally or professionally, in developing your plan for the future.

Answers for “Mom, I’m bored!”

Penn State Behrend’s Youth Education Outreach offers ideas to educate and entertain kids over winter

By Heather Cass, publications manager, Penn State Behrend

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In a normal year, most of us would have a December calendar bulging with holiday events, activities, and to-dos. But, this year, of course, the majority of community events have been canceled, big holiday parties prohibited, and travel anywhere discouraged.

Add to this the fact that most schools are extending holiday break or going remote to control the spread of COVID and parents are working from home or working reduced hours.

All of this means that many of us will have a lot of family time on our hands in the next several weeks. As any parent will tell you, that is both wonderful and terrifying.

But Penn State Behrend’s Youth Education Outreach (YEO) program, the folks who work to engage thousands of kids on campus for weeks every summer in College for Kids, aren’t scared. They know a thing or two about educating young people with activities that are so much fun they don’t even realize they are learning important concepts in STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

We asked the members of the YEO team to put together a little holiday/winter toolkit for parents, and they came through with lots of websites where you can find activities to while away many a winter day.

Sites to explore

We have provided a link to a specific activity or list of ideas, but each of these sites offers a wide variety of experiments, crafts, and fun. Just click around.

Build some (hot cocoa) bombs

Baking is food science. Learn how to whip up the hottest new holiday treats – hot chocolate bombs – here.  Not into hot cocoa? Here are more ways to teach science through baking.

Crafting with STEAM concepts

Go on a wild GooseChase

Join Behrend’s Winter Wonderland GooseChase game, which runs through March. GooseChase is a free application for your smartphone. Create an account, join the game (code is JW1DB1), and start checking off the “missions” posted. Tasks include building a Nittany Lion snowman, er…snowlion;  constructing a LEGO winter scene; making an ice lantern, and much more. As your family completes the missions, post a photo or video and then check that mission off as completed. More missions will be added throughout the duration of the game. You can find step-by-step instruction for joining and playing GooseChase here.

 

Broaden your holiday tune horizons

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

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In this tumultuous year when nothing is normal, we can take comfort in one thing that hasn’t changed: Christmas carols. Everyone has their favorites and most of us have more than a few.

We asked the music experts on campus to share with us their favorite holiday tunes and also to suggest some new songs/artists or albums to expand our holiday music playlist.

Here’s what they had to say:

Emily Cassano, assistant teaching professor of theatre, music, and arts

My all-time favorite Christmas tune is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” because I love the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. I don’t necessarily have a favorite version; there are a lot of great renditions.

For more modern music, I typically turn on any of the Pentatonix Christmas Albums, and their song “White Winter Hymnal” is a favorite of mine.

In November, the three Fates from Hadestown (last year’s Tony Award Winner for Best Musical) released a Christmas album called If the Fates Allow.  It’s really great, and very non-traditional, like Hadestown itself.  One of the three Fates is played by an Erie native and Penn State alumnus Mike Karns’ wife, Kay Trinidad.

Gabrielle Dietrich, director of choral ensembles and associate teaching professor of music

I have to admit my holiday music tastes are eclectic, and also more modern in their conception.

I really enjoy Dar Williams’ “The Christians and the Pagans,” the Goo Dolls’ “Better Days,” and Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles’ “Winter Song.”

As for classics, I have a real soft spot for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” because what says “Happy Holidays” better than some good old-fashioned insult comedy!

Gary Viebranz, teaching professor of music

The first classic that comes to my mind is an oldie, but a goodie: “Mary’s Boy Child” by Harry Belafonte. In a most traditional sense, I love “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” especially the rendition by the King’s Singers.

For some nostalgia, I grew up with the Harry Simeone Chorale recording “Sing We Now of Christmas” and still listen to it. My silly side likes “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and I appreciate “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the original soundtrack of the animation, which is sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. Heeeeee’s Grrrrreat!

If you want to expand your horizons, I’d encourage you try some instrumental collections. My favorites include “A Canadian Brass Christmas” and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “A Christmas Festival,” which is an amazing album recorded in 1964.

Retiring Physics Professor Reveals Meaning of Life (Kinda)

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

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Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend

Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics, began his career in a remote area of Borneo where the only “technology” he had access to was in the form of painted plywood chalk boards and a hand-cranked, mimeograph-like machine. He taught in a language he had learned just three months earlier.

