As a Penn State alum who suffered through a year of negative headlines and controversy, I wanted to go back to Happy Valley this football season to see how the school has changed in the wake of the scandal. I wanted to see the “New Penn State.”
Before this year, when asked where I had gone to school, people would react with excitement and smiles, usually telling a good anecdote from a game they attended in the past. Now, the reaction is quite different. It is met with disappointment, usually sparking an uncomfortable conversation or debate.
Regardless of my personal opinion, one fact is clear: One man's crimes irrevocably changed the image of a whole university and anyone associated with it. So after a five-year hiatus, I decided that this was the year to go back.
According to many sports media outlets, Penn State has categorically changed. Players have transferred, students are displaced and alumni are turning their backs. As a New Yorker, I couldn't see this first hand, so I believed what the media was telling me. I believed that one single man ruined the spirit of a whole town.
Before arriving, I didn't really know what to expect. I thought I would be writing an article about all of the changes in the people, the attitudes.
This was certainly not the case. Penn State is the same. In fact, I would say I felt more camaraderie than ever. Aside from a few t-shirts and posters with “We Stand as One” and the such, there were no major changes.
Yes, the statue is gone. Yes, the cardboard cutouts of Joe Paterno on College Avenue are missing. But these are tangible changes. These things never were what made Penn State the university that it is. The Nittany Lion spirit, the atmosphere of the town, the fans, are what make it Penn State.
The stadium of 107,000 seats was packed with people of all ages wearing their blue shirts for the Official Blue Out game. The parking lots were filled with tailgaters, blue and white trailers, and families barbecuing. I met fans from all over the country, young and old, who were there to enjoy a good old football game.
And the students? They were happy. Very happy. They danced in the bleachers, led by the cheerleaders and Blue Band. The Nittany Lion did a halftime dance to Gangnam Style (If you don't know what I'm referring to, do yourself a favor and Google it). After the game, the bars and restaurants were bustling. At 2 a.m., as per usual for State College, the streets were filled with laughter and mayhem. And let's not even talk about the revelry on the line for Pokey Sticks at Gumby's....
Sunday morning, I awakened refreshed, not physically of course (due to the Pokey Sticks), but mentally. I went straight to College Avenue and bought a slew of new Penn State gear.
I headed back to New York as a proud alum. I will no longer be embarrassed to wear my PSU t-shirt at the gym. And I will no longer avoid the dreaded question: “Where did you go to school?” A terrible thing occurred at PSU, but the silver lining is that a community has taught us a way to support the victims and support the school. This is a university that will indeed persevere.