Love of writing defines O’Neill’s time at Behrend

Katherine O'Neill

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

As a child, Katie O’Neill always had a keen interest in writing and creative expression. This affinity continued when she got to grade school, and it was not long before others started to notice.

“I had a teacher when I was in first grade who told my mom to get me a journal,” O’Neill recalls.

That would seem to have been excellent advice. As O’Neill has grown up, her passion for writing has become a defining characteristic.

“I’ve always been a writer before anything else,” the Lake Winola, Pa., native says.

That passion is what brought her to Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. The college’s BFA in Creative Writing piqued her interest as the only such program in the Penn State system and one of only a few in the country.

“That was definitely the number one draw,” she says.

Through the inventive program, O’Neill, who graduated this past May, says she was able to focus intently on improving her inventive writing skills. She also improved her editing abilities serving on the staff of Lake Effect, an international literary journal published by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Behrend.

Along the way, O’Neill garnered accolades. This past year alone, her non-fiction story, “Achill Strikes Again,” won Behrend’s Farrell Nonfiction Award while her fiction piece “Juneau” was the college’s Smith Fiction Award winner. Her short fiction piece, “Tony and Rebecca” was also named an honorable mention in the Annual Creative Writing Awards, sponsored by Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, New York.

O’Neill says her inspiration comes from “the weirdest things,” but also a more traditional source. Thanks to the college’s Creative Writers Reading Series and professional conferences, O’Neill met and networked with numerous professional authors throughout her college career. With every interaction, she says she would pick up a tip or two that she put to good use.

During her time at Penn State Behrend, O’Neill was involved beyond creative writing activities. She was the captain of the college’s dance team, a member of the Behrend Choir and a writing tutor in the Learning Resource Center.

This past spring, O’Neill’s efforts were recognized with two awards: Behrend’s Eric A. and Josephine S. Walker Award and a university-wide Eclipse Award. The Walker Award recognizes a student whose character, scholarship, leadership and citizenship have been directed into student programs and services. The Eclipse Award recognizes Penn State students for service and volunteerism to their campus and local communities.

This fall, O’Neill will start pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. She reflects fondly on her time at Penn State Behrend and hopes new students will choose to follow a similar path.

“My advice is to get involved from the start. I’m so glad I got involved right away. It can be overwhelming, but it’s (worth it),” she says. “I’ve made some amazing friends. I’m going to miss everything about this place.”

For adult student, degree is ‘one of those lifetime badges you get’

By Robb Frederick
Public Information Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

Michael Linhart (3) (682x1024)Michael Linhart took his time getting to Erie Insurance Arena, where he received a bachelor’s degree in general arts and sciences. He crossed the stage in May, 24 years after he first enrolled at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

“It’s hard to describe how that felt,” Linhart, 42, said. “To be honest, I just tried to soak it all in.”

The Fairview resident first arrived at Penn State Behrend in 1991. The Kochel and Burke centers had not yet been built. Ohio and Almy halls were still woodlots.

Linhart had trouble adjusting to college life. After three semesters, his GPA had flat-lined at 1.5.

“I wasn’t ready for college,” he said. “I didn’t have the focus or the determination to stay with it. I needed to grow up.”

So he left. He worked the cash register at a grocery store and helped manage a Taco Bell. He watched his friends go on to better things.

“All my friends were getting these great 9-to-5 jobs,” he said. “They were getting married, having kids, and I was stuck, still living hand-to-mouth.”

In 1998, after five years away, he came back to campus. He tried to be more active: He joined the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and the Returning Adult Student Organization. He volunteered as an orientation leader.

“He had a renewed sense of what he needed to do to be successful here,” said Biddy Brooks, director of the Office of Adult Learner Services. “He was committed to putting in the work. So it was hard to see him leave again.”

After two years of study, Linhart was offered an internship at a property management company. He worked as a leasing consultant, matching renters to apartments in a 132-unit complex. When his boss offered him a full-time position – good pay, and a path up the organizational ladder – he accepted, leaving college for a second time.

Before long, however, the work bored him. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve, training as an aviation supply worker. He completed basic training on Sept. 5, 2001.

Six days later, the nation went to war.

“I ended up in the Persian Gulf, on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, thinking, ‘Yeah, this was a great plan,’” Linhart said.

When his tour ended, he returned to Erie, wanting to be close to family again. He met a woman and had two children. He’d raise them on his own, tending bar and working as a massage therapist.

He married again in 2012. When his new wife, Amy, encouraged him to complete his degree, Linhart once more found himself in Biddy Brooks’ office.

“He just persevered,” Brooks said. “He was so positive and outgoing, and always willing to talk with other adult students. He wanted to help them through situations he’d already had to work through.”

He kept his own doubts to himself. “I was a lot more apprehensive, coming back that third time,” Linhart said. “I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I stayed with it. I saw it as one of those lifetime badges you get: the ‘turn 40 and go back to college’ badge.”

It worked. He earned his final credits and was honored as the college’s top adult learner. The day of his last exam, he lingered on campus.

“This school has given me so much,” he said. “So many friends, so many experiences, so many nuggets of wisdom I can take with me anywhere. I just walked around and took it all in one more time.”

Before the commencement ceremony, he drove to the cemetery where his grandparents are buried. He placed an invitation in a zip-lock bag and tucked it between their headstones. Then he went home and taped a message to the top of his mortarboard: “I MADE IT.”

Bittersweet Commencement

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

Earlier this week, I was looking through the photos taken at Commencement and began jotting down the image numbers of students I recognized from having interviewed in the past.

“Oh, that’s a really nice one of Maddie. I’m going to have to send that one to her.  Awww..there’s George. And Vee. And Brian. And look at this one of Katie & Cody. Oh, I love it!  Wait, Nico graduated? And Megan and Paul, too?”

And there go half of my go-to student sources. Dang.

As a writer in the Office of Marketing Communication at Behrend, I work this gig like a newspaper beat, cultivating relationships with people in each school, making contact with the movers-and-shakers, and keeping tabs on standout students.

But, eventually, they all leave.

*sigh*

Such is the nature of the beast in academia. Student turnover is inevitable (and, if we’re being honest, preferable for everyone involved, I’m sure). It’s our job to educate them and send them out into the world.

But it’s bittersweet to see them go. Not just because I lose valuable student sources, but because we lose charismatic, interesting, enthusiastic, and remarkable members of our Penn State Behrend family.

  • Brian established the Waste Not program with his friend and former classmate, Stephen, turning what was waste into food for the hungry.
  • Vee was a very successful president of the LEB and a visible member of the Arts Administration program.
  • George was a hands-on, charismatic Marketing student who gamely posed in a hot, humid water park for a School of Business cover shoot.
  • Katie drove (and worked on) the School of Engineer’s thrice-winning Supermileage Car. Cody was a vital member of the Supermileage team, too.
  • Maddie helped the women’s soccer team to four championships while earning an Interdisciplinary Business with Engineering Studies degree and doing an internship in Germany.
  • Megan was the cheerleading coach and a founding member of Phi Sigma Rho, a new engineering sorority on campus.
  • Danielle was an outstanding tutor. She even has an award to prove it.

I could go on…and on…and on…and on. We have a lot of really great students at Behrend.  And I’ve been here long enough to know that there will be more to replace those who graduate.

While I’m going to miss the students that I got to know in the Class of 2015, I can’t wait to see where they go and what they do. Rest assured, you’ll probably hear about them in the future. I write alumni stories, too, you know.

(So, students…I mean, ’15 alums, go out there and do something I’m going to want to write about!).