State of State 2017: Innovating Penn State


On Saturday, February 12th Penn State students, faculty and alumni came together for the fourth annual State of State conference, titled “Innovate the State,” with the goal of fostering conversation about innovation in a non-traditional way. The event, which was held in Alumni Hall at the HUB-Roberson Center from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., featured 15 speakers who challenged the audience to think, discuss, and ultimately take action on the issues and ideas that were presented.

These speakers focused on three main topics: Our Community Responsibility, Sustainable Practices, and Serving our Penn State family. The conference was divided among the three topics, with each featuring four to five speakers; each speech was followed by a breakout discussion held at each table by facilitators, as well as a Q&A session. Photos from the event can be found here.


The conference kicked off with an opening speech by Dr. Lee Erickson, a lecturer in the IST department, spoke about the importance of setting goals and making sure you follow through with the motto “I will.” Erickson, who also works downtown at the LaunchBox giving business advice to start-ups,  encouraged the audience to set their minds to being a “doer.”

The speech set the perfect tone for the conference and the topics each speaker would touch on.

The first group of presenters, speaking on the topic of “Our Community Responsibility” spoke about bridging the gap between the Penn State and State College communities. Topics ranged from conserving culture to student participation in local governance.


Terry Ford, the president of the University Park Undergraduate Association, Penn State’s student government, gave a presentation speaking to students’ civic duty to the local community.

At the start of his presentation Ford warned that what he had to say would be grim but that it needed to be said: “[The] truth is students are not voting and that has consequences.” One of the things Ford attributed low student-turnout to was the divide that existed between local elected officials and students, who make up what he noted as 70.6 percent of the population; closing that divide through greater and more personal interaction would certainly excite students to turn out and vote.

He ended his presentation with two quotes said to be the words of an “elected official” here in State College: “And it makes you realize that students aren’t scary and drunk all the time.”;“It’s wonderful to see that we’re humans and they’re humans.”

Chris Buchignani, president and co-founder of The Nittany Valley Society, a nonprofit dedicated to their mission of cultural conservation, also spoke on the topic of “Our Community Responsibility.” In his presentation, Buchignani touched on the history of Penn State and emphasizing how important it is that students understand and relate to that history:“Show people the big picture so we can all appreciate how all our pieces fit together.”

The next group of presenters touched on “Sustainable Practices” that have been and could be implemented at Penn State. Those presenting were or are involved in supplying sustainable resources here on campus.

Doug Goodstein, a sustainability-focused professional here at Penn State, is working to create a student-centered co-curricular experience with sustainability projects. His presentation focused on his passion for educating students on what sustainability is beyond just recycling, and how important it is for a successful future:“Sustainability is the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality and economic well-being for current and future generations.”

He finished in a call to action with these words: “you don’t have to be the genius, you just have to do something.”

The final section of the day was focused on serving the Penn State community and featured speakers who all work  on campus serving students in different ways. The organizations they were from included the Lion’s Pantry, Career Services, Alumni Association, and Penn State Wings.

Jaden Rankin-Wahlers, a student who works to support students in poverty at the Lion Pantry, spoke about how when it comes to the topic of homelessness it is not only Penn State that needs to grow, but the entire nation. Wahlers works first-hand with homeless students and feels very passionate about helping them get the resources they need. When it comes to the students she works with, Wahler says: “these are some of the strongest individuals I have ever met…they deserve our respect.”

Maria Walls, founder of Penn State Wings, spoke on making higher education more inclusive to students with disabilities. Her presentation included her own stories about life at Penn State with a disability, providing personal insight into how little inclusiveness Penn State fosters for students with disabilities.

Walls recommended some simple steps that could be taken and a plan going forward to begin solving the  issue, including improving training for professors, increasing the budget of the student disability resource center, and an education program on students with disabilities for everyone. Walls plans on continuing her education at Penn State as a graduate student in the field of higher education to continue to fight for her vision.

In the breakout sessions following each area of discussion facilitators challenged attendees to think about the topics brought up and to share their thoughts.

Jake Springer, an At-Large Representative for UPUA, was in attendance and had many insights into the topics covered and what should happen moving forward. Springer expressed that he felt that it is now the responsibility of those in attendance to spread the information they heard to their communities.

Other students agreed with Springer’s comments and added that the challenge would go further than just spreading the information but getting that information to the students who are going to use it.

In a community of over 80,000 people that will be difficult, but the fourth annual State of State succeeded in providing the forum through which community members could begin to come together, share ideas, and come up with ways to make the future better. It was ultimately a presentation by the Penn State community and for the Penn State community.

Photo Credit: Madison Starr



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Kaleah Mcilwain

Kaleah is a sophomore at Penn State double-majoring in Print Journalism and Political Science. She likes to collect quotes and will never turn down a good argument. She hopes to one day be an international journalist and get to tell stories about different people from around the world.