Alyssa Ott '07
It’s August 2005, and after spending 2 years at Penn State York Campus, Alyssa Ott’s parents are dropping her off at The Pointe apartments in Happy Valley. Her childhood dreams of being a Penn Stater at main campus are finally coming true. She is cheering loudly with 106,000+ fans and classmates at football games singing “Sweet Caroline.” Then a graduation celebration in 2007 at the Skellar ends with an innocent hug goodbye to a dear friend — a friend who later became her husband. These vivid memories are snapshots of Alyssa’s love for Penn State. She bleeds blue and white. Penn State is truly part of her identity.
A 2007 graduate of Human Development and Family Studies, Alyssa says her greatest accomplishments in life are without a doubt her children and husband. Her modesty masks the important work she currently does in York, PA as a licensed clinical social worker and supervisor of an outpatient therapy program. Holding a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland, Alyssa is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) certified and level 1 trained in Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.
After 13 years in the field, Alyssa says “My specialty area is trauma and I enjoy working with children, teens and adults with trauma histories, sexual abuse, attachment disorders, and victims of crimes actively involved in criminal proceedings. I work with individuals and their families in weekly sessions focusing primarily on issues related to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), trauma, attachment disorders, and grief and loss.”
Aside from her individualized therapy sessions, Alyssa conducts clinical supervision and audits, medication management evaluations, consultations, and everything else in between. She is also a clinical supervisor for therapists pursuing their clinical license, conducts trainings on Trauma Informed Care, and provides expert testimony on the effects of trauma and the brain in criminal court.
Her message for current students is simple — make a message out of a mess. Whether you wrote a terrible paper or experienced something terrible in life, make a message out of it. Otherwise, it is just a mess. Half the battle in life is just showing up. Show up to class, even when it’s hard. And more importantly, show up in life, in your career and in your relationships. Never be afraid to try. Ask professors for extensions or help, because most want to see you succeed! And lastly, be passionate about empathy, vulnerability, and be free of judgement. We all have stories, and we are all fighting hard in our own arenas, so be kind to all.
Connect with Alyssa on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/alyssa-ott-lcsw-8131b815a/
Previous Alumni Spotlights
- Mark Brenneman '96
Mark Brenneman is a 1996 graduate who majored in Human Development and Family Studies. He currently lives in Albany, New York and works as an elementary school principal, with over 20 years of experience in the field.
His professional responsibilities are wide ranging and include developing, implementing, and evaluating the programs adopted by his school, as well as providing a safe and productive learning environment for all staff and students. Mark often provides professional development and support to staff in order to create a dynamic educational environment. In addition to overseeing the daily operations of a school from arrival to dismissal, he is an integral part of the hiring and evaluation process for teachers and staff. Conducting teacher evaluations and providing feedback can be a challenging task to ensure effective practice, Mark will admit. But as a school leader, he is always looking for ways to improve the student experience at school. This involves researching best practices and programs that have proved to be effective in other districts or states.
Mark also acknowledges that one of the most important roles of a principal is to create a community between and among parents, students, faculty, and the public. A principal should be positive, enthusiastic, have his hand in the day-to-day activities of the school, and listen to what his constituents are saying. This is one of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of his job. The knowledge he has gained in 20 years, and relationships formed over time, have allowed him to create a loving, learning environment for the students.
Despite the many professional responsibilities Mark has in his leadership position, he always makes time for his family, running, and new learning opportunities.
"Growing up in State College I have so many memories of my time there. I will always remember dropping into Old Main to see my mother between classes and the beauty of that building. Concerts on HUB Lawn were always a great time and of course Saturdays at Beaver Stadium,” said Mark
“I started out specifically in Human Development and thought I wanted to have a career in that field. While waiting to get into graduate school, I took a job as a teaching assistant with elementary students and realized I had found what I loved doing. I had worked with kids since I was 15 years old at a summer camp, but I realized this was the path for me and pursued my education degree. HDFS was a great foundation and stepping stone for my path into education. I love each and every day working with students as an elementary principal.”
- Julie Baran '14
Julie Baran is a 2014 graduate who majored in Human Development and Family Studies and currently lives in the New York City area working as a Research Analyst at Insight Strategy Group.
