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.

Circle K Club Members Carve Out Time for Community Service

By Heather Cass

Publications manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Rare is the college student with spare time on their hands. After attending classes, studying, completing assignments, and working at a job or internship, students have precious few hours and little energy left.

Yet some Penn State Behrend students still make helping others a priority. They say service work is not draining, but inspiring and rejuvenating.

“I always tell people that they don’t know what an amazing feeling community service is until they try it,” said Nicole Overby, president of Circle K, a service club at the college affiliated with Kiwanis International. “The drive home after a volunteer event is the best feeling in the world. Knowing that you helped someone and did something to better the world around you gives you a feeling that cannot be explained, only felt.”

There are at nearly a dozen service-focused clubs at Behrend, and many more student groups and organizations that include service projects as part of their regular activities.

Overby first became involved with Kiwanis in high school.

“I was in Key Club, which is the high school branch of the Kiwanis Club,” Overby said. “Circle K is the name given to clubs at the college level.”

Behrend’s Circle K club includes twenty members from a variety of backgrounds.

“It brings together students from all majors, races, and genders,” Overby said. “It is such a diverse group, which is awesome because it means that we come up with lots of different volunteer ideas and activities.”

Among the group’s endeavors this academic year: cleaning wheelchairs and gurneys at Saint Vincent Hospital; participating in Relay for Life; helping at the Kiwanis’ antique show and bowling night; volunteering at Holy Trinity soup kitchen; taking the Special Olympics’ Polar Plunge; raising funds through the college’s Cardboard City event; cleaning up several local highways; and assisting at Meals on Wheels.

“I think the soup kitchen was one of my favorite events,” Overby said. “Besides prepping the meals, we were also able to distribute them and sit and interact with the clients. It is important to open our eyes and have compassion for the hardships others face. It also makes me much more grateful for my own life and the opportunities that I’ve had.”

Most recently, Behrend’s club hosted the Circle K Club’s spring officer training, drawing newly elected club officers from several colleges in the area including Mercyhurst and Edinboro Universities and the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

There was, of course, a service project embedded in the day’s activities. Attendees assembled and prepared coloring books to give to Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Erie.

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Overby, who is majoring in Accounting will be doing an internship at Bank of America in New York City this summer. She expects to graduate in December and sit for the CPA exam before returning to Behrend to earn her M.B.A.

While Overby is still pondering the area of accounting she wants to focus on, she’s sure of one thing: She will continue her service work in the future.

“I will definitely seek out the local Kiwanis Club in whatever city I end up working,” she said. “I love interacting with different people and having volunteer events to look forward to. I feel like community service helps me as much as it helps others.”

If nothing else, Overby’s service work has taught her to find the good in others. When asked who inspires her, she said: “Every person. Every day.”

She further explained: “I have met coworkers who have three jobs to provide for their families. I have met peers in my classes who are taking crazy amounts of classes so they can graduate early and save money. I have met faculty members who go out of their way to help students because they truly care about them. These people inspire me every single day. I hope that I can inspire others someday.”

Did she inspire you?

Circle K meets bi-weekly on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. in Burke 105. To get involved, come to the next meeting on February 28 or email Overby at nmo5050@psu.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rachel Cotton finds niche with BVZ: Behrend’s Voice

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By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

If Penn State Behrend’s students have not seen their classmate Rachel Cotton on campus, there’s a good chance they’ve heard her.

For listeners of BVZ: Behrend’s Voice, the college’s online student radio station, Cotton’s voice is a hard one to miss.

The junior communication major serves as station manager of BVZ and can be regularly heard across the cyber waves hosting her current show, “Next in Line,” where she previews upcoming artists. She also is happy to jump in and deejay whenever there’s a lull in programming.

She knows that professional radio jobs may not be easy to attain, but that has not stopped Cotton from positioning herself to be an ideal candidate for a future opening in the field.

“If I could ever make it in radio, that would be the best thing ever,” said Cotton, who is originally from the Philadelphia area. “Having a great personality in radio is so important, and you get to create an emotional appeal. I love it.”

Cotton’s love of radio is nothing new. In high school, she actually won a contest where she got to be a deejay on a local station for a day.

She brought her love for the medium to Behrend as she got involved with BVZ, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in November, early in her freshman year. As a sophomore, she served as PR and events manager for the station before becoming its manager this past fall.

In the past, students could not join BVZ or host a show on the station before first completing the Radio Practicum course, but Cotton saw limitations with this formula.

“There are people who necessarily cannot take the class or might be in a different major where they can’t have it as an elective,” Cotton said. “I wanted to find a way around the class, so folks in any major can find a way to participate.”

This past fall, Cotton developed a BVZ Fast Track program for students who want to host a radio show but cannot take the course. Cotton meets with interested students separately and runs them through the basics of operating a live station in just a few weeks. So far, four students have participated in the program. Cotton said she eventually hopes to have 10 to 20 students going through it at once.

