No one can ever take away my experiences of Penn State (Updated)

Posted on November 12, 2011

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See update at the end

I’ve been keeping my head down ever since the news broke that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for the Penn State Nittany Lions football team, was arrested and charged with multiple accounts of child sexual abuse. I needed time to process how I felt about everything, and yet every time I seemed to get close to grasping onto something, events would send my thoughts and emotions careening beyond my reach again. The Penn State mess has made a stressful period of my life harder for a simple reason: between August of 1991 and May of 1995, I attended the Pennsylvania State University, aka Penn State. And when you spend the four most formative years of your life at a university that is under assault from all sides, it hits you in places and in ways that you’re not prepared for.

What follows is my attempt to make sense of a small part of what I’m feeling right now.

During my senior year of high school, I was lucky enough to take three college classes at the University in Colorado. As a result, I got bit by the CU (and Boulder, Colorado) bug. But I had no interest in attending CU for my engineering degree. I’d gone to high school with many of the same kids I went to kindergarten with, who saw me burst into tears on the playground in 6th Grade and teased me mercilessly for it, who I wanted to escape so I could have a fresh start. No, I wanted to go out of state, and to a university that was big. So big that I could theoretically walk back and forth to class for a week and not see anyone I knew. At the time, I didn’t realize that this wasn’t realistic, that no university is that huge, but that’s what I wanted. I knew that Penn State was massive, so that was a point in its favor. But I also got accepted to two other out-of-state universities, and both were ranked higher for electrical engineering than Penn State.

When I visited Purdue, I got the usual prospective student tour and got to ask a bunch of questions. The answers demonstrated that Purdue was an excellent engineering university, but I also learned that the center of campus was dominated by several massive fraternity houses, and the social scene at the school was mostly greek in nature. I had no interest in being in a fraternity, so the idea that I’d only get to parties if I was in a frat turned me off. But there was a bigger issue on Purdue’s campus that year that was the ultimate deciding factor. When I visited the campus, there was a big debate over whether or not the university should tear down the old smokestack in the center of campus and replace it with a clock tower. The Purdue Boilermakers, thinking about tearing down the very symbol of the school, to make room for a mere clock tower? That told me right there that Purdue was too interested in progress and uninterested in its own history, and that wasn’t what I wanted in a university. I’ve got coworkers who attended Purdue years later who were surprised to discover that a smokestack had once stood where the clock tower was.

When I visited Carnegie Mellon University, I was struck by the excellence of the engineering program. But I had the opportunity to spend the night in a CMU dorm suite with some students, and so I asked them some probing questions. First, they confirmed what I’d seen during the tour earlier in the day – CMU was about 85% male, the engineering program even more so, and the only women on campus were either so driven that they didn’t have time for or interest in dating or they were arts majors who had no interest in dating geek engineers. All the dating opportunities were with coeds from the University of Pittsburgh several miles away. Not only that, but the only way you even got close to the Pitt girls was if you were in a fraternity. For that reason alone the fraternity system at CMU dominated even more completely than it had a Purdue. And when I left Carnegie Mellon the next day, I knew that I’d be turning down the best engineering program I’d been accepted into.

When I got to visit Penn State, however, I got a totally different feel. Here was a university that cared about its legacy and history. I learned on that tour that Old Main, where the university president and vice presidents had their offices, had been rebuilt at least once after a it was destroyed by a fire, and that it had once been the entire university – dormitory, classrooms, everything. I learned that Penn State had its own zip code (and also town, University Park) because it had been granted one by President Lincoln when the university was founded as a land grant institution. But when I walked around the campus I saw new computer labs, large and well equipped lab facilities for classes, and new construction mixed in among the old vine-covered stone buildings. I also learned that Penn State had the largest greek system in the country at the time, but the campus was so large that it simply didn’t matter. When there’s about 65,000 students on one campus (which is roughly how many undergrads and grad students Penn State had while I was there), there’s so many students who aren’t in a fraternity or sorority that you easily achieve critical mass for having a good time.

After visiting all three schools, I knew that Penn State was the place for me. My parents, who I think would have preferred Carnegie Mellon, asked why. First, I really liked how CU felt, and Penn State felt the most like CU to me. Second, while some universities may make it easier to get a good education, ultimately you only get as good an education as you’re willing to work for. Penn State might not be Carnegie Mellon, but it was still good enough to teach me engineering if I was willing to work for it. And third, there’s a hell of a lot more to college than the classes you take and the grades you earn. And on this third point, Penn State beat out CMU and Purdue handily.

