Engineering Grad to Serve in Peace Corps in Africa

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

Alex Laffey - first choice

This is the time of year that graduating college seniors are making decisions about their future. Should they accept the job offer in Baltimore or the one in Chicago? Should they go to graduate school or pursue a research position?

For Alex Laffey, a senior Mechanical Engineering major, there are no questions. She has known what she’s wanted to do after college since her first year of high school.

“I learned about the Peace Corps in my freshman history class, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” Laffey said. “Former president John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps as a means for individuals in America to volunteer internationally, and I figured this was the best way to go to combine my passion for traveling and service.”

Laffey, a Pittsburgh native, will leave in July to serve for two years as a secondary math education teacher in Sierra Leone, Africa. We caught up with her to ask her about the exciting adventure she will embark on after her graduation in May.

What solidified your decision to volunteer with the Peace Corps?

Last summer, I traveled to India for two weeks to visit a friend. It was the first time I had ever been away from my parents and home in a completely new environment, and I loved it. I loved trying all of the new foods, being a minority, and even learning a little bit of the language. Seeing the country also showed me how much the rest of the world needs our help. As soon as I came back from India, I immediately started my application.

Did you choose Africa, or does the Peace Corps decide where you go?

When I applied, I was asked to list the top three places I would like to serve. Sierra Leone was my first choice. It stood out in my mind from a book I had read—A Long Way Gone. I didn’t even put a second and third choice because I figured that if I couldn’t go to Africa, I’d be happy to go wherever they needed me. Luckily, it worked out that they needed math teachers in Sierra Leone and the Corps had a new group leaving in July.

Has anyone in your family ever served in the Peace Corps or do they volunteer?

Nobody in my family has ever served in the Peace Corps, but my parents always taught me to help others. Not only have they helped me with everything tremendously, but they also go out of their way to help others. They are constantly volunteering and making a difference in our community and abroad. They were my inspiration for wanting to go.

Do you choose what you will be doing there?

You volunteer in one of six sectors for the Peace Corps: agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth development. Like with location, I had to rank my top three preferences. I initially wasn’t sure what sector I wanted to volunteer in, but after speaking with a recruiter she suggested teaching because of my engineering degree.

Will you be in the same location for the entire two years?

I will be in the same country for the whole two years, but in different cities. When I arrive in July, I will be staying with a host family for three months to help with cultural integration and adjustment. After those three months, I will begin my two years of service, and the Peace Corps will decide where to place me. So, as of right now, I know that I will be in Sierra Leone. I just don’t know exactly where.

What do you know about Africa? Do they speak English? Do you go to any training to help you before you leave?

When I arrive in July, I will begin with three months of training. This includes safety, health, teaching, and even how to properly do laundry. The official language is English, but throughout the villages, many different languages are spoken so I will get a basic overview of all of those. Right now, I have been reading a lot different books about the location, and the Peace Corps has provided me with a lot of information. They also put me in touch with Peace Corps volunteers who were in Sierra Leone and that has been very helpful!

What are you taking? How does one pack for two years?

I am honestly not sure how I am going to pack all of my stuff! I can only take a carry-on, one personal item, and two suitcases. I’ve been reading a lot of blogs, and talking to returned volunteers about what is most essential. I know I will definitely be getting a hammock to enjoy the nice weather, and a bunch of solar chargers so that I can use my laptop and phone while I am there.

Where will you be living? What are the conditions like? Are they primitive?

After my first three months with a host family, I will move to my official site where I will stay for two years. It could be in a city or a village, and I won’t know that until later. Regardless, I will have internet access, so I can keep in touch with friends and family.

How many vaccinations do you have to get?

So far, I have only had to get two shots, but I have had a lot of blood work done. The Peace Corps gave me a list of twenty-some tasks that I must complete to be medically cleared to go. It has been taking awhile to get through all of those. Many of them are to ensure the country I’m traveling to can handle any medical needs I may have, and that I will respond well to medicines commonly available there.

What are you most excited about?

All of it! I cannot wait to meet the people I will be serving with and the students I’ll be teaching and to see the country. I’ve read a lot about the country and the people there and, at this point, I’m just ready to experience it all first-hand.

Is there anything that makes you nervous/apprehensive about this trip?

I am definitely nervous to be so far away from the amazing support system I have at home. It’s definitely going to be hard to do it all alone, but I know that my family and friends are only a phone call away, and that I have other volunteers to lean on while I am there.

What did your parents say when you told them you were doing this?