BVZ continues to build its presence on campus as the station hosts weekly “Hump Day” broadcasts from Bruno’s Café. The station is also always willing to collaborate with student groups if the organization would like BVZ at an event it’s hosting.

The station has already worked with some student groups, which Cotton said has helped BVZ spread its reach.

“People love when we come out to events,” she said. “We have been at more events this year than I can ever remember. It’s stellar to see that people are noticing us more and not just for giveaways or concert tickets, either. They’re actually listening to hear us. I love it.”

To listen to BVZ, visit behrendbvz.org.

Students interested in joining BVZ and taking part in the Fast Track program should contact Cotton at ryc5136@psu.edu.

Student finds niche playing Smith Carillon

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Penn State Behrend sophomore James Lisi began playing the campus’ Smith Carillon this fall. He plays regularly throughout the week on the campus’ practice carillon (pictured) and played a concert during finals week for the campus community. While he’s been a musician since he was a child, mastering the carillon has been a new kind of challenge. “Instead of having the keys right next to you, you have to branch out,” Lisi said. “This wears your hands out a lot faster because you have to move them all over, but there are pedals too, so some of the notes you can play with your feet, which makes it easier.”

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Walk into Penn State Behrend’s Larry and Kathryn Smith Chapel on a weekday morning and chances are you’ll hear James Lisi before you see him.

He’ll be playing one of the building’s many pianos. Or pedaling away on the practice carillon.

“I start every day by playing music here,” said Lisi, a sophomore psychology major. “When I play the piano or the carillon, it gets me going and sets the tone for the day.”

Lisi, a Cleveland native, has always appreciated music. He started singing in third grade and began playing the piano two years later. He is also a member of the Choirs of Penn State Behrend.

While he has experience playing several other instruments, Lisi said he was taken aback to learn about the college’s carillon.

“I had never heard of one before. There are only 200 or so in the country,” he said. “It’s just a really, really rare instrument.”

The 48-bell carillon, along with the chapel’s bell tower, was installed at Penn State Behrend in 2002 as a gift of the late Floyd and Juanita Smith, parents of Larry Smith, president and owner of Automation Devices in Fairview, Pa., and a longtime supporter of the college.

The carillon is an unconventional instrument, to say the least, according to Lisi.

“Instead of having the keys right next to you, you have to branch out,” he said. “This wears your hands out a lot faster because you have to move them all over, but there are pedals too, so some of the notes you can play with your feet, which makes it easier.”

Lisi’s past musical experience is serving him well, as is regular practice and lessons with Daniel Frankforter, professor emeritus of history and the college’s carillonneur.

Lisi is now playing the carillon on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. He spends hours in Smith Chapel, both studying and playing the pianos and carillon.

“I just love this whole building,” Lisi said. “I get to come here and play three different instruments. It’s a nice way for me to relieve stress. It’s definitely my favorite thing about Behrend.”

During finals week, Lisi played several holiday songs as part of a half-hour carillon concert for the campus community. Students, faculty and staff members were encouraged to gather at Ben Lane Plaza to enjoy hot chocolate as they listened to the bells chime from atop the carillon tower.

“I made some mistakes,” Lisi said with a smile, “but I knew I was not going to be perfect the first time I played publicly. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone noticed.”

He will get another chance to impress this spring at a second carillon concert to be held during finals week.

And if things go his way, Lisi will not be the only one performing. He is currently introducing the carillon to several of his friends.

“I’m really working to persuade some of my friends to play it as well,” he said. “It’s just a totally different kind of instrument. I love the high notes on it, and it’s great that we have one of these right here at Behrend.”

Trip to Japan becomes ‘defining memory’ for Behrend students

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Fifteen Penn State Behrend students visited Japan this summer as part of the PSYCH 232 Cross-Cultural Psychology and PSYCH 499 Foreign Studies in Psychology embedded courses. While there, they attended the International Congress of Psychology (ICP 2016), a premiere psychology conference held once every four years.

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Grace Waldfogle expected Aug. 6 to be a somber day. Not only was it the last day of her trip to Japan as part of a Penn State Behrend embedded course, but it also marked the 71st anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

It turned out to be the opposite.

Fireworks engulfed the sky. The sadness she had expected was not present. Rather, there was a tone of optimism.

“We asked people about it, and they said, ‘It’s not something we dwell on,’” said Waldfogle, a senior psychology major. “It was just so different from how we approach that type of thing here in the United States.”

Cultural differences like this were one of the biggest takeaways for Waldfogle and the 14 other students who visited Japan for 18 days in July and August. The students visited the country as part of the PSYCH 232 Cross-Cultural Psychology and PSYCH 499 Foreign Studies in Psychology embedded courses, which were taught by faculty members Dawn Blasko, associate professor of psychology; Heather Lum, assistant professor of experimental psychology; and Victoria Kazmerski, associate professor of psychology.

