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The Communicator

Faculty and Staff

Strength and Support

Gary Abdullah's leadership, service and voice consistently impact the Bellisario College community — and beyond

Gary Abdullah portrait

The best thing about Gary Abdullah is his voice. And he definitely knows how and when to use it.

From the booming, deep, room-rattling laugh he unleashes among friends to the calm, quiet almost whisper he uses during one-on-one meetings with students who need a softer touch, Abdullah, the assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, invariably picks the correct approach for the situation. He had his discernment and wisdom put to the test almost daily during the past year and a half, though.

Like everyone else, he was adapting to unknowns as the coronavirus pandemic impacted the campus, community and country. At the same time, matters of equity, justice and race — longstanding challenges ignited again by clear injustices and often flamed by less obvious personal beliefs and political differences — were providing an additional layer of complexity to almost everything.

Every day brought another important and timely challenge that impacted students, faculty and staff in the Bellisario College, and that meant Abdullah, who wants every member of those audiences to feel welcome at Penn State, was a busy man.

“He’s had the hardest job in the college this year, there’s no question in my mind,” Dean Marie Hardin says. “The thing about Gary that’s so impressive is the way he manages to provide the kind of support that each individual student that meets with him needs. At the same time, he manages to think about the bigger picture and what needs to be done in terms of the larger direction of the college. On top of that he is a trusted resource at the University level in bigger discussions.

“Another thing I like about Gary — he will speak up when he sees something he thinks is not right. He’s not afraid to tell me what he thinks I need to hear, and a lot of people are not like that. That’s a great quality. He pairs that honesty with a loyalty that is very clear, and that’s what makes it work.”

A developing voice

Long before he was talking, Gary Andre Abdullah was listening. His parents, Gary and Lydia, came to Penn State from Philadelphia and graduated form the University in 1974 and 1975, respectively. A week after earning her bachelor’s degree, Lydia was hired by the University. The couple was married in 1975 and both worked at Penn State for decades.

Gary’s father worked in public information and his mother in human resources. The elder Gary retired first, about seven years ago, and Lydia retired three years ago, after 41 years at Penn State — all of them in the University’s sprawling finance and business unit, including an impactful tenure as the director of diversity and inclusion.

“You know, children are always watching and they’re always listening,” Lydia says. “He could see things we did at work, beyond our work and the difference we made here. He could see the good, the bad, the ugly and choose to make a difference. In that manner, I think the job becomes a tool of your calling.”

His father says Gary was “never the goof-off kid.” Instead, he took advice from his parents to be respectful to heart and understood that he always had the right to share an opinion about something he believed. Even in the 1980s in State College, though, that often sounded easier than it was.

Gary remembers his father walking down the street to confront the parent of another child who had called his son a name on the school bus. And he vividly remembers his first encounter with the N-word.

“It was a summer swimming program and coming back to the locker room some kid had thrown my clothes on the ground and pissed on them. I was a kid. I was 7,” Gary says. He also recalls another incident, 20 years later, when he was working at the Penn State All-Sports Museum, leaving for the day as the crowd was moving into Beaver Stadium for a football game. “You just had that feeling, a lot of people going one way, me going the other,” he says. “All you can do is keep walking.”

Abdullah knew what to do and what not to do in such situations. Having grown up in State College, he earned his degrees from Penn State and, again, watched his parents. He practiced patience and brought perspective, as well as a distinctly effective communications style, to every situation.

It has been a thread in his Penn State career. He earned two degrees from Penn State, a bachelor’s in telecommunications and a master’s in telecommunication studies. Before being selected as assistant dean, Abdullah was the multicultural coordinator for the College of Education at Penn State, an academic adviser in the Bellisario College, and an admissions officer for the University during a career that has been focused on higher education.

(In part because of his telecommunications degree — “I’m a nerd about that stuff” — he still follows the industry pretty closely, especially matters related to TV networks, streaming companies and their business models.)

