Graduate School & the Value of Extended Time in the Nittany Valley

By Kevin Horne, January 2015

“5… 4… 3… 2… 1… HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

I hear that same countdown every night, a few seconds before midnight, from my Beaver Avenue apartment, although its consistency makes it no less painful to digest. The commotion, of course, is coming from the line outside the local bar known for catering to belligerent 21st birthday crowds. Six short months ago, that would have been me in that line, watching juniors and seniors become initiated to the State College bar scene. But tonight, like most nights, I’m at my desk reading about the ancient legal code of Hammurabi of Babylon or the proper way to file a lawsuit against a foreign corporation.

Such is the transient existence between undergraduate studies at Penn State, a decidedly impermanent condition for most, and immersion into a more established segment of the State College community. I’m talking, of course, about grad school.

All told, somewhere between five and eight percent of my class at the Dickinson School of Law also holds an undergraduate degree from Penn State. We are, in many ways, the odd creatures in a heterogeneous class of 191, which represents 138 different institutions of higher education, 48 undergraduate majors, six countries, and 27 states (plus the Virgin Islands). By the time we graduate law school, my fellow Penn Staters and I will have spent at least seven years in the Nittany Valley, which will amount to something like 30 percent of our entire lives – and probably closer to half of the cognizant lives that we can actually remember. Other Penn State alumni-graduate students who are seeking Ph.Ds will spend upwards of 10 years here. The longest continuous student tenure that I’m aware of currently stands at 13 years, although I’m sure someone can beat that.

When your time here stretches beyond those first few years spent learning the academic and social intricacies of college life, a change happens.  State College, which starts out as little more than a temporary way station on life’s journey, starts to feel more and more like a home unto itself.

In any case, it’s a strange space to exist in, especially at first. Most undergraduates are content living between the comfortable rectangle created between where Atherton St. and University Dr. intersect with Park Ave. and Beaver Ave. (or Fairmount Ave. for the Greeks). To use a somewhat obnoxious law school term, this is the “nerve center” of the State College and Penn State experience, and few have a need to venture outside of that bubble (except, perhaps, to the DMV when the bar won’t accept your newly expired ID).

Most people probably intuit that the transition from undergraduate to graduate school is easier for Penn Staters. After one semester of law school, I’m not so sure about that. With the temptations and libations that made the Penn State undergraduate experience so fulfilling nearby, coupled with the professional and intense academic expectations of grad school, it can make for a confusing recipe.

While grad students may not be able to responsibly relive their “glory days” in the heart of the Valley (avoid driving by East Halls on a Friday night – trust me), I’ve found that grad school creates a unique civic space that can bring value to the community. Many grad students are homeowners in State College or its surrounding townships. Some have families and children in the school district. Most even know who the mayor is, which is actually a pretty high standard of knowledge for an undergrad. Issues like borough zoning ordinances and student healthcare policies often dominate the conversation at graduate student government meetings.

For Penn Staters continuing their education in the graduate school, some measure of devotion to Penn State and the Nittany Valley is already inherent in the decision to stay. Few undergraduates don’t appreciate their University to begin with – Penn State’s 92 percent freshman retention rate is one of the best in the country, especially among public universities – but the number of students who stay for seven or more years is a testament to the magic of the place, and one that organizations like the Nittany Valley Society hope to capture.

Local government officials often cite a need to keep Penn State graduates in State College after graduation as a key to economic success and diversity. Most grad students are in the unique position of being both students and employees – teaching and graduate assistant stipends help bring money to the area that isn’t just a tuition check. Local entrepreneurial organizations like the New Leaf Initiative and InnoBlue help keep some Penn State graduates in town, but most young people cashing paychecks in State College are doing so with graduate student funding.

I don’t expect the birthday bar countdowns outside my window to stop tugging at my heart and reviving cherished memories of Old State life any time soon. But living in the unique space between transient student and established resident provides new opportunities for learning and growth that other groups might never get to experience. The cliché used in far too many commencement addresses is the concept of Penn State always being considered a home to its graduates, although the speaker usually only means that in an emotional sense.   Further study at Penn State and extended immersion in our living-learning community beyond the undergraduate years offers valuable life lessons about coping with change, becoming part of a community and appreciating a sense of place.

After five years, and with two more to go, it’s probably time to go get a State College driver’s license.