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Lionish on Penn State McKeesport

The Mon Valley campus finds ways to serve students and community

Thursday, November 06, 2003

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The new Nittany Lion sculpture stands in a prominent place, almost as though the well-known Penn State mascot is standing guard over buildings, students and staff.

The lion figures prominently in campus literature and in personal photograph albums, because the lion shrine, as Penn Staters call it, is a popular posing place for current and past students.

Robert J. Pavuchak/Post-Gazette

A smaller version of the Nittany Lion that guards Penn State's main campus in University Park now guards the Student Community Center at the university's McKeesport campus. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

But this isn't THE lion from the main campus at University Park in Centre County, the bucolic locale affectionately known as Happy Valley. This somewhat smaller mountain lion was brought in last month to take up residence in McKeesport, where there's a bit of Happy Valley in the Mon Valley.

Penn State McKeesport -- with 10 red brick buildings on 52 well-manicured acres of grass, trees, plants and flowers -- "is a bit of a best-kept secret," said Curtiss E. Porter, campus executive officer since 1999. "It's a hidden jewel."

Located across the street from the McKeesport Area High School and next door to McKeesport's 250-acre Renziehausen Park, part of the campus is actually in White Oak. It's been there since 1957. This branch of Penn State was actually founded in 1948 in a historic mansion in Dravosburg.

Enrollment is generally 800 to 900 students, with students coming from 10 to 20 states and two or three continents. The fall 2003 figures show a head count of 826 students, some of them part-time.

The number of "full-time equivalent" students is 780.10. Two half-time students, for instance, would be added together to count as one student in that tally, Porter said.

While many students are the traditional just-out-of-high-school age, many are a bit older, and 30 percent of them work at full- or part-time jobs, Porter said. Most commute to the campus, but the campus has dorm rooms for 200 students and is generally full or close to it.

Penn State McKeesport has 222 employees and the Web site boasts of a student-faculty ratio of 18 to 1. Two years of study on this campus prepares a student for 160 Penn State major curriculums.

Since 1999 Penn State McKeesport has added four four-year degree programs: business, applied psychology, communications and information sciences and technology. Porter said those programs have been embraced by many students who pass up the chance to transfer to University Park/Happy Valley after their sophomore year.

The student government president and vice president are among those who have decided to stay at the Mon Valley campus till they finish their degrees.

In his freshman year, Matt Ross commuted from his parents' North Versailles home, which he says is about a four-minute drive.

Although he was not involved in student government at East Allegheny High School, "in my freshman year here I hung out with guys who were involved here."

Ross, a business major, said he "had full intentions of transferring to University Park" at some point. "But after three semesters I decided I would be happier staying here."

He moved into a dormitory and got more involved in student government. He's now a junior and is greatly enjoying his second term as student government president.

About once a month the SGA officers travel to University Park for government meetings. They also travel to other colleges and universities, including the University of Pittsburgh and Bowling Green University in Ohio.

Ross said that, besides the travel perks, he gets to meet and greet visiting dignitaries -- opportunities that he probably would not get on the huge main campus in Centre County.

Ishania McLeary, the vice president, finds the Mon Valley to be a very pleasant change from her hometown, the very urban Brooklyn Borough of New York City.

"My sister enrolled here and I enjoyed visiting here," said McLeary, whom most everybody on campus knows as "Ish."

Her sister is completing her civil engineering degree in University Park. But McLeary, now a junior, has decided to stay put and earn a business degree in McKeesport.

She doesn't miss the hustle and bustle of New York at all, and she points out that McKeesport and Pittsburgh have a wide array of cultural and entertainment activities.

McLeary, Ross and other student government reps also work hard to bring events onto the McKeesport campus.

Porter himself is unabashedly bullish on Penn State McKeesport. He said his student years there, 1965 and '66, were "a transforming experience for me."

Porter grew up in Braddock, where his father worked in the Edgar Thomson steel mill.

"I took myself off the streets of Braddock and went into the Air Force for five years," Porter said. There he ran into a man "who reintroduced me to intellectual activity. I took some classes in Plattsburg, N.Y.," then attended Penn State McKeesport for two years.

"I learned to love it here. There was a quality beyond book learning. There was camaraderie, exposure to different cultures and backgrounds. The other students were supportive. Within the first year I was able to make the dean's list, and I stayed there."

He transferred to the University of Pittsburgh to earn his first academic degree. He also earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Pitt.

Penn State McKeesport considers serving its community to be an important part of its mission.

Students often volunteer at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity, both located in neighboring Duquesne, and other local agencies.

Penn State students also assist with after-school tutoring at elementary and secondary schools in North Versailles.

On a bigger front, "We've been involved in the Mon Valley for a long time. ... And we are trying to become a bigger part of the entire region," advisory board president Joseph M. Hohman said.

"We provide a trained and adaptable work force" to area companies, including USX corporation, Hohman and Porter said.

Many groups meet at Penn State McKeesport, said Hohman, a longtime player in economic development. A former Allegheny County development director, he runs Resource Development and Management Inc.

What's ahead for the campus?

"We really want to be a factor in the development of Allegheny County and the Mon Valley," Porter said. "We will develop more four-year programs as the market demands."

He and Hohman were just two of the suit-and-tie-clad dignitaries who attended the Oct. 16 grand opening of the new $5.5 million Student Community Center. About $3.5 million came from the university and the rest from private support.

"We've raised all but $600,000 of that," Porter said.

More than 500 people attended the festivities, including Graham B. Spanier, president of Penn State University.

The 25,000-square-foot center has meeting and eating places, a game room, coffee bar, a student-run radio station and more. It includes meeting rooms for student clubs and a health center.

Hohman, Porter and others see the new center as a symbol of Penn State McKeesport's vitality.

"It wasn't too long ago that Penn State McKeesport was on the list of possible closings," Porter said in his remarks at the Oct. 16 dedication.

Penn State officials had concerns about job and population declines in the Mon Valley in the wake of the mill closings in the 1980s, Porter said in an interview.

But a study done in 1995 concluded "that we are viable," he said. "That was the beginning of the future."

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at or 412-851-1512.

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