“He likes to think things all the way through before he actually speaks on them,” says his wife, Alyta Abdullah. Gary and Alyta have known each other since they were 6 years old. In the past year, as the family dealt with the death of her father, the pandemic challenges and changes, his work, her work (she’s a nurse) and the typical ups and downs of raising two teenage daughters, she watched as his passionate and patient process played out.

With classes going virtual, racial injustices getting mainstream media attention, marches in State College, and with faculty, staff and students turning to him as either a type of first-responding resource or steadying point of comfort, Abdullah maintained an unwavering, level-headed approach.

“He doesn’t speak on it too much but when he does, he’s already gone over the scenarios in his own mind and how to process it,” Alyta says. “When he wants to make a point and he’s very passionate about something, he will let you know.”

He was a leader and advocate in every instance. He did that in part by remaining mindful of what was happening with the George Floyd case, and so many others, without making a deep dive into the situations. Part of that approach was because he was focused on serving others — especially students — and part was because, unfortunately, he had seen many similar things in the past. So, Abdullah respected and supported those who were processing things for themselves and saved his energy to help others.

“No lie, it’s been tough to be Black and working in a position like this in a place like this the last year. It’s tough to be the person in the room whose job it is to bring up the uncomfortable stuff or to be the go-to reference for uncomfortable topics or discissions,” Abdullah says. “If I’m at work, it’s my job. If I’m at home, I’m a Black man and it’s important and I need to be aware. But, in my persona life, to avoid going down the rabbit hole, I’m going to go turn on Disney+ or HGTV, because that’s where I decompress. Otherwise, I’m thinking about it all the time.”

Abdullah’s honesty and optimism helped others, and himself. What was certainly a challenging year was not as difficult as it could have been in large part because of his approach and efforts. Overall, he values the power of communications — even when it comes to somewhat softer topics, like raising teen daughters. Or perhaps especially when it comes to them.

“He believes as long as you can talk with them, communicate and have rules, things will probably be OK,” Alyta says. “I’m a realist and he’s more of an optimist. I’ll say, ‘Yea, I’m pretty sure there are going to be some tough days.’”

A campus and community voice

There are 28 steps inside Carnegie Building from the main lobby up to Gary’s second-floor office. During a typical year, he would get a lot of foot traffic and visitors — and he got more visitors than anyone else during the 2020-21 academic year because he was often in his office.

While the University generally went to a remote work schedule, he found it easier to compartmentalize, focus and serve students from his office. A few visited in person — many students had returned to campus and town but were taking classes remotely and appreciated any in-person interaction they could get, even if distanced and masked. However, most connections were made via Zoom. He met with students struggling in class and students looking for guidance or support. He also met with prospective students considering attending Penn State and curious about the campus and Bellisario College cultures.

As he would during a normal year, Abdullah also served on faculty and staff search committees. More than ever this past year he was a resource and sounding board for faculty, staff and students stressed out by pandemic- and race-related issues. He also worked most of the year without an administrative assistant. When that key point person in his office — who normally triages requests for Gary's time — moved to another position, Gary was left on his own, as the spot was not filled due to a University-wide pandemic-related hiring freeze. It was just another challenge in a year full of them.

Still, Abdullah never lost focus on the students and supporting them. He always reminds them to be intentional and mindful of the investment they’re making to pursue a college education.

“I am intentional about helping them become intentional,” he says. “College is not cheap no matter where you go and for many of our students this is the first time there’s a financial strain put alongside their education — and this is big enough that everybody knows it costs something.

“You have to be intentional about coming here and learning, about being great. Even if you come here not knowing what you’re doing, you have to be intentional about determining what you want to do. Don’t be here just because that was what was expected of you. Don’t be here because you don’t know what else to do. You should be here because you want to be great, and you need to be intentional about that.”

For his part, Abdullah never really intended to be doing what he’s doing. After growing up in the community and attending Penn State, he initially thought he’d “get out of Dodge pretty quickly.” Instead, he got hooked, eventually combining his appreciation for communications with a passion for counseling and people. Both he and his parents describe his work as a calling.