Her professional responsibilities are wide ranging and include conducting research on kid and family-focused brands, content, and products using both qualitative and quantitative methods while translating marketing and business objectives into actionable research plans. She also is tasked with developing research instruments, including focus group screeners, surveys, discussion guides, and expert interview guides. Julie is skilled in analyzing and synthesizing qualitative and quantitative research findings into key insights and implications for clients’ businesses and also writes reports that deliver key insights and strategic recommendations to stakeholders.
Another big part of her job entails collaborating with teams such as design and analytics to research questions for clients and to perform secondary research to inform hypotheses, including literature reviews. Julie designs and executes a wide variety of research projects ranging from ideation to content development in addition to managing projects and team responsibilities. Taking on a project manager position in relation to day-to-day activities and training junior team members is also an important part of her daily duties, along with moderating expert interviews, person dyads, ethnographies, and focus groups with adults, kids, and teens alike.
Despite all the many professional responsibilities Julie has in her current position, which she has held for the last four years, family will always be a passion of her. She always finds time for travel and adventure with her husband, and enjoys reading and attending Broadway shows.
Julie’s favorite Penn State memories are with her “Park Ave family.”
“We got a house off campus with my closest friends – boys lived on the top, girls on the bottom. It was the best. We had bonfires out back. Parties in the basement with the band who were then called the Had Knots. Football weekends and all the cars headed to the stadium,” she said. “Just friends and love for our school. Of course, all Penn State sports and THON.”
Finally, Julie’s advice for current students: “My advice would be to step back and take a breath, look around and soak it in. These years are your best. Study hard, talk to experts in your field, spend time with professors, take time to love yourself, and hang with your friends. You’ll never get back that closeness, living within five minutes of each other.
“Soak in breaks, especially summer. Enjoy Penn State football and ‘THON as both are magical, and you’ll miss them. Take these four years to really figure out where you want to go while having the best time. Work is hard. Careers are challenging, and they may change as you go. Find what you love, what you are passionate about and pursue it. Your heart never lies. Enjoy your time at PSU. It is the greatest school and you’ll take a piece of it wherever you go.”
- James Nemec '79
James (Jim) Nemec, a 1979 graduate of HDFS, distinguished himself in the field immediately after graduation, then worked with the United States Postal Service for 35 years in various capacities before retiring. Now he spends his time assisting others as an independent consultant.
His long and diverse career has included such jobs as training correctional officers; working as director of treatment for prison residents; serving as a quality manager, plant manager, district manager, and manager of operations; and working as vice president of consumer and industry affairs at JLJ consulting.
Jim’s journey at Penn State Berks followed his military service in Southeast Asia after high school. It was a defining moment where he could take advantage of Pennsylvania Vietnam Era Veteran grants, the GI bill, and the Veterans Affairs Office right on campus. The advocacy for veterans provided support, smaller classes, and engaged professors that helped Jim assimilate as he graduated in just over three years with a bachelor of science degree in administration of justice, while concurrently working full time at the Lancaster County Prison.
Within a few years, Jim became the director of treatment at the prison, where he led the counseling, medical, dietary, religious, vocational, recreational, and individual classification processes. After seven years, Jim completed his master’s degree in human organization science at Villanova University and moved on to the United States Postal Service in 1985.
His career took off quickly after being selected for an advanced management associate program. He later would serve in a number of executive-level positions, including manager of operations support, district manager in North Florida, plant manager in Southeastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and postmaster/OIC in Baltimore, Maryland. Earlier in his career, Jim served as a quality specialist in Baltimore, where he received the first and only Maryland Malcolm Baldridge Quality Gold award for the U.S. Postal Service.
Jim would always apply his quality improvement techniques and lean six sigma applications to all of his positions and teams. Additionally, his life’s leadership and team building performance was powered by a servant-first approach. No matter the position, empowering the team in turn authorized ownership in the uplifting service of customers, clients, or residents.
As the vice president of consumer affairs, Jim turned this logic loose with a “customer-obsessed” approach that put USPS at the top of Forrester Research’s federal customer experience index.
Finally, Jim believes the one should always “KTF” -- keep the faith and keep the focus for success.
