Earth and Mineral Sciences

College of EMS finds ways to make students feel at home despite COVID challenges

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Baylee Sexton had the chance to return as a lead mentor for the unique pre-semester experience in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) known as Total Engagement with EMS (TEEMS), it was a no-brainer.

Held in August at Lake Raystown Resort, TEEMS links new students with upper-level student mentors, faculty, staff and alumni even before classes begin. With ongoing concerns about COVID-19, the college worked hard to make the return to an in-person, three-day event at Lake Raystown a success.

TEEMS was the experience that set Sexton up for success within the college. It was there that the now senior majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science first met friends, staff and educators that still surround her today. It helped the shy student, more interested in the off-camera work of meteorologists, really come out of her shell.

“I feel like TEEMS really helped me my first year. As I spent time with the mentors, I was like, wow, these people are so nice. They’re so friendly,” Sexton said. “I felt like I had a responsibility to the younger students because people did that for me. I wanted to give back to the college and to the new students by being that friendly face and a leader to them.”

TEEMS is a chance to make formal and informal connections within the college. These relationships help students navigate the complexities of their first year and know where to find resources to help them succeed.

TEEMS benefits people like Kaitlyn Zajkowski, a first-year student majoring in materials science and engineering, who said TEEMS was salve for the sting of leaving home.

Instead of spending a week in her residence hall, she said, she instead ventured off to a lakefront resort with members of her new EMS community. Given her interest in research — she sought out Penn State for its ranking and facilities in that area — TEEMS was just what she needed to begin that path.

“TEEMS was especially helpful in making this big University feel like a small, tight-knit community that I could be a part of,” Zajkowski said. “It put all of the fears aside that I had about going to a big University. It helped me feel welcome and confident as I start my new chapter.”

Justin Hassel, a first-year student majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science, heard about TEEMS from another student and jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s great getting to meet people in a more casual environment,” Hassel said. “It was definitely a really great way to get to know people personally who I’m now taking classes with.”

He’s interested in the research side of meteorology and has already lined up connections on that front.

Given the success of TEEMS, when a request for proposals came out to provide funding for experiences for second-year students, the faculty and staff of the EMS Ryan Family Student Center knew exactly what they wanted to do. 

In the middle of TEEMS, they huddled around a picnic table and wrote a proposal for TEEMS 2.0, a one-day, in-person event held in September at Lake Raystown for current second-year students who were offered only a virtual version of TEEMS in 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virtual experience was effective, they wanted to give students a taste of the same in-person experience that incoming students have come to cherish. The goal was to promote community and inclusion along with the other EMS and Penn State values.

The proposal resulted in being awarded a Penn State Second-Year Enrichment Grant that provided the necessary funding of $7,500. Many of the TEEMS mentors, like Sexton, were eager to help with TEEMS 2.0.

TEEMS 2.0 was well timed for students like Bassam Alhazzani. The sophomore majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering who is a sponsored student through Saudi Aramco, arrived at Penn State from Saudi Arabia in 2020 and found himself gaining less of the student experience than he had hoped for. He said the event was just what he needed to make connections and to start reaching out and joining clubs and getting involved on campus. He even throttled down his course schedule a bit to allow time to catch up.

“It was hard not being able to attend events and get active on campus,” Alhazzani said. “But TEEMS 2.0 created opportunities for me. I met a lot of new people and faculty members, and I met an EMS mentor who convinced me to follow a path of becoming more involved.”

Sarah Fetter, a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering, signed up for TEEMS 2.0 and admits she was a bit skeptical. She and her friends went in thinking it was something set up to “throw a bone” to the students who missed TEEMS. But she came away with a much different experience.

She met a lot of friends and is already planning to meet up with her newfound peers. That said, it also made her realize why EMS is so invested in the original TEEMS experience, which dates back more than a decade.

“Starting school this way would have been so much better. You’re just gifted with friends before you even begin,” Fetter said. “TEEMS 2.0 was nice but it was also a reminder of how difficult our college experience began.”

Last Updated November 23, 2021