Presidential Leadership Academy students impressed by predecessors at D.C. trip

Current members and alumni of Penn State's Presidential Leadership Academy pose with benefactors Edward and Helen Hintz during a visit to the National Press Club. Credit: Melissa DobersteinAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Some of the first members of Penn State’s Presidential Leadership Academy left resounding impressions on current PLA students during a weekend in Washington, D.C.

More than five dozen students traveled to the nation’s capital for a three-day trip that included talks from state representatives Glenn Thompson and Dwight Evans and Penn State alumnus Ben Howard, special assistant to the president at the White House's Office of Legislative Affairs. Students also toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of History, and the National Press Club.

And they listened and questioned alumni panelists, several of them from the PLA class of 2012, who were in town for an informal class reunion.

“The PLA panel was the highlight of the trip,” said sophomore Alisa Vasquez. “You get to take advice from people who have been in your shoes. Listening to the advice they had and their journey thus far was inspirational.”

Vasquez is contemplating a broadcast journalism major and was impressed with PLA alumna Michelle Skalrud, an associate contract manager for Excel Sports Management who holds a law degree from New York Law School.

“She was just very confident and sure of herself,” Vasquez said, “and that’s the journey I’ve been going on.”

Vasquez, who has often thought about entering the sports side of journalism, asked Skalrud about being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“And I think she was very surprised to hear my answer,” Skalrud said, “and the fact that, because this is such a male-dominated industry, as a female, you kind of get a leg up.”

Penn State and PLA alumnus Eli Glazier, who said learning how to rethink his initial assumptions during his PLA experience has helped him as a transportation planner, said the questions the current students asked the panel really made him think.

“The coolest thing for me was the enthusiasm and the questions that we got from students,” he said. “I feel like we really connected with people. We helped students open their eyes to other ways of thinking about things.”

The relatability of the panelists and the various journeys they took to their respective professions made as much of an impact on the current PLA students as the topics of discussion.

“It was really interesting to hear how they defined their happiness after going to college and maybe how the jobs that they had were not necessarily what they expected, or obstacles they had to face,” said sophomore Katie Gergel.

Skalrud mentioned the lasting friendships she made in her academy class, and Vasquez talked about how the current class of sophomores — despite having conflicting opinions on more than a few topics — grew their own bonds during the trip away from campus.

“Watching that panel, I was thinking, ‘I want that to be me,’” Vasquez said. “I want to give back the way PLA has given to me.’”

Nominations are now being accepted for current first-year students who will be sophomores in the fall of 2018 for membership to the Presidential Leadership Academy. Nominations may be submitted online at Students nominated for the academy will be asked to complete the application process, which includes submission of a current resume listing campus or external leadership activities, a letter of recommendation from an individual (mentor, coach, supervisor), and two essays, with topics to be posted soon. A minimum GPA of 3.2 at the time of application is required.

Students may also submit personal applications for the Presidential Leadership Academy with the same requirements as above, plus the addition of a letter of reference from a Penn State faculty member, staff member or adviser. Application information can be found online at The deadline for student applications is Feb. 23, 2018.

Founded with a lead gift from Edward R. and Helen S. Hintz in 2009, the Presidential Leadership Academy was established with the goal of developing critical-thinking skills and educating students to understand issues broadly with consideration for the complexity and variability of world matters, decisions and life’s circumstances.

In addition to coursework for the program, students attend leadership seminars, engage in community programs, and participate in fully funded field trips planned each academic semester to give students broader perspectives on social, political and environmental issues. University President Eric J. Barron teaches a weekly seminar course in the students’ first semester in the program with honors courses led by the dean of the Schreyer Honors College, Peggy A. Johnson, and Melissa Doberstein, director of the Presidential Leadership Academy, as well as a class on critical thinking. The final year concludes with a capstone experience and creation of an e-portfolio.

The PLA fosters an environment that promotes and develops values critical for potential leaders, including civility, philanthropy, respect for diversity, and student engagement. This academic community of students, faculty and administrators explores multiple dimensions of issues, encourages diverse viewpoints, and creates a fully informed and respectful discourse that leads to sound action.

Last Updated December 08, 2017