Camaraderie and Community
It's no secret, people drive success in the Bellisario College
Patrick Parsons remembers his first trip to Happy Valley, even though it felt brief. Jamey Perry remembers his first day on the job, even if the atmosphere seemed a little tense.
Bob Richards remembers the response to his original proposals for start-up programming and student-centered endeavors. Similarly, Bob Martin remembers what those in charge said about his proposal for a brand-new communications-specific job fair. And Karen Mozley-Bryan, well, she remembers just about everything, a key trait of hers since Day One — from who to contact to get things done to who needs a little TLC when things get stressful, and she especially remembers to share a strong dose of kindness whenever possible.
With nearly two dozen faculty and staff who have more than 20 years of experience in their positions, the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications has a wealth of institutional knowledge. That experience provides the foundation for a close-knit community committed to supporting student achievement and excellence.
All the experience — and especially that sense of community — makes the Bellisario College one of the best places to work at Penn State, something confirmed by a University-wide survey of faculty and staff that rated the unit as a generally happy and productive place by outlier-level statistics when it was last conducted in 2019.
“We have a critical mass of people who’ve been in the college over much of its lifespan, and that’s a special resource. Because we’re a comparatively young college, we have many people familiar with our institutional history. They’ve lived it,” Bellisario College Dean Marie Hardin says. The Penn State communications program became a school in 1985 and a college in 1995. “I can’t stress enough how important that is. Institutions have lifecycles and when you have a lot of turnover of personnel you have to go back to square one on a lot of things. We really have not had to do that.
“Through everyday challenges, and especially through the past two years with COVID and so much more, we’ve been able to rely very much on the goodwill we have toward each other. It is that goodwill — we assume the best about one another, which leads to building trust — that has helped us succeed.”
Stability at the top has helped as well. The Bellisairo College has had only two deans in the past 23 years, and Hardin is the longest-serving dean in an academic college on the University Park campus.
Just a short stay
Parsons was an aspiring faculty member when he first visited Happy Valley for a job interview in 1986. He was promised transportation from the airport to his hotel and a tour of town when he arrived from Minneapolis where he was pursing his doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota.
“So, we’re in the car, going down Fox Hollow Road and a big stadium comes into view. We drive past that down to College Avenue, then turn right onto North Atherton Street and head to the hotel. It was a short drive — it seemed like it was fairly direct from the airport,” Parsons says. “I just figured they would show me town the next day.
“It turns out the drive was our tour of town. It’s changed a bit through the years, obviously, but it still has that small town charm.”
Parsons, a professor of telecommunications and an internationally respected expert and researcher in areas such as cable television history and emerging media technologies, retired at the end of the spring semester. He plans to remain active by helping chronicle the history of the Bellisario College, mentoring fellow faculty members and working on some passion projects.
He and his wife, previously retired Bellisario College faculty member Susan Strohm, have some travel plans but after 36 years his connection with the program runs deep.
“When you’re someplace as long as we’ve been at Penn State, it just becomes part of you. Plus, my belief and understanding — based on input from colleagues in other disciplines here at Penn State and those at those at other universities — is that we do have something special in the Bellisario College,” Parsons says. “There’s clearly a community, a connection, and that’s rare.”
It's a connection many others share, and the resulting collegiality and cooperation lead to a palpable sense of community. Visitors, aspiring faculty members and students alike, notice, , and it contributes mightily as the Bellisario College’s delivers what it promotes to students — big-school resources with a small-school feel. It’s most clear with everyday interactions, when faculty and staff pass each other in the hallways of Carnegie Building or the Bellisario Media Center and exchange pleasantries, as well as questions about family members, research ideas or just weekend plans.
Honestly, few of the long-term employees planned to be members of the Bellisario College as long as they have. Almost nobody, faculty or staff, takes a job expecting it to be a lifelong position. While most faculty work to secure tenure, which requires a time commitment at one place, it’s often hard to envision that timeline when you accept a job. At first, it’s just a happy culmination to a terminal degree.
Likewise for staff, Penn State offers a plethora of opportunities — more than a dozen academic colleges as well as administrative and operational units on the University Park campus. It’s not unusual for a longtime Penn State employee to spend several years in a few different units as they gain experience and find change or growth all while working on the same campus. Longtime Penn State employees are not rare, but one unit with more than a quarter of its people who have been in place for more than a quarter century seems somewhat unusual … in a good way.
Several long-time members of the Bellisario College have considered leaving or explored other options. Sometimes the case for change was strong, even though it was eventually rejected. And sometimes the considerations were more about geography than anything else. Those short-term obstacles were easily overcome, or they provided a reason to buy a winter jacket.
“We had a storm with 17 inches of snow my first November on campus and it seemed like we didn’t see the ground again until almost May. For someone from the South, that was an eye opener,” says Distinguished Professor Ford Risley, who served as associate dean for undergraduate and graduate education in the Bellisario College for six years, as well as head of the Department of Journalism for a dozen years. He’s the founding director of the Newspaper Journalists Oral History Program, housed in the Bellisario College.