At first, they were really supportive, but I think that’s because they thought I wouldn’t go through with it. When I was accepted, I was hesitate to bring it up because I didn’t want them to worry. It is a lot for them to deal with. I mean, their daughter is graduating from college and moving 5,000 miles away to living in an African village for two years. But they’ve already planned a trip to visit me, and I think that has really helped ease their minds.

What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

I am hoping to gain a new perspective, and make a difference. I can get caught up in my “problems” and think that I’m having a bad day, but the truth is that I am very fortunate. I also want to teach others and encourage them to keep learning. If I can help just one student while I am there, it will be enough.

Will you get to come home at all? How will you keep in touch with your family/friends while you’re away?

I am not allowed to travel outside of Africa for the first six months or the last three months of my service. Other than that, I am able to come home or go to other countries to sightsee. I receive two vacation days a month and I can save them up for a longer trip. Friends and family are welcome (and encouraged) to visit!

What are you plans when you return to the states?

I have no idea! I am hoping to come back and spend time with friends and family, eat all of the food I will have missed, and then hopefully find a job in engineering.

Laffey plans to blog about her experiences in Africa. Follow her at alexandralaffey.wordpress.com. Read more about Laffey in her Standout Senior profile.

PLET Students in Germany – Days 6-10

Guest Post by Ian Duchene, Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 20th, thirty-three PLET majors embarked on a 10-day trip to Germany. We asked them to tell us about their journey. In this blog post, students give us a report on the remaining days of the trip:

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Day 6 — Tuesday, October 25, 2016

An early morning checkout from our hostel lead to a couple sleepy train rides to Stüttgart. Upon arrival the group split in two, one exploring the city while the other boarded yet another train to the Mercedes-Benz Museum.

Once at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, the students were guided through the spiral halls which showcased the many automobiles produced by the company throughout their long history.

The students who stayed back from the museum went sightseeing in the city with a couple of professors. First, they went to the Schlossplatz and the palace Neues Schloss. Neues Schloss was the seat of the Kings of Wurtemburg and had multiple neat statues.

They also checked out the Schillerplatz, which was named after the famed poet Friedrich Schiller, but today houses many market stalls. For sale at the stalls were a multitude of goods, including exotic fruits and freshly baked bread.

The Stiftskirche, next to the plaza, is a beautiful church that was home to evangelical Lutherans in Stuttgart. Johanneskirche is another church the students visited. It had a spectacular view, showcasing a pond full of ducks and a swan. For lunch, they went to a German brauhaus to eat traditional German food, including spätzle.

After the tour, the two groups met again at the Stüttgart HBF and proceeded to the hostel. The hostel was perched high on a hill which provided a beautiful overlook of the city.

Schlossplatz was a hub for foot traffic as the setting sun lit the city’s small streets just in time for dinner. Shops, restaurants, and historical bullrings created a maze around Schlossplatz. The extra exercise gave way to an early night for the young student globetrotters; although a 6 am wake up call the previous and ensuing day may have been a factor as well.

Ian Duchene, Myles Mike, Eric Santini, and Glenn Spiering 

Day 7 — Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Needing to be at the train station by 8:15 a.m., it was yet another early morning wake-up call. Everyone was reaching for a cup of coffee!

By 10:00 a.m., the class reached the Arburg injection molding manufacturing plant in Loßburg, Germany. Upon arrival, everyone received a name tag with their full name.

At the facility, we went to a brief video presentation which gave an overview of the company and their current strides within the plastics industry. Following the video, we split in two groups to tour the facility.

For a private, family-owned company, their facility was enormous. Everyone was in awe with the size of the facility as well as the project management and creative thinking that goes into running an operation this large. There were automatic robots on rail tracks from the ceiling that would carry parts from one work station to the next. The robots had sensors prevent collisions.

Unfortunately, we were not permitted to take any pictures while in the facility. So, you’ll have to trust us when we tell you that it was incredible.

At the end of the tour, students received a delicious free lunch. Before leaving, everyone was given a parting gift, an Arburg umbrella. We then boarded a train back to Stüttgart where we would yet again split in two groups.

One group would head to the Porsche Museum while the other began their journey to Munich where we will be for the remainder of the trip.

— Ian

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Neuschwanstein Castle

Day 8 — Thursday, October 27, 2016

A 6:45 a.m. train took us to Neuschwanstein Castle in Fußen, Germany. The castle was built for King Ludwig II in 1869 and took many years to build. Unfortunately, he only lived there for 172 days before he was found dead in a nearby pond. To this day, his death is still a mystery. Neuschwanstein became open to the general public within six months of the Kings passing. Since then, it has grown to be a major tourist attraction in Southern Germany. (I wonder if he was killed so they could make a small fortune on tours! LOL.).