Jim is married to Joy, and together they have four children and three grandchildren. In his free time, he enjoys group exercise, golf, teaching spin class, and yes, he will release his first book in spring 2020. Jim’s advice for current students is the same discussion he gave his children who went to Penn State. If 21 days makes a habit, create a quality learning process (habit) for your studies. Simply do your “job” at school, enjoy your free time, and take advantage of the great Penn State learning experience. Your hard work will pay off in your academic achievements, work life and personal relationships. And, always, “KTF.”
- Christopher M. Garrison '87, PhD, RN, CNE, CHSE
Dr. Christopher Garrison found his passion in nursing at Penn State some 30 plus years ago and has been striving for excellence in the dynamic and ever-changing field since then. He found his way back to Happy Valley in 2013 to add advancement and relevance to the nursing program here at Penn State. Dr. Garrison’s career in nursing spans areas in creative teaching, dynamic learning, relevant researching, and active service to this community of caring professionals.
Christopher’s journey in nursing started when he graduated with a bachelor’s of science in human development; he then furthered his education by becoming an RN in 1991, while finding his purpose in working with older adults. He developed his clinical and leadership skills by serving as a staff nurse, home care coordinator, and rising to assistant director of nursing and clinical supervisor at Goodwin House in Falls Church, Virginia. His interest in teaching and developing skills in others was fostered here, while also serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia. In 2001, he earned a master’s degree in nursing and his adult nurse practitioner license, focusing in gerontology, from George Mason University. He continued to educate others at George Mason while developing his knowledge and skills as a staff nurse practitioner. After moving to Florida in 2005, he further nurtured his interests in education and research at the University of South Florida, where he held roles as the director of undergraduate clinical excellence, course coordinator, instructor, and mentor. Here, he developed and delivered simulation education, which can be critical for nursing students and their experiences within the field. He continued his work in research, education, and simulation at St. Petersburg College for another two years. He then answered the call for high-level teaching when he returned to Penn State in 2013, and continuously works to establish a positive and challenging learning environment to develop his students’ critical thinking skills in clinical environments. He serves as a well-known and respected associate teaching professor and is the Simulation Lab director, having earned his Ph.D. in 2014 from Nova Southeastern University.
The nursing and medical field has changed dramatically with the continued reliance on computers and technology, and the emergence of electronic medical records. Students need real-life and dynamic teaching methods to be well prepared for the industry. Dr. Garrison understands this and embraces this vision of active learning in all that he does. He diligently works with industry leaders and other educators to promote simulation learning within nursing education. He is dedicated to teaching, presenting, and publishing so that his students can learn from his experiences and take that knowledge to another level.
Throughout his tenure, Christopher has presented more than 25 continuing education courses and 12 scholarly presentations, in addition to having four articles published in major Journals. He was recently nominated for the prestigious Atherton Award for Teaching Excellence in the College of Nursing at Penn State, as students respond and relate to his dynamic teaching methods. He was twice named Outstanding Educator at the University of South Florida, won the Excellence in Research Award at George Mason, has been inducted into Sigma Theta Tau Honor Society, and has received numerous other scholarships. Penn State is truly “Penn State Proud” of this amazing and accomplished alumnus who is contributing to nursing education at the highest level, all within our own enlightened classrooms.
- Ashley Stoffa '17
“Could you imagine what life would be like if email had never been so widely distributed?” HDFS alumna Ashley Stoffa recently made this statement as she commented on the fact that until not that long ago, email salespersons actually existed. Without email and without a salesperson to demonstrate and educate customers about email, businesses (and people) would not be as successful as they are today. Her position as Sales Executive with the global company Oracle provides companies with sales, consulting, education and support. Since graduation in 2017, she has progressed from Business Development Representative to National Sales Representative to Sales Executive in Pennsylvania. Ashley took this job because she knew this position would allow her to help people. And as every HDFS alumni would concur, helping people is the primary focus.
In her position, Ashley helps small organizations run efficiently. She assists with their sales, service, and marketing operations by improving efficiency and effectiveness. She enjoys working with small businesses because she has the opportunity to observe them succeed in reaching their own growth goals. She is responsible for maintaining her relationships with her customers by organizing sales visits and product demonstrations.