In his first fall on campus (1995), having built his academic credentials at Auburn, Georgia and Florida, the mission of a land-grant university was appealing familiar at Penn State, but the cold was something to be overcome. Risley and his wife did that, in part, through the power of community. Twenty-seven years later, he’s still here — a respected, steadying force in the Bellisario College and across campus.
“There are probably little things about town that someone could point to — maybe another good restaurant or two — but Penn State itself has been an exceptional place for my career, and this community has been super for my family,” Risley says. “Plus, in our college the divisions seem minimal. We’re not separated or structured by office location in buildings, so offices of people in different disciplines are side by side. That certainly helps make things more collegial and gets us connected.”
Changes and some (brief) concerns
For Jamey Perry (’87), who worked for Penn State admissions centrally for a decade before accepting a position as an adviser for the communications college, the first day on the job was memorable.
“It was June 1, 1999, and it initially felt like a disaster,” says Perry, who had been with the University since 1989. “The college was going through a transition. Everybody had just found out a new dean was on the way, and people seemed a little shellshocked and quiet. The energy was low. I was worried I had made a mistake.”
He was just at the front part of a curve, though. And it was an upward curve.
Twenty-three years later, Perry does not regret the decision. Plus, his presence has led others to join the Bellisario College while his leadership of the undergraduate advising office has impacted thousands of students.
Perry’s approach and enthusiasm — he’s a former Penn State cheerleader who served as the “mic man,” the squad member with a microphone leading stadium-wide cheers — help drive a palpable energy among faculty and staff. That, along with the physical diversity and proximity of faculty offices that Risley mentioned, provides a lack of division in the Bellisario College that generally results in and all-for-one, we’re-in-this together mindset.
That approach inevitably attracts like-minded faculty and staff.
“Oh, Jamey’s the reason I’m here,” says Julie Evak, coordinator for undergraduate education, and she’s serious about Perry’s impact. She moved within Penn State, coming to the Bellisario College while seeking flexibility and a part-time position as she remained a University employee while raising her three children.
After leaving the Department of Women’s Studies, she found the right place, and the right people, working in the advising office led by Perry in 2000. Evak’s productivity and work ethic were obvious, and her position was later moved to five hours a week in another part of the Bellisario College. Not long after that, she was promoted to a full-time spot. After 22 years on the job, she’s among the half-dozen staff members who’ve worked longest in the Bellisario College.
A couple of even more experienced staff members — lab coordinators Jim Dugan (who started in August 1996) and Steve Rieghard (January 1998) — have stayed in the Bellisario College because of similar levels of growth and support. Plus, in another not-so-secret to success, they’ve been entrusted with additional responsibilities that make their positions attractive.
Dugan (’94) credits Karen Mozley-Bryan (’89), his supervisor, for a providing an unparalleled level of respect, support and trust. “When you have that, you’re not really looking for anything else,” Dugan says. “Nobody expects to be in one place this long, but we have good people who get along and work to solve problems together. That’s rewarding and hard to find.”
He says he never really considered leaving the Bellisario College, in part because the job changed around him, constantly providing challenges and growth. Specifically, studio space he’s coordinated through the years has been housed in Mitchell Building, Innovation Park and now the Bellisario Media Center. So, he’s gotten to move without ever having a different job. The inevitable changeover of students and access to state-of-the-art equipment have ensured fresh interactions and opportunities on a regular basis.
Reighard, who started in a part-time position like most other lab coordinators, only considered leaving once and that was because he was seeking a full-time spot. It was only a brief consideration.
“Before I really had a chance to complete things or make a decision, we were told our spots were going to be changed to full time. That was a difference maker,” Reighard says. “It was the right thing to do for the program, and it was certainly appreciated.”
The value added for Dugan and Reighard — and several other staff members — is the opportunity to teach. Before joining Penn State, Dugan worked for a local network TV affiliate while Reighard worked for a radio station in State College. Their experience and skills were transferable and valuable to students, and administrators wisely recognized the convenience of putting capable, motivated and talented employees in a position to broaden their impact.
Much like the mix of faculty office locations and overall energy, the practice of empowering qualified staff members to teach makes the community stronger. It helps staff members feel more valued and, because they’re high-quality instructors, it enhances interaction and respect between faculty and staff.
All the connections, none of the complacency
As the longest-tenured member of the Bellisario College, Bob Richards has seen a lot through the years. Richards, the John and Ann Curley Professor of First Amendment Studies, regularly teaches and has served as an associate dean as well as a member of Bellisario College and University committees.
He’s the founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State, as well as the driving force behind the creation and ongoing success of the Penn State Washington Program and the Penn State Hollywood Program.
Like so many colleagues, Richards (’83) never really thought about making Penn State a lifelong home. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University before building an impressive career path in broadcasting and radio and then pivoting to become a law clerk and earning his J.D. Once he joined the faculty, he found endless opportunities and support.
“When we’ve considered doing things to benefit students, there has always been support,” Richards says. “As a faculty member, that’s gratifying. We’re focused on the students, working to do the best for them, and those ideas have been supported — always.”
