ASB 2018 – Texas – Day 5

Twenty-four students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend are participating in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Beaumont, Texas. The group will be helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the greater Houston area in August of 2017, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives. Behrend’s ASB group is being joined by five other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York.

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communication, and 2018 ASB participant

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One of the best things about being on the ASB trip is getting to know each person on the 28-member team individually.

After a few days (or hours in a car or on a jobsite), personalities emerge. You learn who is hilarious, who is tougher than nails, who takes charge, who is afraid of dogs, who isn’t going anywhere without lipstick (guilty as charged).  You learn their majors and hometowns, what sports they played in high school, if they have siblings, and whether they are a night owl or an early bird (spoiler: none of them appear to love getting up at 5 a.m. like me).

We spend a lot of time together (In the entire time I’ve been here so far, I have had exactly 45 minutes of free time, not counting my early morning hours when I creep downstairs to blog.) We eat every meal together, we work together, we sleep in one room less than two feet from each other (women and men are in different buildings), we play together, and every night at 8 or 8:30 p.m. two of the student trip leaders do a 90-minute “reflections” activity designed to encourage deeper thinking and conversation about the lessons learned that day.

Reflections activities are guided discussions intended to help the students process what they’ve been exposed to and insights they have gained in a way that transcends the trip.  Reflections give students a wide view of the immersive-learning experience and how it leads to lifelong personal development.

Students who attend ASB say it is life changing, in ways both large and small. For some, it jumpstarts a life of service. For others, it prompts a change in majors or career or confirms they’re on the right path.  Others make friends that last far beyond their college years.

As an adviser, I’m having my own immersive learning experience. (More about that tomorrow).

For now, let me tell you how ruff my team’s day was on Wednesday.

At the 8:30 a.m. orientation, we hit the job roulette jackpot and secured a prime assignment at the Humane Society of Southeast Texas.

The no-kill shelter has been at max capacity since the hurricane as many animals were abandoned or surrendered (then and now) as people try to get their lives and homes back in order.

Our first task of the day was to organize the supply room. With seven of us and an addition three boys from a high school volunteer group who were also there, we made quick work of the room:

Before:

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After:

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After lunch, our task was to “love on the dogs” as our volunteer leader, Miss Pearl, put it. Miss Pearl loves her babies and insisted on personally introducing us to every dog in the shelter. Then, we each picked one to take out of their cages for some exercise – a walk, a game of fetch in the pens, etc.  Between the seven of us, I’m sure we walked or played with every dog there (that could be taken out), including a gentle giant of a Great Dane, a Great Pyrenees mix, and lots of young lab, pit, and hound mixes.

After “loving on the dogs” for a couple of hours, Miss Pearl put us to work in the office, separating sheets of newspaper to make cage cleaning easier for the workers. Then we headed back outdoors to transport newly-cleaned supplies (cages, plastic tubs, food dishes, etc.) to the storage shed.

At 3:30 p.m., we headed back to the church for cleanup as we had a 5:30 reservation for the whole crew at a local Texas barbecue grill. (Mmm…brisket.)

Over dinner, we caught up with the other three crews to find out what jobs they worked on that day:

  • Chris Fox’s crew continued work on a single mom’s house, clearing clutter to make it (more) liveable for the woman and her disabled son.
  • Chris Harben’s crew had the most physically demanding job of the day — removing tile flooring from a flood-damaged home.
  • Will Taylor’s crew worked at a home removing walls and insulation that had been damaged in the hurricane.

Today is our last work day. Tomorrow, we are leaving the church at 6 a.m. for an 11 a.m. flight and a 2:30 p.m. arrival in Pittsburgh, followed by a bus ride back home to Erie, where I hear there’s another storm dumping snow on the Great Lakes region.

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ASB 2018 – Texas – Day 4

Twenty-four students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend are participating in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Beaumont, Texas. The group will be helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the greater Houston area in August of 2017, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives. Behrend’s ASB group is being joined by five other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York.

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communication, and 2018 ASB participant

One of the things the ASB Trip leaders continually stress to participants is to leave their expectations at home.  In other words, if you don’t expect things to be a certain way, you won’t be dissapointed. Be open to anything and go with the flow.

It is solid advice for ASB where so many factors are out of your control and things never go quite the way you think they should.

Job roulette

Each morning, we meet at the Operation Project Blessings trailer for a brief orientation before receiving our day’s assignments. The woman who doles out the jobs, stands at a table with a stack of orange folders. Inside each folder is a work order and a few instructions.

When you step up to the table, you get the next folder on the stack. Like spinning a roulette wheel, you hope for the best (a job that suits the talents and taste of your crew).