Following a tour of the inside of the castle, everyone took a ten-minute hike up a pathway that led to a bridge with a beautiful view of the castle. A foggy morning led to great speculation of whether or not we would be able to see the castle from the bridge. Thankfully, the fog had cleared by the time we reached bridge and the view was astounding…

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Following the trip to Neuschwanstein groups parted ways to explore Munich with many students eating dinner at the original Hofbräuhaus.

— Ian

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Rosenheim University of Applied Sciences

Day 9 — Friday, October 28, 2016

Students had yet another early morning wake up call—this time for Rosenheim University of Applied Sciences. Every student was in shock upon learning that there is no tuition for students of Rosenheim. The only fee is 52€ per semester for activity and facility fees. After viewing two presentations, the students split into two groups to tour the plastics engineering facilities.

Spread across a few different buildings, the labs consisted of a few different injection molding machines, multiple different extruders, thermoformers, a few stamping presses, and something that was new to many of us, a wood chipper and grinder for wood fiber additives.

The plastics program itself seemed very research-oriented and heavily influenced by industry needs. The tour was interesting and it was interesting to learn how another plastics program runs on the other side of the world.

— Ian

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Dachau Concentration Camp today

Day 10 (Final Day) — Saturday, October 30, 2016

Many of the students took the morning to visit the nearby Dachau Concentration Camp from WWII. The weather for the visit was appropriately somber and heavy and the students carried that with them while trying to imagine the horrors that took place on the very ground on which they walked. For the first time on the trip, there was no jubilant conversation or laughter, just simple and respectful silence.

Following the trip to Dachau, the students were granted the day to explore Munich and collect souvenirs for their loved ones back home. There was a mandatory check-in at 6:00 p.m. after which students were led to their final dinner where the professors and Chancellor Ralph Ford were present!

— Ian

 

 

 

 

PLET Students in Germany: Days 2 & 3

Guest Post by Ian Duchene, Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 20th, thirty-three PLET majors embarked on a 10-day trip to Germany. We asked them to tell us about their journey. In this blog post, students Ian  Duchene gives us a report from days 2 & 3 of the trip:

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Cologne Cathedral

Day 2

We landed in Frankfurt, Germany, at 6:00 a.m. We quickly boarded a train to Cologne (Köln). Upon dropping off luggage at our Youth Hostel, students enjoyed the day out discovering Cologne.

A staple of the city is the Cologne Cathedral where it is claimed the three Wise Men are buried. The cathedral is open to the general public so many students went in to appreciate the walls of stained glass and the rich history and sanctuary of the cathedral.

Another large attraction where students spent some time was the Museum Ludwig across the square from the cathedral. This art museum is home to three floors of artwork with a strong focus on pop art. The main attraction of the museum was that it is home to over 50 Pablo Picasso pieces.

Aesthetically beautiful cobblestone streets lead to many venues and bars where students found delicious meals of bratwurst and doner kebabs.

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Day 3

Today marked the second cultural activity day where students were permitted to travel in their own groups across the city doing activities of their choice. With about ten hours under our belts in Cologne, students have already become more comfortable in the environment and getting around the local area on their own.

One group traveled to the nearby Kölner Zoo. Another larger group traveled to a soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim. And multiple groups went to the Shokoladen Museum and the Cologne Cathedral with a few groups climbing to the top of the cathedral.

One student remarked “the soccer game was a great experience, the energy in the stadium was intense, and it was interesting to see how a different country passed their free time.” The team that they were supporting was Bayer Leverkusen, but they lost after ninety minutes.  After arriving in Cologne, they learned that Leverkusen is not the home team.  The scarves purchased from the game that represented Leverkusen were quickly removed!

At the Shokoladen (chocolate) Museum students enjoyed plenty of free samples of Lindt chocolate. There was also an exhibit of chocolate rotational molding that really grabbed the groups attention as it is a similar process to plastic rotational molding.

 ~ Ian
 

Plastics Engineering Technology Students Off to Germany

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Guest Post by Ian Duchene and Eric Santini, Plastics Engineering Technology majors

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 20th, thirty-three PLET majors will begin a 10-day trip to Germany. We asked them to send us some photos and tell us about their journey. In this blog post, students Ian  Duchene and Eric Santini give us a preview of what the group will be seeing while overseas.

For the past eight weeks, we students have been meeting in and out of class preparing for the adventure that we will be embarking on.