My years at Penn State were filled with experiences that helped me learn who I was, who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to relate to the world. In my freshman year I met Jeff, whom I roomed with the next two years. He came from a world totally different from my own, but we still hit it off and I spent hours in his dorm room next door playing War with cards. I started attending Catholic services on Sundays because the girl I dated was a good Catholic – and yet the relationship ended so badly that I thought I might be gay for more than a year. It was partly as a result of my inability to reconcile how a supposedly good Catholic could treat another person so poorly that I started taking long walks at night, thinking about religion, science, God, faith, and logic. I turned down a pledge offer from either Theta Chi or Theta Xi (I don’t remember which one it was) after attending one party (and downing my first shot of Bacardi 151). It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made – they didn’t want me, per se, they wanted an engineering student to pull up the house’s GPA and keep them from going on academic probation, which happened spring semester. I attended my first of many home games at Beaver Stadium and participated in my first ever drinking cup tower and subsequent cup war when the 30 foot tower of empty drinking cups ultimately collapsed and landed on the heads of other students. The cup wars got so bad that reusable drinking cups were banned from the stadium before I graduated.

It was my sophomore year when I finally broke with Christianity, and it was on a dark and windy Beltaine night several months later when I finally gave myself permission to be the neo-pagan I have been ever since. On a less than enlightening note, I also let Jeff suck me into a daytime soap opera (neither of us wanted the TV in our room when we came back the following year). I also got over my high school embarrassment about wanting to play in and run role-playing games, and I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, ShadowRun, In Nomine, and a game of my own devising ever since. But perhaps the most significant thing I did during my sophomore year was take Tung Soo Do classes with Master Kaye of the Penn State Martial Arts Group. Those classes gave me a confidence in myself that has served me ever since, and sometimes I miss practicing martial arts so much that I envy my children – they’ve been taking kung fu lessons for nine months now and generally loving it. And after spending a year thinking I was gay, I discovered during my Introduction to Human Sexuality class that I actually wasn’t gay, giving me the mental freedom to pursue romance again.

Because so much happened my sophomore year, my grades suffered and I nearly didn’t get a junior year. But I had been accepted into electrical engineering (at Penn State you were a general engineering student for your first two years and had to apply to get into the specific discipline during your sophomore year) and I was able to convince Mom and Dad to give me a single semester to prove that I could get my grades back up while also working a part-time job, something I hadn’t done up to that point. So I worked in the dining hall 20 hours per week while getting hammered by my first serious electrical engineering courses. And unlike most engineers, I was on the four-year plan, so my course load was heavy too. But I figured it all out, fell for one of my co-workers at the dining hall, and spent a hefty amount of my junior year writing horrible love poetry, letters to myself, and drinking bad beer to keep from going insane with angst. I continued my long walks at night, let Jeff talk me into watching women’s gymnastics and volleyball, and in the spring discovered a group of neo-pagans who were thinking about forming a student group on campus the following year. I also got into a relationship that went OK to start with but that I ended very poorly over the summer. My mother pointed out that I’d behaved so badly that I’d become one of those guys that mothers warn their daughters about, and I agreed. And there were the nights at the Phyrst and other clubs with Jeff, Dawn, and Fern where we drank too much, dumped each other in the snow when it was 10 °F outside, and where I laughed my ass off at the homophobic frat boys dancing to “YMCA” by The Village People.

My senior year was a bit more bipolar. I helped found Penn State Silver Circle, the neo-pagan student group that met informally for the first time the year before. I took up martial arts again after dropping it out of necessity my junior year. I lost my virginity the weekend before Thanksgiving and then lost myself in a relationship that, with the benefit of hindsight, I simply wasn’t mature enough to handle at that point. That one ended badly too after graduation, and again it was my fault. But I also got to be a fly on the wall for at least one, maybe two girl-only discussions about sex that made the guy-only raunch-fests I was familiar with seem G-rated by comparison. I discovered that women (and at least one man) actually were attracted to me, and spent a good portion of my last semester at Penn State with friends playing “spin the bottle” and “truth or dare.” By the end of the year I came to understand the reality of the “friends with benefits” relationship I was in and had matured enough about it to pursue a couple of women I’d worked with or taken classes with – they didn’t work out, partly because there was so little time left (I had been accepted into grad school at the University of Colorado starting in Fall of 1995), but it was tremendously empowering to try anyway. I’ll never forget propositioning a woman friend who I’d pursued off and on since my sophomore year only to be let down gently with a tender kiss when I’d half expected a slap or a knee to the groin.

Chef from South Park used to say that there was a time and a place for everything, and that place is college. I didn’t try everything at college, but I tried enough things that I’ll never forget my four exciting, horrible, awesome, depressing, and wild years at Penn State. Nothing Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Shultz, Graham Spanier, or even Jerry Sandusky have done can ever tarnish or take away from me those experiences.

I am Penn State.

Update 11/12/2011, 8:30 PM I urge everyone who bothers to read this to see some of the photos of the student-organized candlelight vigil from last night. I attended one vigil on campus for Take Back The Night, but it was nothing like this. Good for the students. Alas, candlelight vigils for the Sandusky’s victims don’t garner the same coverage as riots for Paterno.

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