This month, he will finish his career in education from home, where he has been teaching dozens of Penn State Behrend students remotely using online videoconferencing software and a host of other high-tech tools that would’ve been inconceivable at the start of his career three decades ago.

Yet, Hall, who has been teaching at Behrend for thirty-two years, says not much has changed.

“Though the technology available today for education is very different, the key ingredient for student success has not changed; the desire to learn is the most important part,” Hall said.

Sometimes that desire can be stamped out quickly in physics class, a subject many students find intimidating. Hall learned to build students’ confidence first.

“In my general education physics course, I found that if I started with a topic, such as color and light, that students enjoyed, their confidence in their ability to learn physics enabled them to achieve greater success in the course,” he said. “We still did the more challenging topics, but students did better when I would ease them into it later in the course.”

Over the course of his teaching career, Hall said he has learned as much as he has taught, and we couldn’t let him retire without collecting some of his wisdom on topics big and small.

What brought you to Behrend?  

A 1988 Mazda hatchback. And a job teaching at a college!

What types of classes have you taught over the years?  

Physics, Astronomy, Civic and Community Engagement.

Which classes have been your favorites and why?

Of course, I enjoyed teaching physics, but the advantage of teaching astronomy is that it’s not called what it actually is, which is “the physics of the universe.” Because it doesn’t include the word “physics,” students relax, and enjoy learning… physics!

What I enjoyed about Civic and Community Engagement is that it was team-taught with faculty from other disciplines, including communication, psychology, and sustainability. It was truly inter-disciplinary, which was great, and I learned a lot from my colleagues. With the service projects, students were able to put into practice what they learned in their majors.

What do you remember most about your first year of teaching?

I had been a high school teacher for five years before coming to Behrend. I enjoyed getting to know students in my classes from teaching them 180 school days, but when I started teaching college, I didn’t miss at all the “supervisory” duties of a high school teacher such as monitoring homerooms, study halls, etc. At the college level, I could focus on teaching students, not monitoring them. Also, though I wasn’t any smarter or more qualified than I had been before, the respect people (especially the parents of students) give college faculty compared to high school faculty was eye-opening.

What have you learned the hard way?

I started my career as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it truly was the toughest job I’ve ever loved. I had twenty-five class preps every week in a language that I had only started learning three months before. Speaking a foreign language is not one of my strengths. During the first three months, I wondered if I had made a mistake; about a third of the volunteers in my training group quit during this time. But I toughed it out. Things got better, and I enjoyed my second year so much that I extended my assignment and served three years. In order to survive those early months, one thing I learned to do was to listen intently; to pay attention to and catch both the verbal and non-verbal cues; to listen to everything the person was saying, not just the words.  That skill has carried over to make me a better teacher and I hope more understanding of others. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

How our children go out of their way to keep my wife, Katherine, and me informed of world and national events. Our daughter, Maria, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar when a coup overthrew the democratically elected government there. At the same time, our daughter, Liz, who is a Marine, was in Iraq.  Liz has also been deployed to Afghanistan (twice), South Korea, Chad, Australia, and Germany, and is presently at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Our son, David, lives in Portland and kept us up to date on the fires and protests in Oregon. Someday, we hope to be less well-informed.

What have you enjoyed most in your career?

I have always enjoyed teaching young people and helping them to achieve their potential, and that has not changed during my career.

Do you have a different perspective on the profession now?

When people ask me what I teach, I tell them I teach young people, not a subject.  As teachers, we have the task of preparing our students for the future; content knowledge is often a  means by which we teach more important lessons about life.

What will you miss the most?

I have been fortunate in my life and career to work for organizations with a noble purpose, whether the Peace Corps, or Penn State University, whose mission as a land grant institution is teaching, research, and service. Working with everyone at Behrend who share in striving for the common good is what I will miss the most.

What’s the secret of life?

Since, in Malaysia, I was a “guru,” I’ll recommend as a starting point in your quest — the “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”  (Please note that I didn’t say I was a good guru…)

Any other parting wisdom for us?

In Asian culture, keeping harmonious relationships within the community is often the top priority.  In America, we emphasize individualism.  I think that in a healthy community, there is a balance of both; freedom of individual expression, along with concern for others.