Upon arrival in Frankfurt, Germany, at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, October 21, we will be gathering ourselves for a tiresome first couple days of fighting off jet lag. The day will begin by boarding a train to travel to Cologne or Köln. The students have been given both Friday and Saturday as Cultural Tour days where they have the flexibility to go to specific museums or local attractions of their choice.

Sunday, October 23 and Monday, October 24 will be spent entirely at the K Show. For those who are unfamiliar with the K Show, it is the world’s largest plastics conference that only takes place once every four years…Yes, it is the Olympics of Plastics Engineering. This conference covers more than 170,000 square meters of floor space with companies presenting new technologies and systems that you should expect to see released the next four years in the industry. This is a great opportunity for all of the seniors attending the trip to network on a global level and potentially line up interviews for full time jobs upon graduation in December or May.

After our time at the K Show comes to a close, we will be traveling to Stüttgart, Germany on Tuesday, October 25 to visit both the Mercedes Benz Museum and the Porsche Museum. The following day will be spent touring Arburg, an injection molding machine manufacturer, a company that has two machines in our lab here on campus. Following the tour, we will then be travelling to Munich or “München” for the final three days of our trip.

On Thursday, October 27, we will have another cultural day to explore the city. Many students are planning to go to Dachau, a nearby Nazi Concentration Camp while others are planning on travelling to Neuschwanstein Castle.

On Friday, October 28, we will tour the University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim. The final day of the trip, October 29, will be another cultural day for students to visit any remaining attractions they may have wanted to see, and to prepare for the trip home the next day.

Check this blog in the next 10 days and follow us on our journey!

Students preparing to study in “Land of the Rising Sun”

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

Japan study tour photo

Dr. Vicki Kazmerski, associate professor of psychology, goes over Japan travel information with students enrolled in the study-tour.

“You need to work on being quiet and small,” said Dr. Dawn Blasko, associate professor of psychology. “Americans are known to be big, loud, and rowdy. We spread out and take up a lot of space, and that’s not going to go over well in Japan.”

Sometimes expanding your horizons requires downsizing your personality, particularly when traveling abroad. It’s an important cultural lesson that fifteen Penn State Behrend students are learning to embrace before they embark on a twenty-day study tour in Japan.

“The overall atmosphere in Japan is quiet and calm, which is much different from my usual pace of life,” said Grace Waldfogle, a junior Psychology major. “I am outgoing and will need to remember to be more reserved there. It will be an interesting experiment, I’m sure.”

While in Japan, the students, enrolled in either PSYCH 232 Cross-Cultural Psychology or PSYCH 499 Foreign Studies in Psychology, will travel to Yokohama to attend the International Congress of Psychology. At the Congress, students will interact with researchers from across the world and attend sessions highlighting current research from a global perspective.

Some, like Waldfogle, will even present their own research work.

As an undergraduate research assistant, she has been working with Blasko, and Dr. Heather Lum, assistant professor of psychology, on a study that looks at navigation in a foreign environment, and will present her poster, “A Birds Eye View of a Foreign World: Individual Differences in Spatial Cognition,” at the Congress.

Before and after the conference, Waldfogle and other students will explore cities and historical sites in and around Tokyo, including an overnight trip to visit the shrines and temples in the Kyoto area.

“I’m excited about visiting Kamakura, which is the home of the ‘Big Buddha,’ and participating in Zen meditation,” Waldfogle said.

The study tour is designed to allow students to see firsthand how culture shapes the way people view the world and develop an awareness of ethnocentric bias and ways to identify and avoid it. Students in the higher level course will learn about global psychology and how Eastern and Western culture have developed different but complementary perspectives of mind, body, and healthy living. Not all of the students attending are psychology majors, however.

Stephen Dartnell, a sophomore Business major, sees the study tour as an opportunity to enhance his professional portfolio and international business acumen.

“I’m really interested in learning more about psychology as well as Japan’s cultural and business customs,” Darnell said. “Also, having worked at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, I’m especially interested in learning more about Japan’s prominent seafood industry, as there were many Japanese influences at Pike Place.”

The students, who leave on July 21, have work to do before they go.

“There are required reading and assignments that have to be done before the trip,” said Blasko, who is team-teaching the courses along with Lum, and Dr. Vicki Kazmerski, associate professor of psychology.

The instructors recruited a Penn State Behrend MBA student, Yuki Takahashi, a native of Japan, to give the students a few informal advance lessons before the spring semester ended.

“Yuki covered topics such as the alphabet(s), currency, common words and phrases, regions, traditions, and customs,” Dartnell said.

Although none of the students are expected to be fluent in Japanese, Takahashi told them that giving it a shot counts.