Some groups, such as Chris Fox’s crew, who were placed on larger jobs, elect to go back and continue work on those jobs, so they don’t change assignments every day but will stay at their job until it’s done, or they request a new one.

Crew roulette

Fox’s crewmembers do change as do mine and Chris Harben’s and Will Taylor’s. ASB student trip leaders came up with a great way to be sure everyone gets to know everyone on the trip by randomly assigning different students to different vans/advisers and therefore, crews, each day.

Each van/adviser has one or two ASB trip leaders who stay with that van all week. They are responsible for navigating, sparking or leading conversation among the van, and also the radio (this is a very important–and fun– part of traveling with college students, by the way).

Aside from the trip leader(s) and the driver, the other students in the van change from day to day so that everyone gets to know and/or work with everyone. It’s an ingenious strategy because if we all stayed with the same six people all week, we’d get to know all of them really well, but not the other sixteen students on the trip.

My navigators are Kris Knorr, a Finance major, and Ashley Jankowski, an Industrial Engineering major. They’re both a lot of fun and I’m grateful to have someone telling me what turns to make, even if I continually make them wrong.  It’s cool…we just go with the flow (of traffic), let the GPS recalculate, and get back on course.

Yesterday, our crew was almost all new to me, which is to say that I had not had them in my van before. It’s always a little awkward, at first, as everyone gets to know everyone. And, here’s the cool thing about ASB: after eight hours in together driving, working, laughing, taking turns picking songs to play, and eating lunch together, we all left the van as friends, bonded over shared experiences.

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There were at least three times yesterday that I laughed so hard I cried.

The first was when we received our assignment — to remove debris from a woman’s yard as well as a hot water heater, two toilets, and a shower from her home. Kris and I just stared wide-eyed at one another, knowing that none of us in the van has any experience with plumbing or shutting off water/power. Dumbstruck, we stumbled over to the tool shed to pick up our bucket ‘o tools.

After reviewing our order, the woman told us we’d also need some plumbing tools. I quipped to Kris, “And a plumber.”

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“You must do, what you think you cannot”

But, remember what I said about no expectations and going with the flow? We took our tools and cooler full of water and lunches and headed for the jobsite to see what we could do.

Her home had the telltale slash of red paint on the front door, a sad reminder of the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey. These red stripes were painted on doors to indicate that the home had been checked for people/bodies after the flood.

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Like most who are still dealing with flood damage in their homes, she was not living on site, so she met us there.  Also like every flood victim we have spoke to, she teared up when we asked “How are you holding up?” Her home had stood for about three weeks in three feet of water.

First, we cleaned off the debris on her front porch, lugging heavy bags of trash, building materials, waterlogged suitcases, filing cabinets, and more out to the road. The good news was that her son had already repaired one toilet and the hot water heater, so those things didn’t need removed. That left a toilet and a shower that had to go.

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After some investigating, we figured out how to turn her water off, and were able to remove one of the toilets. But, the shower was beyond our capabilities as it required someone with construction skills and a power saw to cut it from the walls.  (Someone with those skills and tools from Community Collaborations International did go back and do it that day for her.)

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At 11 a.m., we had done all we could at this woman’s house, so we called in to Operation Blessings HQ for a new assignment.  They sent us to a home five minutes away to help a single mother, Darla, move her possessions from a storage facility to her trailer.

This involved six or seven trips back and forth, filling Darla’s father’s truck, carrying them into her trailer, then heading back again.

There were mishaps. The kind that occur when you use volunteer movers and a short-bed truck. On the first trip the locker, the dolly rolled right out of the back of the truck and onto the highway. One of our crew members rescued it. Then, we had to figure out how to fit it into our van. We laughed most of the short way to the storage trailer.

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Later, a California King size mattress flipped off the truck and into the same road. We wrestled it back into the truck and strapped it down better that time. There were also some adventures with plastic snakes, swords, and moldy furniture, but this blog post is already too long. Suffice to say, we laughed a lot.

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We returned to the church at 4 p.m. to shower and catch up with the other teams and hear about their day:

  • Chris Fox’s team continued work on a single mother’s home that was in need of major cleanup/debris removal. Fox thinks they will be there all week.
  • Chris Harben’s group worked removing floors, trim, and more on a single mother’s home.
  • Will Taylor’s crew spent the day at a local food bank, where they did some general office work and packed more than 200 boxes of food.

What does today — Wednesday — hold for us? Who knows. But, whatever it is, I’m sure it will be fine. And, probably quite fun, too.