When not working closely with customers, Ashley enjoys baking (take a look at her creations on Instagram @cubiclesandcupcakes) and kickboxing, and in fact now instructs kickboxing classes. Thanks to a gift from her boyfriend, she took a class and fell in love with raising bonsai trees. Ashley is now a tree-whisperer to two bonsai trees: a Brush Cherry Tree and a Hawaiian Umbrella Tree.
Ashley urges current HDFS students to use the university’s career and networking resources. “Get to know your professors, network with businesses downtown, as well as with the recruiters at the career fairs.” Take full advantage of Career Services’ offerings by setting aside time every semester to meet with a career counselor. “That way you’ll be more prepared for life after State!”
- Jessie Rudi '08
Jessie Rudi graduated with honors in Human Development and Family Studies from Penn State in Spring, 2008. Jessie was invited to join the Schreyer Honor’s College during her sophomore year, which meant she had to complete a research project in lieu of a community internship. She worked with Dr. Doug Coatsworth on his Strengthening Families Program Initiative, a pilot study evaluating a mindfulness-enhanced version of The Strengthening Families Program. This experience taught Jessie the power of research for understanding, supporting, and advocating for individuals, families, and communities.
Fueled by her new passion for research and understanding family dynamics, Jessie went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees in Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, under the mentorship of Dr. Jodi Dworkin. As a graduate student, Jessie discovered her knack and passion for statistics and quantitative methodology, and supported multiple projects aimed at better understanding technology use in families. After she graduated with her PhD, Jessie worked as a Research Associate in the same department for four years. In this role, she analyzed data and disseminated research findings about financial well-being among adolescents and emerging adults, as well as parent-child communication about financial matters. She was also the evaluator for a Children, Youth, and Families At-Risk (CYFAR) project designed to improve nutrition, physical activity, and financial literacy among adolescents in Minnesota. She has published multiple studies in peer-reviewed journals spanning family science, youth development, media and technology, and financial well-being.
In July 2019, Jessie transitioned into a public service role as a Research & Data Analyst for Scott County, Minnesota. In this position, Jessie supports the research and evaluation efforts for the Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency (SCALE), which works to ensure safe, healthy, and livable communities throughout the county. Jessie is excited to be using her human development and family studies background as well as her research skills in a community setting to encourage greater efficiencies and leadership in public service.
Her favorite Penn State memory as a student was witnessing how she and each of her siblings (her brothers and sister are also PSU alums!) navigated all the opportunities available to them at Penn State, and took their experiences to pursue vastly different careers (research, engineering, information sciences and technology, and business). Her advice for current students is to get to know folks who have careers they think they’d enjoy – and conduct informational interviews to learn about different career paths. It’s a great way to network!
- Devon Thomas '01
Devon Thomas, who is not only an HDFS graduate (2001), but also worked as the Senior Academic Adviser in the Department for five years until 2018. She was recognized multiple times with awards for her high-quality work, and students and colleagues alike were sad to see her leave.
Devon currently serves as the Academic Adviser and Program Coordinator for Undergraduate Programs in Psychology at Drexel University, where she is responsible for the day-to-day operations relating to the Psychology major. She works with undergraduate students on their educational planning, career discussions, and understanding of University policy/procedure. Devon also manages the annual course offerings and adjunct faculty hiring/contracts, while working closely with the Program Director on program development.
Devon’s hobbies include music & theater, travel, and food, and we know that despite working at Drexel, she’s still a die-hard Penn State football fan. She cites her most memorable moment at Penn State when she discovered HDFS as her academic home:
“Having not met certain threshold criteria for a previous major, I was very upset the first day of my sophomore year. Someone recommended I investigate HDFS by speaking with Pam Evock (then the Senior Academic Adviser for the major). Pam listened to me cry through my story and then calmly told me why HDFS was a home for me. Faculty, staff, and even my peers became family to me during the remainder of my undergraduate career. It was not until years later, when I was sitting with HDFS students as the Senior Academic Adviser, that I realized how pivotal that conversation was to my entire career trajectory.”
One piece of advice for current students? Devon advises students to build networks through integrity and character, and at all costs, avoid burning bridges. As people talk to other people, who talk to others still, opportunities present themselves because someone knows someone. By making strong impressions of moral character and utmost integrity, you can be remembered when opportunities arise. Employers and friends of employers also remember when bridges are burned, closing doors to opportunity. She encourages students to always be genuine, and to be remembered for the right reasons.
