This blog might appear to be something appropriate for the holidays, but in fact, the timing is entirely accidental. Rather, the idea was generated from multiple opportunities to participate in discussions with students, and the ability to pause, step back, and ask the question whether the tenor of student concerns has changed significantly over the last few years.

The leadership of the Board of Trustees met with the leadership of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) during the last board meeting. The students were prepared, including distributing three “cards” that outlined the major objectives of UPUA (click on images below). The list of objectives is rather remarkable and demonstrates a true sense of compassion for fellow students. For example, the Affordability card doesn’t call out tuition, it is a call to support students suffering from financial and food insecurity. Together, the three cards define an overwhelming commitment to support student wellness and community.

Another key example is the class gift. Historically, the class gift demonstrates a tendency to support physical objects. Many have become landmarks that signal support for our great institution. I personally appreciate the legacy of more than 150 class gifts at University Park. But, over the last four years, the senior classes have created gifts that are very different — the Classes of 2016 and 2020 supported Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and student mental health; the Class of 2017 made their gift to enable the Lion’s Pantry food bank to serve those in need; and the Class of 2018 dedicated a portion of their gift to enhance the Textbook and Educational Resources Fund to provide textbooks and low-cost or free electronic resources where they are needed. In the long history of the class gift, there has never been such a multi-year concern for the needs of fellow students.

I also have the pleasure of teaching a course for sophomores called the Presidential Leadership Academy. In the last class, we went through the exercise of having students take a shot at setting tuition for next year. It began with this question — “What should the University be doing even if it might cost more money?” Many of the first responses focused on student wellness and helping those overcome challenging personal circumstances. In response to a second question — “Would you agree to have your tuition increased to support the wellness of others?” — the majority of students nodded in affirmation.

There are also many examples from our Commonwealth Campuses that show a commitment to projects that benefit others. Abington, Behrend, Berks, Brandywine, DuBois, Harrisburg, Lehigh Valley and Mont Alto also have food pantries to assist with food insecurity. At Penn State Berks, our students are collaborating with the United Way of Berks County to bring fresh, healthy produce to Reading’s population that is struggling with obesity, diabetes and other conditions relating to a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables.

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” she begins with an analysis of personal attributes of four presidents universally viewed as significant leaders. A common attribute among the four is not their personalities, far from it. Most notably, a common attribute was empathy. Their leadership was defined by empathy and compassion that compelled them to take action that would serve their fellow humans in untenable or less fortunate circumstances. Her analysis raises the question of whether empathy is a basic requirement for great leaders — those who truly moved society forward.

What I find remarkable is that Penn State’s student body, as well as its leaders, are signaling their empathy for their fellow students and demonstrating that our priorities should be driven by the wellness of all.

I wonder if future students, faculty and staff, looking back at past class gifts and the other actions by our students, will see this as a pivotal moment in turbulent times. Regardless, I am incredibly proud to serve a group of students whose priorities are driven by compassion for others.

Images courtesy of the University Park Undergraduate Association: 

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