While some might generalize diversity and inclusion work as something that helps only a subset of students, Abdullah knows otherwise. He believes his office exists to support all students because no matter their geographic or socioeconomic backgrounds, all students share pressures related to change, insecurity, stress and so much more. A big school like Penn State can be an overwhelming place.

“It’s my job to provide the personal touch that Penn State cannot — because it’s an institution. Penn State is not built for one at a time,” Abdullah says. “Here in the Bellisario College we can do that. We can give people a personal touch and let them know we see them.”

Abdullah says his attire, invariably a trademark bow tie and sweater vest, provide an outward expression of his confidence, and because he shares his confidence and energy with students, hopefully motivating them toward success, his look keeps him energized as well. Each night before work he meticulously irons his clothing for the next day. He does the same for his wife each week.

“He takes pride in his work,” Alyta says. “He gets very excited when there’s a crisp line.”

A respected voice

Dean Hardin remembers Abdullah as a graduate student who she used to remind of assignments and deadlines. She says he was a good student and has grown as a leader and person.

“When you have somebody as a student it’s easy to always seem them in that light. After Gary took the job, I challenged him very early on. What I wanted was not somebody who was just going to make the trains run and meet the needs of students on a day to day-to-day basis,” Hardin says. “I challenged Gary to become a leader and he took that challenge very seriously. He has really emerged as a leader on this campus.”

At times Penn State and State College, as one, seem like the smallest town in America. People who are active leaders on campus and the community often interact. Plus, it’s hard for a large Black man like Abdullah to go unnoticed. He’s been losing weight and working out the past year-plus as well, dropping nearly 100 pounds, but he’s still hard to miss. He seemingly knows everyone on campus and in town. They know him, too. Or they at least know his mom and dad. During their lifetimes the minority community in Happy Valley was not always as large or vibrant, and the Abdullahs were often one of the first connecting points for people who were arriving for the first time.

“He and his family obviously have a huge legacy,” Alyta says. “He sees the impact of his parents and he feels he has to fill those shoes as well, even just to represent the family name. That’s a lot on his shoulders at times.”

Still, Abdullah does not shy away from the expectations and opportunities. His familiarity with campus and community make him especially effective at his job. It’s easier for him to connect students with opportunities or find the right people to offer assistance or support. Plus, his innate lifelong context about the community makes him an important and valuable partner in the Bellisario College and at the University.

“Over the years, being around, listening, sitting in the back on car rides, I understood why some people made the decision to say here,” he says. “And I love this stuff, listening to kids, talking with them about problems and helping them find their options. It’s a God-given gift to be able to sit here and listen to people, to be able to get them to open up and talk, to get people to trust you, to be able to have hard conversations. Some people can’t do it, but for me it’s a muscle and it’s intentional, something I’ve worked on.”

His faith plays a large role in what he does, and he admits that some aspects of what he was taught in terms of religion might be more exclusive than inclusive. He’s struck a balance through the years that allows him to remain true to his calling to help others and his faith, while also best serving all the people that need his encouragement and support.

“Growing up in the Christian church there are things you are taught, and I have probably unlearned some over time,” he says. “Depending on where you sit and what your views are that can be a good or bad thing. To properly relate to my students and get past an identity to a person I probably unlearned some things over time. I’ve matured.”

There’s no questioning his effectiveness, on campus, in his church or in the community. At 39, he’s gotten better at his job, strengthening his skillset through experience and repetition, and continually honing his voice. Those closest to him have noticed — and they believe his impact will grow, from what he does with individual students to bigger-picture topics.

“He’s definitely needed around here,” his father says. “A lot of the older Black community has retired and there’s a difference in terms of what’s available to help students from other communities when they come here as opposed to years before. He’s great at helping them.”

It’s not just his family who appreciates and believes in him.

“I think it’s so incredibly important for me to have a partner,” Hardin says. “To be able to completely trust the person in that role and be able to see them not only as someone to follow my orders but is there as someone to advise me and be a partner with me, I cannot tell you how much better I sleep at night knowing that.”