UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Marilyn McPheron still wells up when she talks about her students. "They would come into my office and say 'you changed my life,'" McPheron, former study abroad coordinator in the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Office of International Programs, said. "It still overwhelms me to think something I did had that kind of impact."
McPheron changed countless lives by helping connect students with international experiences during her tenure as study abroad coordinator. With a recent gift to support students who embrace both agriculture and global learning, she will change countless more.
Marilyn McPheron joined the international programs office as an administrative assistant in 2001, answering an advertisement, she said, despite the fact that she had been abroad only once — a work-related trip to London with her husband, Bruce McPheron, former dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and now provost and executive vice president of The Ohio State University.
Before taking a break to raise her children, McPheron had volunteered for and later served as the director of Global Connections, a not-for-profit organization based in State College, Pennsylvania, focused on connecting internationals to resources at Penn State and in Centre County.
"I was always interested in other cultures and people, and it seems every job I had fed that interest."
McPheron's passion for culture and international experiences first was inspired by a television series she watched as a young girl. Called "Fair Exchange," the show involved two fathers — one in New York and one in London — who switched daughters to give their girls a university education and an international perspective.
"Sometimes things happen serendipitously," McPheron explained. "There's a thread that runs through your life, and you don't know where it's going to take you. For me, that show defined what I wanted to do when I grew up."
Fast forward to McPheron's first year on the job in the newly established international programs office, when everything fell into place.
"Deanna's [Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs] early efforts focused on helping faculty members make international connections," McPheron said. "I noticed there were a lot of interested students, so I began helping them."
Behring recognized early on that McPheron had a passion for travel and a way with students. "She was truly instrumental in helping us build the program we have today, not just for undergraduate students but for graduate students and even faculty."
In short order, McPheron was named study abroad coordinator, responsible for arranging international experiences for undergraduate students in the college. She was shocked to learn that less than one percent of students in the college were engaging in international experiences at the time.
"Almost three-fourths of our undergraduates held jobs to cover tuition and wouldn't be able to afford to travel abroad," McPheron lamented. "And few programs in the college were set up to accommodate a semester away, meaning students would need to attend Penn State for an extra semester in order to graduate."
After spending weeks in Russia with 20 agricultural sciences students, McPheron realized the power of international experiences and was determined to work with Behring and use the international programs office to increase the number of students who studied abroad, create programs in a variety of countries, develop partnerships with international universities, and find ways to help students afford their trips. She began by reaching out to faculty members in the college.
"We decided the best way to get more students abroad would be short-term programs. We went department by department and found at least one professor in each who we could convince — or nag — and that's how we started," McPheron said.
"All of our programs were learning opportunities connected to agriculture," she added. "These weren't social trips but rather experiences that changed students' world view, helped them witness how things were done in other countries, and made them much more attractive to employers when they graduated."
With the help of the college's development team, McPheron inspired three donors to create international scholarship programs, which enabled more students to choose study abroad programs.
The first year, they created two short-term programs. Today, the Office of International Programs offers 20 programs in 15 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. In 2001, 25 agricultural sciences students studied abroad; 212 students had international experiences in 2016-17.
Having been members of the Penn State community since 1988, Marilyn and Bruce McPheron returned to their native Ohio in 2012 when Bruce was named vice president for agricultural administration and dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University, his undergraduate alma mater.
Despite returning to the place she called home, Marilyn McPheron couldn't forget about the program she helped build and the students she inspired.
"I realized that a little bit of money can change more students' lives."
To continue the transformative legacy and make international experiences possible for more students, McPheron and her husband committed $50,000 to create the Marilyn McPheron Scholarship for International Experiences for Undergraduates in the College of Agricultural Sciences. The McPherons' commitment was eligible for a 1:1 University match through the First-Time Endowed Scholarship Donor Matching Program, an initiative of the University's ambitious $1.6 billion fundraising campaign, "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence."
"Marilyn and Bruce's generosity is overwhelming," Behring said. "This new endowment gives more students the opportunity to have a life-changing experience — to learn about the people, the agricultural programs and the cultures of other countries. We are deeply grateful."
"We all know that college isn't just about the coursework. It's about life experiences too," said McPheron. "Once students navigate their way in another country, they realize they can do anything. No matter what students go on to do the rest of their lives, this experience is transformative and changes them forever. I'm so honored to play a role in making it possible."
The College of Agricultural Sciences represents the foundation of Penn State and its land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives: Open Doors, Create Transformative Experiences, and Impact the World. Through teaching, research, and Extension, and because of generous alumni and friends, the College of Agricultural Sciences is able to offer scholarships to one in four students, create life-shaping opportunities, and make a difference in the world by fueling discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit http://agsci.psu.edu/giving.