Their trip began with a visit to Yokohama to attend the International Congress of Psychology (ICP 2016), a premiere psychology conference held once every four years. Several of the students presented research poster presentations during the five-day conference.

ICP 2016 also offered networking opportunities for the students, who heard from a number of prominent speakers, including famed animal rights activist Jane Goodall.

“The whole conference itself was a total blast,” said Emily Galeza, a senior Psychology major who presented research on the effectiveness of a dog therapy program with students with autism. “The size of (the conference) was just incredible, and we had the freedom to go to any session we liked.”

Stephen Dartnell, a general business student who will graduate in December, agreed.

“I got to interact with people from all over the world,” Dartnell said. “It was kind of the icing on the cake on my educational experience, and I definitely would love to attend a psychology conference like this again.”

Beyond the conference, the students also spent time in Kamakura and visited several temples across the country. To help prepare for the cultural changes, students met with MBA student Yuki Takahashi, a native of Japan, for language and culture lessons prior to the trip.

Even with the advance lessons, the language barrier was a challenge. However, the students were impressed at how easily it could be overcome with some patience (and Google Translate, of course).

“Everyone was just so friendly and willing to help,” Dartnell said. “There was one instance where I needed a trash bag for my camera because it was raining. I just kind of explained it, and a woman at the hotel helped me. You just constantly saw language barriers being broken down.”

The numerous public art displays and eastern-style architecture were also a point of culture shock for students.

Perhaps the most significant cultural difference for students, however, was the food.

“I thought I liked fish, but then I got there, and I realized I did not. They’d give you the entire fish, and you’d have to just use chopsticks,” Waldfogle said. “Every meal was a workout.”

Not all of the food differences were negative, though.

“They had so many different items that they called ‘sweets.’ They were really, really good,” Dartnell said.

From attending the conference to visiting temples across the country, the trip provided students with a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. It might have only been an 18-day visit, but the memories will last.

“This will be one of my defining memories of Behrend,” Galeza said. “I could never have planned all of these activities by myself.”

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‘I feel so much more comfortable now.’ — Summer Bridge program prepares incoming students

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Brent Sutula, Sujata Chhetri, Joseph Lombardi, and Sydnie Moore, pictured left to right, were four of the participants in the Summer Bridge Program at Penn State Behrend. The six-week program is designed for students who want to sharpen their study, note taking, critical reading and time management skills, among others.

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend welcomed 1,280 new first-year students to campus last week.

For 28 of them, the setting felt more than a little familiar, since they had only recently completed a Summer Bridge Program to ease the transition to college.

The six-week program is designed for students who want to sharpen their study, notetaking, critical reading and time management skills, among others.

“I feel so much more comfortable now. This has just been great to meet new people and learn how to get around campus,” said Joseph Lombardo, a first-year History major from Erie.

The program even included a scavenger hunt in which students learned how to navigate campus by finding places and objects. They also spent time learning about the college’s numerous resources such as the Academic and Career Planning Center and Lilley Library.

“Transition is key. There is such a disconnect from what students did in high school to what they will do here,” said Mary Connerty, a lecturer in English who taught the program.

The program was sponsored by the college’s Office of Student Success and Retention. Half of the program’s attendees were immigrants or refugees.

“We’re obligated to help prepare these students who may need the extra help to succeed,” Connerty said.

To get students accustomed to a college workload, participants in the program received weekly homework assignments, including regular critical readings and a requirement to write multiple-page papers. Connerty estimates that each week’s assignments took students a minimum of three to four hours to complete.

That type of workload can be daunting for any first-year student, but it was also helpful for these students to become aware of college expectations.

Sujata Chhetri, a first-year International Business major, estimated that on a scale of 1-10, her nervousness about college was a 9. She says that after completing the Summer Bridge Program, that number was down to a manageable 5.

“It was a great program,” said Chhetri, a Nepal native who immigrated to Erie. “It really taught me about the workload I’ll be getting. It was somewhat overwhelming, but it also taught me about all of the resources I have that I didn’t know that I have. I don’t feel lost anymore.”

If she or any of the other attendees do happen to feel lost, the good news is that they now know where to go.

“There’s always someone you can go to talk to,” Chhetri said. “I’ve already found so many people who are going to help me with my math.”

Twenty-four hours. Three cities. One community.

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Editor’s Note: The following is a first-person account from Arthur Wang, a senior English major from Kunming, China, pictured in the center of the image above. International travel rarely goes as planned, and Arthur and several other international students learned that firsthand just two weeks ago. This was many of the students’ first time in the United States, and concern started to settle in as to whether they would make it to Erie. However, they banded together and found a way. Arthur shares their story below.