- Katie Kolbe-Holden '05
Katie Kolbe-Holden is a 2005 graduate of the HDFS Department, currently living in Spring Mills, PA and working as a school psychologist in the Mifflin County School District. Her key responsibilities include conducting evaluations to determine eligibility for special education or gifted education services, planning interventions for students who are struggling, leading school mental health teams, and working with parents and community agencies to ensure student success.
Katie has had an interesting professional journey. Originally from Philipsburg, PA, on the opposite, western edge of Centre County from where she now lives, Katie followed up her HDFS graduation by earning an M.Ed. in Counselor Education, with K-12 School Counselor Certification. Living in Colorado and more recently New Hampshire, she worked in the field as a school counselor while completing her Psy.D. Degree in School Psychology, with K-12 School Psychologist Certification. She returned to the State College area recently when she took a job as a School Psychologist in the Penn’s Valley Area School District.
Besides her work in School Counseling and School Psychology, Katie’s previous experiences in the human service field include serving as a Therapeutic Support Staff, and teaching in a New Hampshire college. When asked about her favorite or best human service job, Katie stated, “My favorite jobs have been working in schools. A school provides a rich array of experiences as I am working with students, parents, teachers, community agencies and many more stakeholders. There is never a dull day and every day is different!”
Some of her passions include traveling, skiing, and continuing her education by always learning. Her favorite Penn State memory? Late nights with friends at the Deli! Katie shared some advice for current students: “Take advantage of all Penn State has to offer, research opportunities, networking, internships, externships, and world-renowned professors. You will likely never be in a place like PSU again!” Katie has followed her own advice in a way, reconnecting with her alma mater in the past year by serving as a panelist on an HDFS Career Panel last October, and agreeing to join the HDFS Affiliate Program Group (APG) Board beginning the summer of 2019. We welcome Katie back with open arms, and hope you may cross paths with her in the near future.
- Tyler A. Phenneger '99
Tyler Phenneger is a 1999 graduate of the HDFS department. He currently lives in Pittsburgh and works for Boston Scientific. He has been with the company for over 10 years and currently holds the role of medical education project manager. He also works with online learning and digital resources. When asked to describe what his major work responsibilities are, Tyler gave the following description, “I lead digital projects and education-based company initiatives. I will partner with institutions across the country to establish a consistent cadence of virtual peer-to-peer opportunities. Also, I will explore alternative methods of learning through virtual reality and other emerging platforms. Review and employ practical Learning Management Systems and tools.”
Other responsibilities at Boston Scientific include, overhauling Neuromodulation Learning Institute website, increasing user experience to be more intuitive. He also has been tasked with monitoring an on-demand Video Library to be hosted through website and building the capability for live streaming of cases, lectures, symposiums and presentations. Finally, Tyler has been appointed as a Neuromod representative for Global Boston Scientific Medical Education task force.
Tyler has several interests outside of work which include cycling, hiking, cooking, music, and photography. He also enjoys spending time with his dogs.
When asked about his favorite memories from his Penn State days, Tyler admitted there were too many to count. One memory that really stood out for Tyler was, “The first days/week in Stuart Hall (East Halls) and the overwhelming feeling of complete independence and sharing those emotions with brand new people, from all over, who are still my closest PSU friends to this day.”
Finally, Tyler had some advice for current Penn State students. “Read The Oz Principal by Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman (1994) See it, Own it, Solve it, Do it”. In addition he added that one of his favorite quotes as words to live by is, “There are three types of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.”
- Catherine Kuhns '11
Catherine Kuhns ’11 HDFS is a in her fourth-year as a doctoral student at the University of Maryland in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. She is also a recipient of the College of Health and Human Development’s Emerging Professional – Undergraduate Degree in 2017.
Currently, Catherine is conducting research (writing, collecting/cleaning/analyzing data, coding) and writing her dissertation! She also manages undergraduate research assistants and mentors junior graduate students.