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ASB 2018 – Texas – Day 3

Twenty-four students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend are participating in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Beaumont, Texas. The group will be helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the greater Houston area in August of 2017, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives. Behrend’s ASB group is being joined by five other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York.

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communication, and 2018 ASB participant

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The worst part of the work today? Breathing through this barrier.

Day 3 – Work Day #1

We were all eager to get our assignments and get to work this morning and were among the first in the long line for breakfast. (Did I mention there are about 200 workers here now?).

On the morning menu was biscuits with sausage gravy and yogurt/fruit/granola parfaits for the non-meat option. Our meals are all cooked and served by members of a local Mennonite church and they are delish. The men cook most of the meat on a giant portable grill outdoors.

In the morning, they also set out tables full of lunch and sandwich items and each volunteer packs their own brown bag lunch.

Community Collaborations International, the company Penn State Behrend uses to coordinate it’s annual ASB trips, is working with another organization — Operation Blessing Internationa— that had set up shop in Houston shortly after the storm happened last fall.

The company requires workers to wear Operational Blessing shirts so that residents can easily identify them. So we all changed into our white Operational Blessings shirts before meeting outdoors for an orientation meeting.

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After receiving our assignments, picking up our First Aid kit, tool bucket, cooler full of water, and quilts — one queen size and one child size — made by members of the Mennonite community to be delivered to every home we visit, we set off in different directions.

With four vans and advisers, Behrend had four groups of six to seven people to travel to different jobsites.

My crew worked at a home in a neighboring township about 15 minutes away from the church. Ours was a single-story home that belonged to an 80+ year old woman who was currently living in an R.V. behind her home, which had been completely underwater after the flood and had 5-foot deep standing water for about a month.

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The home had been cleared of debris and all the drywall was down. Half of the home had new plywood flooring and the other half of the home needed the floors pried up so that new wood could be put down. Tearing up the floors was our job.

It was hard, sweaty, and dirty work made slightly harder by the humidity, lack of light in the house, and annoying, but necessary safety gear (masks, safety glasses). By the time our workday was over at 4 p.m., we had removed the entire subfloor in one room and had taken the first couple layers (there are layers of flooring) off in the two other rooms.

The homeowner’s daughter stopped by a couple of times to chat with us and tell us about her family, Texas, and the flood. Interacting with the residents as we work is not only expected, but encouraged. Operation Blessings says that, for some, we are the first ones to show up and give them a glimmer of hope. They told us to listen and ask not “How are you?” (because we’re all conditioned to automatically respond “good”), but “How are you holding up?”

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I can’t imagine answering that question six months after a disaster. Many of the houses that we passed on our way to our jobsite had RVs in front of waterlogged houses and bags of debris and rotten lumber in the yard.

When I got my first look at the house we were working on, I was sad and overwhelmed. The enormity and volume of the work to be done — a half a year after the disaster — was disheartening. And our resident was one of many.

The other Penn State Behrend teams had different, but similar experiences:

  • Chris Fox’s team went to a home only to find the homeowner had had a stroke two days before, so they were reassigned to help a young mother with a severely disabled son clean her house out.
  • Chris Harben’s team demolished a bathroom in one home. Then, they canvassed the neighborhood, talking with residents to see if they had projects they wanted Operation Blessings to help them with.
  • Will Taylor’s team worked on a home, removing walls, insulation, and debris.

We all returned filthy and hungry and hit the showers and dinner line, in that order. Personally, I cared more about shower than dinner.

After dinner, my crew made a Walmart run for supplies, including a cake for Chris Fox who had a birthday yesterday.

Then, more meetings and evening reflections (more about that tomorrow).

Today, Tuesday morning, some of us will receive new assignments, others will continue the work they were doing yesterday.

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ASB 2018 – Texas – Day 2

Twenty-four students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend are participating in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Beaumont, Texas. The group will be helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the greater Houston area in August of 2017, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives. Behrend’s ASB group is being joined by five other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York.

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communication, and 2018 ASB participant

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Day 2 – Cultural Day

It seems weird to start a week of service with a vacation day, but that’s how it works best with the schedule, so Sunday was our day to learn more about the area and explore Houston.But, first, a shower.
Here is where we shower:

These are shower trailers. Each contains five to six showers, there are three trailers total, split evenly among men and women.
As I showered, I marveled at the engineering and ingenuity involved in a mobile showering unit that I’m sure is a relief in any disaster situation. (Who doesn’t love a good shower?)
The cots that we are sleeping on and the trailers that we are showering in are the same as those used in disaster relief efforts. The difference, of course, is that we have all our possessions (the stuff we could fit in a suitcase under 50 lbs.) and intact homes to return to.
Our situation is temporary. For victims of Hurricane Harvey, though, the disaster continues.
The shower trailers, cots, crowded conditions (nearly 200), and food lines are a good remind of the reason we are here.
Today (Monday), we’ll get a first look at what is left to do and how we can help.
Ah….but, back to our day off.
First stop for the Behrend ASB group was the NASA Johnson Space Center, so the engineering students could geek out and the rest of us could be seriously awed by the history and future of space travel.
More than a few times I found myself standing with a member of our group, slack-jawed at the technology, flight memorabilia, and accomplishments of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) since it was established by the United States government in 1958.
NASA occupies 1,620 acres southeast of downtown Houston, in the Clear Lake area of Texas, and employs 3,200 people, more than a few of them are Penn State Behrend, including flight director Mary Lawrence ’01, a mechanical engineering major.
Among the cool things we saw was how NASA viewed Hurricane Harvey from the International Space Station:

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After spending about three hours at the space museum, we had lunch at a waterfront buffet and wandered around the wharf for a bit before journeying to downtown Houston to have a look at the city.

After a late dinner at a local Tex-Mex restaurant, we headed back to the church and our cots to prepare for our first day of work on hurricane cleanup.
We don’t know where we are going or what we are doing (We’ll learn that after breakfast), but we’re sure it will be both hard and rewarding work.

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ASB 2018 – Texas – Day 1

Twenty-four students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend are participating in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Beaumont, Texas. The group will be helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the greater Houston area in August of 2017, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives. Behrend’s ASB group is being joined by five other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York.

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communication, and 2018 ASB participant

Day 1 – Travel Day

Most of the students attending this year’s ASB trip met at Reed Wintergarden at 2:30 a.m. to catch a 3 a.m. charter bus to the Pittsburgh airport for a 7:30 a.m. flight to Houston.

We arrived in Houston at 9:30 a.m. (Texas is an hour behind Erie time) and after a few hours at the rental car company (don’t ask), we all headed to Whataburger for lunch.

We had some time before we needed to be at our volunteer location, so the group headed for a local flea market to take in the local culture and enjoy a few churros.

After a few hours at the flea market, we headed to our “home” for the week, Cathedral Church, in Beaumont, Texas.

Those who have been on past ASB trips, say the accommodations are plush compared to previous trips. All of the Behrend women are in one room on cots (think summer camp) and the men are in another building. There are shower trailers outdoors and a tent for outdoor dining when the larger Penn State contingency arrives in the next two days.

After dinner provided by the church members and an orientation meeting, the group did a Walmart run to stock up on hard-to-pack items like pillows and blankets.

Lights out is at 10:30 p.m., which is fine by me as I’ve been up nearly 24 hours now, and we have to be up early for breakfast at 7:15 a.m.

Tomorrow is our cultural day and we have an 11 a.m. tour scheduled at NASA’s Houston Space Center.

Monday, we get to work!

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Students Will Spend Spring Break Aiding in Hurricane Cleanup

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By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

When Hurricane Harvey blew into Houston, Texas, in August of 2017, it altered everything in its path, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives.

More than 1,350 miles away, Harvey continued to effect change, motivating those planning Penn State Behrend’s Alternative Spring Break service trip to veer off course.

“We had spent all summer looking for a trip that would focus on homelessness, but once Harvey happened, we felt that the need for volunteers would be more prevalent in the south,” said Elizabeth Mamros, a senior Mechanical Engineering major and president of Reality Check, the service club that orchestrates Alternative Spring Break each year.

“We got in touch with Community Collaborations International, a company that coordinates experiential education projects, and they already had people there assessing the volunteer situation and potential projects for spring break,” Mamros said.

Twenty-four students and four advisers will be leaving Behrend early Saturday morning to spend a week working in Beaumont, Texas.

“I think students are going to be surprised at the disarray that still exists six months after the hurricane. Most people have forgotten about it or assume it’s all cleaned up by now,” said Chis Fox, assistant director of civic engagement and the Smith Chapel. “But there’s still plenty of work to be done, especially in less populated and less affluent areas.

The Behrend group will be joined by students and advisers from other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York. In total, 100 Penn Staters are expected to be in Beaumont next week, helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

Teams of students will be dispatched to various sites around Beaumont to work on projects ranging from mucking out and gutting flooded homes to cleaning and reconstruction.

Groups will stay in the Community Collaborations International Volunteer Facility, and sleep in a gym or classrooms with men and women in separate quarters. Volunteers will work, rain or shine, and time will be spent each evening reflecting on the work of the day.