Richards has been with the Bellisario College since August of 1998, before most current Penn State students were born. Like many other long-time members of the Bellisario College community, that makes him connected and experienced. He knows who to contact at the University for collaboration and support. Thanks to those endeavors in the nation’s capital and Los Angeles, he also knows how to put students in a position to succeed — and how to avoid any big snowfalls that might impact Happy Valley in November, or any month really.
Bob Martin’s ideas to help students drew almost universal support as well. Martin, the assistant dean for internships and career services and the first staff member hired by Dean Doug Anderson (that new dean Perry referenced) in 1999, was tasked with helping build a connection between students and employers — getting the clearly prepared students from the growing program paired with positions where they could start building careers.
Martin, who had considered moving to New York City to continue his career in broadcasting management and sales, instead took a chance on the newly created position at his alma mater. It was a chance to impact students, really put them in a position to succeed, and to make a home for his young family. His wife, Marylou, then pregnant with their first child, was a strong advocate for the Penn State position.
Martin (’87) brought a creative, driven mindset to the job. With his office on one side of the second floor of Carnegie Building and Perry and the advising team on the other, students were sandwiched by an almost inescapable support system. To this day, it’s rare to find a connected, successful student who has not interacted regularly with the advising office, the internship office or Mike Poorman, the Bellisario College’s director of alumni relations.
Martin launched an on-campus internship and job fair, JobExpo.Comm, and a similar session in New York City, Success in the City. The former was created to attract recruiters to campus and the latter was designed to get students into the heart of the Big Apple — making it easy for big-time communications companies to connect with students without having to travel.
By any measure, the approach and events have been a huge success during the past 23 years. Martin and his team, which has grown from his one-man operation in 1999 to a three-person team in 2022, try to measure, or at least track, as much as they can.
“The numbers give us a baseline and context, and through the years they’ve changed at times, but we always want to strive to do better and do more,” Martin says. “It’s a lot of work, but when you see the connections, impact and opportunities that become a reality for students, it’s really motivating. After a long time in the same job some other people might go through the motions or get into a rut, but we challenge ourselves to be a little better each year. Our students deserve that.”
Time flies. The Martins’ first child, Zach, a Penn State senior majoring in finance and broadcast journalism, will graduate next spring.
Consistency and familiarity lead to long-term success
No staff member has worked longer in the Bellisario College than facilities manager Karen Mosely Bryan, and nobody impacts as many other people as her and the team she manages.
Incoming faculty and staff all deal with Bryan (’89) to get their office assignments, ensure internet access on campus, find out their phone number and generally get acclimated and settled. If she’s not the first person newcomers interact with, she’s certainly the most important. Best of all, she treats everyone else as if they were the most important person she’s ever met.
“One of the reasons why I ended up staying is that I felt comfortable here. Comfortable for some people could be a bad thing, because you get complacent. I don’t feel I’ve gotten complacent. I’m just comfortable with my communications family,” Bryan says. “There’s a line of respect you get from your coworkers.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to make people comfortable because I’m often the first person they meet or get to know. I think things run smoothly when we help people. I just think it’s wrong if you choose not to help someone.”
Again, collegiality and community. And not surprising coming from Bryan, who was a Lion Ambassador and resident assistant as an undergraduate student.
Plus, like others, the job has changed around her with many unexpected opportunities. For Bryan, that included a key role as a liaison between the Bellisario College and the construction team when the Bellisario Media Center was designed and built.
She says the best part of her job is the unexpected. Every day. Plus, like others, she has had flexibility and value-added opportunities, including freelancing on live broadcasts — which allows her to keep her broadcast skills sharp. Her initial plan was to work a couple years on campus before heading home to Pittsburgh to pursue a production career. Instead, Penn State intervened — and, like it has for others, become a commitment.
Bryan is one of a half-dozen Bellisario College alumni among those long-time employees. The group includes Poorman, Richards, Steve Manuel (’82g), Martin, Dugan and Steve Sampsell (’90). While others in that group have worked in the Bellisario College longer, Poorman takes a slightly different view of the long-term relationships.
Poorman, the Bellisario College’s director of alumni relations, earned his bachelor’s degree in 1982. He started his undergraduate studies in 1979 — giving him a 43-year relationship with the program. He’s been a student, an alumni board member and volunteer, an employee, a donor, a mentor to students, an instructor, and more. These days, his primary duties make him the one-person driving force behind interactions with nearly 32,000 Bellisario College alumni.
Because of those many perspectives, he thinks he knows why so many people remain here for so long.
“For so many of those people, it’s almost a calling. They care and they’re committed,” Poorman says. “We’re small enough that you can make a difference every day, and you’re aligned with people who want to make a difference.
“Plus, when you combine the fact that we have alumni, as well as many who have been here a long time and care immensely, we have great expectations of ourselves and the college as a whole. It’s a mission and a passion and a responsibility for many of us. It’s not just checking a box for your job. It’s making a difference in these students’ lives.”