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Recreating history: One tiny soldier at a time

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Today, when most of us in the United States are focused on the pandemic and political warfare, Jerry App, a junior History major, need only walk down his basement stairs to escape current affairs and lose himself in the drama of 1500s Italy.

Jerry App
Jerry App, junior History major at Penn State Behrend

App is a kriegsmodelle enthusiast. He paints tiny figures and scenery and then stages elaborate and historically accurate battle scenes in miniature. Lately, he’s been working on the Italian Wars, depicting battles between the Holy Roman Empire and France for control of Italy.

He has plenty to work with. Between 1494 to 1559, the Italian peninsula became the main battleground for European supremacy. Everybody wanted a piece of Italy’s “boot,” which was economically advanced but politically divided among several states, making it an attractive target.

“I’ve had to do a lot of research before I could actually begin building and painting the models, but it’s worth the effort,” App said.

Delving deep into history is a labor of love for App who can trace his fascination with the past to a classic fantasy game he played as a child.

“My dad taught me to play Dungeons and Dragons when I turned 10,” he said. “I got really interested in the medieval ages, specifically the realistic and historical sides to fantasy tropes. We bought some old pewter Grenadier models and painted them together. Later, I discovered a game called Warhammer Fantasy, and that is what really kicked off my interest in miniature painting and wargaming.”

It’s a pastime that he and his father still share today, and one that is particularly suited for a pandemic.

It’s been a great hobby to have during the lockdown,” App said. “Earlier this year, I was home from college and my parents were off work for a while, too, which gave us a lot of time to catch up on painting and playing. A typical wargame takes an hour or two to play out, so we had plenty of time to play. You could start a wargame on Sunday and play it all week.”

We caught up with App to learn more about his hobby, his personal history, and how both influenced his academic and career choices.

Your dad introduced you to both fantasy gaming (Dungeons and Dragons) and modeling?  

Yes. He started modeling when he was a kid, putting together World War II kits. He actually still has some of those kits, and he’s assembled a few WWII models recently. He was inspired by our recent visit to Gettysburg, and he recently bought some Civil War models. So, we’ve been working on those, too.

What do you enjoy about Kriegsmodelle?

I enjoy being able to take gray, flat plastic sprues (generic figures) and turn them into fully built and painted pieces. It’s very calming and helps me relieve stress after a long day. When I build and paint models, my mind is completely focused on what I am doing at that moment. It’s almost like meditation.

Metal unpainted 1
Unpainted sprues.

Where do you buy the figures?

It depends on the genre. Historical models can be difficult to find, depending on the period. For example, you can easily find Napoleonic or Late Imperial Romans, but you’ll really have to scrounge for Wars of Lombardy or Russian Civil War. I’d recommend Perry Miniatures or Warlord Games. Science fiction and fantasy models are easier to find, and you can find them on Ebay or Amazon for a decent price. Local stores or hobby shops that carry models are especially nice to work with, if you have one nearby.

The figures arrive in need of a paint job?

Yes, that’s the best part! I try to sit down for an hour or two every day to work on a squad of models. It can take a while to paint them up (a few hours per model), but I paint them in groups which speeds up the process a lot; this is referred to as “batch painting.”

How many models have you done?

I have around 2,250 models, but only about 1,000 of them are painted with 100 still needing assembly. My dad has a comparable amount. We work on the models in our basement, which is affectionately named the “Nerd Bunker” by friends and family. I’ve been painting for ten years this month.

What are you working on now?

The Italian Wars, as well as some medieval levies (militia units raised by conscription), a couple of Warhammer 40,000 armies and the Civil War models my dad picked up.  It’s a lot of different projects, but I’m never without something new to paint.

You also study German?

Yes, I’m working toward a certificate in German. My grandmother, Omi, is from southern Prussia, and she inspired me to take up German. I’m hoping I will become proficient enough to be able to speak with her in Deutsche.

What are your career goals?

Originally, I wanted to become a civil servant and work for a government agency. However, I’ve also looked into museum work and law school. Right now, I’m considering using my degree as a launch pad into Naval Officer Candidate School. I’m not committed to one plan yet, but I’m starting to narrow it down.

What advice do you have for those who might want to try modeling?  

I’m the Vice President for the Behrend Game Club, and I’m also the club’s strategy committee head. If any students are interested in pursuing the kriegsmodelle hobby, join the club on Behrend Sync and get involved. I’m happy to answer any questions and share resources to help another start their own collection.

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