Her favorite Penn State memory is ringing the bell to celebrate the submission of her thesis to Schreyer Honors College! If she had one piece of advice for current students it would be, “Now’s the time to engage deeply with your coursework and figure out what you love. Ask questions of your professors and peers, spend time reflecting on what you enjoy, and find what makes you tick!”
- Pamela Bocek Murphy '78
"What I have learned in my 37-year career is that business, and life, is all about 'relationships'; develop them, nurture them, and choose them wisely."
As an undergraduate in the late 1970s, Pamela switched her major from Math to Human Development and Family Studies in order to develop a well-rounded background and to take advantage of the internship opportunities that the major provided. Her first job was as a customer service analyst and now, 37 years later, she is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Reynolds Consumer Products.
What drives Pamela’s success? Perhaps it’s this wisdom she shared in our interview, “…business, and life, is all about ‘relationships’; develop them, nurture them, and choose them wisely.”
Pamela enjoys her work at Reynolds where, “No two days are the same. I can be helping to introduce a new product, build a new warehouse, integrate a new company into my current company, or implement a system…” Pam spends most of her time at work problem-solving and leading cross-functional or cross-business units to achieve their designated goals.
For the past four years, Pamela Bocek Murphy has served as the communications chair for the HDFS Affiliate Program Group (HDFS APG) which is a professional association open to any HDFS alumni, student, or faculty. Under her careful management, the HDFS APG’s LinkedIn page has grown from a handful of members to more than 500 members.
- Piraporn "Pin" Satjayakorn '18
Piraporn Satjayakorn, or as her friends call her, “Pin,” who graduated in the summer of 2018. Originally from Bangkok, Thailand, Pin double-majored in Human Development & Family Studies and Psychology. Her passion for traveling brought her to Penn State, and her years in State College proved to be rewarding.
After graduation, Pin moved to Washington, DC to continue working at her internship site as a Registered Behavior Technician, using her skills and expertise to assist Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBA). Working with ABA programming, she created program materials and resources for various projects. Her work included creating visual schedules, choice boards and sensory activities. She also took on the role of Director for the company’s Dental Destination Program. This program supports individuals with developmental disabilities when they need to access dental care.
Pin is spending this summer in her homeland after this exciting and fulfilling year, and will return in the Fall to attend Columbia University’s Teacher’s College to obtain her Masters in School Psychology. She seems to have found her calling. Her love for music may quite possibly play a role in her work in the future as she is proficient in piano and guitar. She is also an avid participant in Muay Thai, or the Thai discipline of kickboxing. She represented her Penn State Sorority by dancing in ‘THON and it warms her heart to help those in need. She, in turn, was warmed by all those who supported her in this important event as well as throughout her time at Penn State.
Pin advises that students take advantage of all the Penn State has to offer by utilizing Career Services, the learning services, CAPS and other support services for all students.
- Laura Kovach '01
This month we highlight Laura (Orndorff) Kovach, a 2001 graduate of HDFS. Her passion for women’s studies, social justice and equity has taken her on a road of challenges and turns that she couldn’t have expected, but maintaining that focus has been the key. After almost 20 years since she walked the pathways at Penn State, this ’01 grad (HDFS, Women’s Studies) has taken on a new challenge as the Director of Prevention, Education and Training at the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse in Rockville, MD. She now supervises a group of educators and trainers in the antiviolence movement to continue her passion in this field. Her career has been spent as an advocate, trainer, consultant and educator.
While obtaining her master's degree at Penn State in 2007 in Higher Education and College Student Affairs, Laura worked as a consultant for the US Department of Justice. She also participated in the Department’s 2016 Roundtable Dialogue on Addressing Sexual Assault, Dating Violence, Domestic Violence and Stalking in LGBT Communities on Campus. In 2008, Laura continued her specialization in higher education by working as Director of the Women’s Center at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, for 10 years. After this position, she served as the Assistant Director of Training and Program Development at Alteristic, a non-profit civic and social organization for the promotion of safety, respect and violence prevention strategies, until this past April.