Penn State Behrend students attending are: Emily Archer, Hannah Carlino, Seth Cowen, Safinaz Elhadary, Joshua Hecht, Janelle Housler, Ashley Jankowski, Ashlyn Kelly, Kris Knorr, Nicole Kuhn, Kaitlyn Lacey, Max Magera, Celeste Makay, Liz Mamros, Kelly Miller, Angelica Miller, Katie Murphy, Priya Patel, Pearl Patterson, Brianna Riley, Gretchen Shaffer, Alex Sienerth, Lidong (Thomas) Wang, and Danielle Wieczorek.

The four staff members who volunteered to accompany the students are: me — Heather Cass, publications manager in the Office of Strategic Communication; Chis Fox, assistant director of civic engagement and the Smith Chapel; Chris Harben, assistant teaching professor of management; and Will Taylor, an Americorps VISTA intern at Penn State Behrend.

Behrend’s ASB group have been preparing for the trip by discussing the disaster in Texas and relief efforts, participating in safety and basic maintenance workshops, and watching Trouble the Water, a documentary about the devastating flooding that occurred in New Orleans’ 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. They have also been taking part in ice breakers and other activities to get to know one other better.

Check back here….or follow this blog (click on the “follow” button in the lower right hand side of your screen)…to see updates from Texas all next week.

Note: If you wish to support the students efforts in Texas with a donation to the Alternative Spring Break Program, contact Kathryn Buesink, assistant director of development, at klb44@psu.edu.

Finance students rub elbows with 3,000 professionals at industry conference

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Penn State Behrend Finance majors Paige Espenshade and Jared Orr recently attended TD Ameritrade Institutional’s National LINC conference in Orlando, Florida, where they were able to get an insider’s view of their chosen field of study.

Espenshade and Orr, who were accompanied by Eric Robbins, lecturer in finance, were two of fifty-six financial planning students from twenty-eight colleges and universities who attended the annual conference in late January.

While there, they had the opportunity to explore job opportunities and connect with more than 3,000 financial advisors and other financial services industry professionals and experts from across the nation.

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Finance students Jared Orr and Paige Espenshade are flanked by TD Ameritrade Institutional President Tom Nally, left, and Kate Kealy, managing director of TD Ameritrade’s Generation Next Program. LILA PHOTO for TD Ameritrade Institutional.

TD Ameritrade is a leading provider of brokerage custody, technology and practice management services for more than 6,000 independent registered investment advisors (RIAs). Since 2007, the firm has been inviting undergraduate financial planning students and their program directors from schools across the U.S. to attend its annual conference, covering travel and hotel expenses for them to do so.

Being Penn State students, Espenshade and Orr garnered special attention from some alumni in the finance industry.

“I was very honored to be actively sought out by alumni and advisors looking to talk specifically with Penn State students,” Espenshade said. “I spoke to an alumnus with an alternative investment firm as well as one with a firm in North Carolina. Altogether, I exchanged contact information with about ten advisors and five vendors.”

At this year’s conference, students attended feature sessions by Ian Bremmer, president, Eurasia Group; Viola Davis, award-winning actress of film, television and theater; Marc Goodman, New York Times best-selling author of Future Crimes;  April Rinne, advisor, Pathfinder, and member of the World Economic Forum; and Jeremy Siegel, the “Wizard of Wharton” Wharton School finance professor.

They also heard about the convergence of financial services and technology from a keynote panel on innovation that included Adena Friedman, president of CEO, Nasdaq; Tim Hockey, president and CEO, TD Ameritrade; Ric Edelman, executive chairman, Edelman Financial Services; and Lex Sokolin, director of fintech strategy, Autonomous.

“Throughout the week I was able to learn about the role of wholesalers, which is a division of the industry that I had never been exposed to,” Orr said. “I now understand the importance of this niche and have a greater understanding of the financial services industry as a whole.”

The students also participated in smaller breakout sessions and panel discussions on investing and evolving as a financial advisor, and attended networking events with advisors and leaders of our firm, including Tom Nally, president of TD Ameritrade Institutional, and Kate Healy, TD Ameritrade’s managing director, Generation Next.

Both Espenshade and Orr say the trip exceeded their expectations.

“It was an amazing event that has had a positive impact on my both my professional network and my awareness of the financial services industry as a whole,” Espenshade said.

“It was a transformative experience,” Orr said. “I now have a better understanding of the different roles within the Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) industry,” Orr said. “The conference exposed me to several aspects of the industry, and because of this, I was able to see what a great community RIAs across the country have created. I hope to attend the conference one day as an RIA so that I, too, can give back to the students as the advisors did for me this year.”

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