By Arthur Wang
Senior English Major, Penn State Behrend

My heart began to sink when I received an email from the airline company announcing that my flight from Chicago to Erie had been canceled due to mysterious “air traffic control conditions.” After a 14-hour international flight, I was hoping to spend the very last teaspoon of my energy on another two-hour domestic flight back to Erie, with my sophomore Italian friend Wen, move into my reserved hotel room, enjoy a hot bath, and go to sleep. Of course, things that involve international-domestic flights never go easy.

Wen had been at O’Hare International Airport waiting for my arrival; she met Lang (Mike) Mai, Runzhong (Terk) Tan, and Suiya Zhou, three freshman Chinese fellows whose flight to Erie was also canceled. A natural-born leader with phenomenal problem-solving skills and a generous heart for helping others in need, Wen already explored all possible solutions, sought assistance from the airport staff, and messaged me with some new “workable” ideas. When I landed in Chicago with Kerun (Elodie) Chen, another Chinese girl who had suffered the same flight cancelation, I was thrilled to discover that Wen had prepared two plans.

Plan 1: Cancel our flight and request a reasonable refund; take an overnight, 9-hour train to Erie.

Plan 2: Stay in Chicago for one night; rebook the flight to Cleveland for the next day; take a bus, a train, an Uber, or whatever transportation was most convenient to help us return to Erie.

As Wen and I were deciding that the second plan might be a better option because one night on the train would be “too much” for all of us, I sensed immense frustration among the four new students. I then realized that this was perhaps their first time traveling abroad on their own, experiencing a horrible flight cancelation in a foreign country, and having to initiate a handful of communication not conducted in their native language, without any family or friends there to support them. Becoming aware of their panic, I assured them that all of us would cooperate as a team, and that no one would be left behind. A natural sense of unity began to manifest itself, with everyone knowing their duties: when I was holding everybody’s passport and waiting for rescheduling our flight, Mike and Terk took turns to accompany my side, ensuring that I stayed energized. Wen, Elodie, and Suiya came back with bottled water and snacks after we sent them to eat dinner. While I negotiated with the shuttle driver over the phone, the rest of the peers started to move the fourteen suitcases to the pick-up lot. Yes, the six of us had fourteen pieces of gigantic luggage. Then, when we were “squeezed” into one taxi vehicle with all luggage, I observed that everyone, the four new fellows in particular, was laughing and joking around, creating a warm and relaxing atmosphere. I knew that we were all exhausted, but none of us revealed it. We remained sanguine.

The sense of unity continued to grow and expand the next day. Prepared, all of us went down to the hotel’s lounge at 3:30 a.m. and waited for the shuttle to take us to the airport. No one complained about getting up so early or not having enough rest. After we passed the security check at 4:45 a.m., Elodie, Terk, and I volunteered to buy breakfast while Mike, Suiya, and Wen went to find seat. Wen even acted so quickly by booking us six greyhound bus tickets right before we boarded our flight to Cleveland. Upon arriving in Cleveland, I had consulted a friend and had found an authentic Chinese restaurant to invigorate us all – what could be more soothing than a wild food hoopla after an endless travel? And, in large, what could be more effective than sharing a meal together in terms of enhancing our friendship?

The meal was beyond gorgeous, though we did stun the restaurant’s waitress when we showed up with our fourteen suitcases. Then, as planned, we took two Uber vehicles to the bus station, arrived there on time, and managed to leave Cleveland promptly at 1:30 p.m. Wen and I also negotiated with our hotels to request extra beds in our rooms, so that the four freshman fellows, whose hotel reservations had been canceled because of all the travel changes, were able to stay with us for the night. While on the bus, Terk asked how I would react if I were in their shoes, being the first time in a foreign country and having zero experience handling situations like this. I jokingly teased him that I would probably cry a river at the airport. Laughing at my goofy response, Terk and Elodie genuinely expressed that they appreciated everything Wen and I had done for them, that they could only imagine what would have happened if they had not met us, and that they already felt a community being formed among us.

The word “community” inspired me. Though it has accompanied me throughout my journey at Behrend, I haven’t had a chance to let it marinate in my mind: I heard this word the first day I came here. I heard it in all kinds of student meetings and celebrations. It also appeared repeatedly in many GenEd and major classes I had taken. Surely, the word “community” includes various meanings, or more precisely, layers of meaning depending on the context. However, one insight I could draw from this particular experience is that behind the word “community” is a powerful bond, one that is not necessarily determined by the similarities we have, like our Chinese background, but by the collectivity we share, such as the Behrend identity that glues us together. This is how the six of us traveled between three cities within twenty-four hours, carried fourteen suitcases, and eventually formed a Behrend team long before we actually arrived at Behrend. And what a team, one that is truly a community.

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