Since 2011, she has also concurrently worked as an adjunct professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, to educate others in her calling. She specifically teaches courses in Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault: A US Perspective as well as introductory courses in Women’s and Gender Studies. For the past two years, Laura has also worked with Rankin & Associates Consulting as a Title IX and Sexual Assault Consultant. Her focus again is directed toward education as she acts as a facilitator for campus climate focus groups and provides expertise in her field. She authored two literature reviews for multi-institutional studies regarding patterns of college student survivors of sexual assault for women of color, and also for queer and trans-spectrum students. Laura has also extended her skills and knowledge as a consultant and educator at the University of Scranton and American University.
Laura's husband, Ben, is also a PSU grad (’02 Architectural Engineering) and they were married on campus! In her free time, she enjoys gardening and cooking, and thoroughly enjoys being a Mom to Xavier, age 10 and Ryder, age 6. Laura’s advice for current students is to find a passion and follow the path, but expect that there will be turns along the way to allow you to grow and develop in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible!
- Melissa Snyder '06
Melissa Snyder would be the first to admit that there was some uncertainty about what she really wanted to do in her life and career as she embarked on her Penn State journey. While she may still have the deep-seated love for astronomy and geology that she initially pursued, her passion today as a family services administrator at The Salvation Army, Harrisburg Capital City Region can be attributed to her time studying children, youth, and families at Penn State. Helping people gets her out of bed in the morning and making a positive difference in someone’s day is what keeps her motivated.
Melissa has spent almost 15 years in the field since graduating in 2006 and has experience in running basic needs and self-sufficiency social services and supportive programs for at-risk youth, including summer camps, leadership development conferences, and mentoring programs. Some of her major work responsibilities include overseeing the Family Services Department of The Salvation Army, Harrisburg and managing social service programs and staff. Those programs include a soup kitchen, clothing assistance, utility assistance, seasonal assistance during the winter holidays, and referrals. She has recently taken on a supervisory role of case management programs that help individuals find or improve employment and help families increase their self-sufficiency, focusing on housing, employment, transportation and budgeting. Melissa strongly believes that holistic service of people’s body, mind, and spirit is key to effective life change!
Her career highlights are numerous, but two stand out to her. One of these is coordinating an annual Christmas Assistance Program that offers gifts for 4,300 children and meals for over 6,600 people. A second highlight is playing an instrumental role in the growth of the Food Pantry Program that expanded from select canned goods ten years ago to a full-choice shopping pantry today, offering a balanced diet full of healthy fresh foods to accommodate dietary and cultural needs.
On a more personal note, family time is something she treasures most, currently residing in Hummelstown, PA with her husband of ten years – who she met at Penn State – and two young boys, ages 3 and 5. As a family, they enjoy weekend brunch at home and going fishing. Melissa was also a member of the Blue Band, which happens to be one her fondest Penn State memories. Music is very dear to Melissa and she still finds time to play the keyboard at her church. Being part of the first White Outs in Beaver Stadium, with the deafening noise levels and surreal energy, are treasured moments for her and something she is very proud of.
One piece of advice Melissa would offer current students is, “Enjoy your time at Penn State. Challenge yourself and try new things, meet new people. You will likely miss Penn State when your time is done, but there are new seasons of life ahead that can be full of just as much joy and discovery if you choose make it that way.”
- Patty Hillkirk '82
It all started with a dream and a vision of a safe, loving, encouraging place where kids could be kids and all of their worries and troubles could disappear for a while. There was this grand idea of a camp where HIV/AIDS impacted children and youth could escape with others like themselves and be surrounded by nature, feel welcomed and embraced by selfless volunteers, and learn valuable life lessons together. In 1995, this idea came to fruition and Camp Dreamcatcher became a reality, all because of the dedication and tenacity of Patty Hillkirk and the support of close friends.
Patty attended PSU and graduated in 1982 with a major in Individual & Family Studies (now called HDFS), and a Graduate degree in Administration of Justice from Pennsylvania Gestalt Center. Her journey began at the Behrend Erie Campus before transitioning to Main Campus, and that made all the difference in her life and career trajectory. It was at Behrend on her first day where she met a friend who later inspired her to begin work in the HIV/AIDS community and she will certainly tell you that meeting was life changing in so many ways.