“It’s vital that we make an effort to speak their language,” Waldfogle said. “It shows that we respect their culture and want to try and understand things from their perspective.”

Basic psychology, of course.

Sophomore creates Behrend’s first Model United Nations chapter

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Delegate-Ivan Pan, Moustafa

Ivan Pan, left, and Moustafa Elhadary were two of the student delegates who represented Penn State Behrend at the 62nd annual Harvard National Model United Nations.

Weibin “Ivan” Pan was optimistic prior to attending the Penn State Behrend Student Leadership Conference in February 2015. The Xiamen, China native had just started his second college semester and was looking to get more involved on campus.

But he did more than just get involved. He paved the way for others to get involved, too.

“I came out of that conference knowing that I wanted to create a Model United Nations at Penn State Behrend. I was very involved in Model UN in high school, and I knew that a lot of students at Behrend would be interested in the group,” says Pan, a sophomore Finance major.

Within a month, he had found a faculty adviser and plenty of interested students. Today, the group, now an official Model UN chapter, has more than 30 members.

Pan said a key reason he wanted to start a chapter was to provide opportunities for the college’s growing international student population. Last year, Penn State Behrend welcomed 186 new international students, the largest international class in its history.

“Model UN is a great place for international students to practice their public speaking skills, English skills and to learn to negotiate with others,” Pan said.

In February, Pan and an additional seven Penn State Behrend student delegates attended the 62nd annual Harvard National Model United Nations (HNMUN). More than 3,000 student delegates from more than 70 countries and 100 universities attended the four-day international relations simulation in downtown Boston. Founded in 1955, the conference is the largest and oldest of its kind, and this year was the first time that Penn State had ever been represented.

For the simulation, Pan and the other student delegates (Stephanie Zhao, Naman Tanwar, Tyagadipta Biswal, Deniz Himmetoglu, Hank Pinge, Moustafa Elhadary, and Keshav Prabhu) were assigned the country of Poland. They spent nearly a year researching the country and its policies to prepare for the event.

“We prepared and met regularly before the event,” Pan said. “It was a great honor to be invited to the conference. Everyone wants to be invited, but there was only a limited number who went.”

While they did not take home any of the major awards at HNMUN, the team plans to apply to attend the conference next year. The group has also applied to attend the eleventh annual Los Angeles Model United Nations (LAMUN) in April at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“There are so many great opportunities for students here at Behrend,” Pan said. “The fact that I was able to start a Model UN chapter just shows that Behrend really does provide great opportunities for its international students.”

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Plastics Engineering Technology Students in Denmark & Sweden — Travel Log #2

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

Eleven students recently returned from a ten-day trip to Sweden and Denmark. We asked them to send us some photos and tell us about their journey. In this blog post, we pick up with the students on Day 8. (You can read the first week of their trip here.)

Day 8 – Thursday, October 22nd

After breakfast, we had a long train ride from Gotenborg to Stockholm during which we were able to admire the beautiful countryside of Sweden. Once we arrived, we made our way to our hostel along the Riddarfjärden bay. We then had the evening to scout out the different places that we wanted to visit and find a local restaurant for some classic Swedish cuisine.

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Day 9 – Friday, October 23rd

On Friday, we took the train to SSAB Steel Mill for a presentation and tour of their facility. The presentation discussed the advantages their tool steels provide over more commonly used materials, including their high strength and hardness properties. Touring the mill was an eye-opening experience. The size of the equipment required to manufacture the steel itself was overwhelming. Rolling the hot steel slabs caused the entire room to shake and we could feel the heat from about 20 yards away. After the tour, we rode the train back to central Stockholm to spend the rest of the night exploring the city.

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Day 10 – Saturday, October 24th

Saturday was our opportunity to explore the historic sites in Stockholm. During breakfast we used our city and bus maps to plan our events for the day. The events included touring the Vasa Museum (a museum dedicated to a salvaged warship), exploring the Royal Palace, and roaming the scenic streets of “Old Town.” We were also able to visit some of the local shops in search of souvenirs. Our evening consisted of a final dinner together at a local restaurant, followed by dessert at a near by ice cream shop. We ended our day back at our hostel where we began packing for the journey home.

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“Old Town”

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Royal Palace

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Vasa Museum

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Day 11 – Sunday, October 25th

We ended our final day in Stockholm with a group breakfast at our hostel before hauling our luggage and souvenirs to the train station for the last time. After arriving at the airport, we chose to spend the last few hours reminiscing on our experiences as we browsed through each other’s pictures. Though we all enjoyed our time traveling overseas, by the last day we were glad to be on our way home so that we could share the stories of our experiences with our friends and family.

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