She is currently the Executive Director of Camp Dreamcatcher (https://campdreamcatcher.org/) where she has been happily grounded for almost 25 years and works as a Gestalt Psychotherapist. As you can imagine, with 35 years of experience her major work responsibilities are boundless, and all of the Camp Dreamcatcher programs are FREE, so fundraising is a full-time job that takes a top priority. Developing programs, facilitating therapeutic programs and groups, supervising interns & volunteers & staff, and recruiting volunteers and program attendees are a few other very important duties she leads and oversees.
On a more personal level, Patty was on the PSU Behrend basketball and softball teams and those memories are very near and dear to her. When she was on Main Campus it was hard to resist taking a well-deserved break from studying to visit the former Ye Olde College Diner and enjoy a delicious grilled sticky bun! Today, she appreciates walking with friends, is an animal lover, and a stout supporter of experiential therapeutic programs for youth and social justice.
Patty would say to current students, “Pay attention to moments that inspire you, or tug at your spirit. Don’t give up on your dreams!”
Finally, she also truly believes that giving back to others will feed your soul and will help ignite a passion. Interning at Camp Dreamcatcher is a great way to volunteer and we cannot think of a better way to get involved.
- Michele R. Petras '90
Spending almost 30 years in the field as a Professional School Counselor is quite a remarkable accomplishment and is something that should be celebrated for any individual. It is even more exciting to celebrate and recognize one of our very own, and we are honored to spotlight Michele R. Petras, who has done just that.
Michele attended PSU in the early 1990’s and graduated with her B.S. in HDFS, following that with a Master of Education specializing in Counseling. From there she entered into her professional career and never looked back.
Currently, she resides in Maryland and works as a Professional School Counselor. In this role Michele helps students with academic achievement while managing personal, social and emotional issues, and helps in the planning for postsecondary options by providing a comprehensive school counseling program. Her day-to-day duties and responsibilities include providing individual and group short-term counseling, academic planning, classroom lessons, and referrals to additional support services. Another important component in this profession is the collaboration with families, teachers, administrators, and the local community to help students, and serve as an advocate for them.
There are many favorite memories Michele has as a student while at Penn State, but the one that is most memorable to her is going to the Diner on College Avenue on a Saturday night and having a grilled sticky with ice cream (Mount Nittany) and sharing a plate of fries with friends. Something else she wanted to share was that her favorite ice cream from The Berkey Creamery is none other than Peachy Paterno.
When Michele isn’t fully ingrained in her Professional School Counseling role, three of her favorite passions include enjoying time with family and friends, shopping, and reading.
And finally, an important piece of advice she has to offer to current students is to make friends that will last a lifetime and take advantage of Penn State’s Advising and Career Services.
- Sarah Keen '19
Not only is she a recent graduate of Penn State, Sarah Keen ‘19 also will soon become an alumna of The George Washington University next May (2021), where she will earn her Master’s of Education and Human Development School Counseling. Sarah has already started her career in the Alexandria Public Schools through the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. The AVID program is a college readiness elective program that ensures all students have the tools they need to succeed beyond high school. Sarah hopes to use this experience in the public schools, along with her education, and become an elementary school or middle school counselor in the Alexandria, Virginia area while working to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. Her dream is to one day open up her own private practice for children with a strong focus in play therapy.
When she is not studying or in school, Sarah likes to spend time hiking with her dog, Stella. During the summer you can find her spending days at the beach or working with children, especially in summer camp programs.
While studying Human Development and Family Studies with a minor in Child Maltreatment and Advocacy Studies at Penn State, Sarah found herself at football games. Her favorite memory was storming the football field with thousands of fans after Penn State beat Ohio State. Laying on the grass and taking photos with her friends on the field is a memory she will never forget. Sarah said, “my favorite part about that night is when we all came together to sing the Alma Mater.” Even to this day, thinking about that night gives her chills - Penn State forever!
Sarah’s advice to current students is to take a deep breath, and that you do not need to have your whole life planned out right after College. Opportunities will come knocking at your door, and when they do, jump at them! Always keep an open mind and believe that everything happens for a reason. Remember to always enjoy the journey, wherever that may lead. Last but not least, network when possible and keep your connections close as they might later open doors for you that you never would have known about. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-keen-b1b421180/
Alumni Spotlight is a way for us to highlight the amazing things our HDFS alumni are doing! If you have a suggestion of someone we should recognize, please email email@example.com.