Outside of IST: Faculty and staff making a difference

Shomir Wilson, assistant professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, has a passion for photography. Having visited 39 countries on five continents, he estimates he's taken tens of thousands of photos. One of his most memorable is this one, in which he captured a royal Bengal tiger during a safari in India. Credit: Shomir WilsonAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the day, many faculty and staff work together to help shape the future of students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Once the work day ends, a number of them head off to pursue their passions through which they are impacting the community and the world. This is the second in a series of stories that highlights the work of these individuals.

Helping to drive the culture of the Penn State men’s volleyball team

It might surprise you to learn that a member of the College of Information Sciences and Technology faculty is part of the Penn State men’s volleyball team.

He has the opportunity to attend practices, games and team meals; travel with the team; and access the scouting report. In fact, he can participate in every aspect that a player or coach can, short of actually playing or coaching.

“I serve in a mentorship and leadership development role,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jake Graham, professor of practice in the College of IST and faculty partner to the men’s volleyball team.

“By virtue of the coaching staff, I have a unique relationship with both the coaching staff and the players over time,” he added. “They have fully embraced me as a part of the team in all aspects. That’s been kind of neat.”

When he came into the role a little over three years ago, Graham was tasked with helping to facilitate the team’s leadership development process. His background, rooted in a 26-year career with the Marines, influenced him.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jake Graham (center), professor of practice in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, serves as faculty partner to the Penn State men's volleyball team.  Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

“Being a Marine was all about development and getting ready for the mission, whatever it was,” he explained. “You’re either in the mission or training for it. That was our philosophy.”

Head volleyball coach Mark Pavlik asked Graham to apply that concept to the team culture.

“Coach Pavlik has developed some very high0caliber athletes,” said Graham. “He was interested in the Marines’ military leadership development and process and how to infuse a group of highly performing athletes to also be highly performing leaders and citizens.”

Graham worked with the team to create a foundation of cultural pillars: academics, athletics and social, with a base that is formed on communication. He explained that if one of these pillars is torn down, the culture is no longer fully supported.

As faculty partner, one of Graham’s biggest responsibilities is to fully understand the life of the student-athlete and to help his faculty colleagues to do the same. Graham regularly travels with the team to not only immerse himself in the culture, but to also walk in their shoes.

“If you haven’t been on an all-night bus trip, get home at 4 a.m., then have to go to class the next day, you don’t have a full appreciation for what it’s like,” he said.

He added that he gained his best insight on what it’s like to be a student-athlete on the bus ride home from a match in Boston.

“These guys are stretched out on the seats, studying or trying to sleep,” he said. “And they do it week after week. It’s a grind. You really gain appreciation.”

“There’s quite a bit of empathy that you gain by understanding that not everything in the college experience is you, your class, or your assignment,” he added. “Students have lives outside of class and outside of IST.”

During his travels with the team, Graham serves as a mentor to the student-athletes. While he’s prohibited from helping students with homework, he often assists students with their resumes, writes letters of recommendation, and proctors exams. He also serves as a sounding board for the student-athletes to talk about things outside of volleyball.

“You get to see the good and the bad, but you really get to understand the players very well,” said Graham. “They confide in you. You’re another voice for them. The fact that I’m someone they feel comfortable talking to has been personally rewarding to me.”

Finding happiness in service to others

It’s hard to imagine that there’s an 11 percent illiteracy rate among adults in a community that houses a major university like Penn State.

But with one in 10 adults in Centre County lacking basic literacy skills, there is a demand for services to provide them with the communication skills they need to navigate daily life.

Pam Long, director of college events in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, is doing her part to help improve literacy rates in the community. She serves on the board of directors for the Mid-State Literacy Council, a nonprofit organization that provides adult education instruction in Centre and Clearfield counties.

A Penn State alumna who studied English, Long said she volunteers for the organization because it connects her to the idea of literacy and reading.

“Reading is something that everyone takes for granted if they know how to do it,” she said. “Imagine if you couldn’t read things like street signs, medicine bottles or menus. Just think about how many things you’d miss out on if you couldn’t read.”

Pam Long (right), a Mid-State Literacy Council board member and director of college events in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, at MSLC's reception to unveil the organization's new logo as the recipients of [CP]2 - Central Pennsylvania Creative Professionals Brand[AID] 2018. She is pictured with (L to R): Amy Wilson, MSLC executive director; Ruth Kistler, MSLC founder; Molly Kunkel, Centre Foundation executive director; and Dotty Delafield, Mount Nittany Middle School librarian. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

The Mid-State Literacy Council relies on the help of more than 200 volunteers who tutor clients in topics such as Beginner English, Conversation Skills, Computer Skills, and English for Doctor Visits, offering these classes to clients from all walks of life.

“Maybe you seek out our services because literacy wasn’t important in your family, or if you’re new to this country and just don’t know the language,” said Long. “Our purpose is to build bridges to make the most of their lives using the tools we can provide.”

Long is no stranger to community service. Prior to working at Penn State, she spent her career with several nonprofits — most notably as the marketing and campaign director for the Centre County United Way.

“What keeps me motivated in the community today is that I still work on boards,” she said. “I try to bring my past nonprofit experience to them.”

While working at the United Way, Long had an opportunity to take on a unique role in Centre County. She was one of nearly 40 community members who made up the 2009 class of Leadership Centre County — a local organization that brings diverse individuals together for networking, education and exposure to community issues, opportunities and needs.

Long explained that Leadership Centre County was founded in 1991 based on a situation that made a major impact on Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1960s. On June 3, 1962, an Air France flight crashed while taking off from Orly Airport in France, en route to Atlanta. With the airline having just opened an office in Atlanta, and this being its inaugural flight there, the plane was filled with many of the city’s cultural and civic leaders. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Leadership Atlanta was born.

“What the community realized was that all of their best minds were on one airplane,” said Long. “The purpose of Leadership Atlanta is to graduate a class of people every year who have learned enough about infrastructure, the arts, and the history of the community and to create a bank of knowledge.”

She added that Leadership Centre County, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, has passed a similar bank of knowledge on to nearly 1,000 people in our own community.

“It’s the network that keeps it together,” Long said. “You’re one voice, but you’re not one voice by yourself. You can [go on to] make significant changes in your community, or sustain things that are already good, which is just as important.”

While the impact of Leadership Centre County on the local community is obvious — the organization reports that its alumni volunteered in 683 organizations in 2017, totaling 114,266 hours valued at $2.8 million — the impact on its participants may be a little more subtle.

“Everyone gets something different from their participation,” Long said. “From my perspective, if you focus on living in the moment when you’re in those classes, it’s transformational in the sense that you feel empowered in ways you didn’t think you could.”

“Leadership Centre County empowers you with the tools and resources so you can go out and choose to be a leader in the community,” she added.

Before they graduate, participants identify their goals for community leadership moving forward. Long wanted to become more involved with literacy and education, paving the way for her current position on the board of the Mid-State Literacy Council.

“In essence, the council empowers people to live their best lives,” she said. “It levels the playing field. Those of us who grew up going to school and having our parents read to us have those advantages. If you didn’t have that growing up, it can be pretty detrimental.”

While it may appear that Long has worked hard to become a leader in the community and to help others, it undoubtedly is a part of who she is. Which, she said, may be a little selfish.

“The only way to truly find happiness is to be in the service of others,” she said. “It makes me feel good. I feel joyful when I see someone benefit from something that I’ve helped do. The looks on kids’ faces when you give them their first book, there’s nothing like it.”

Capturing the world’s beauty, one frame at a time

Shomir Wilson, assistant professor in the College of IST, has had the opportunity to travel the world, thanks to his career in academia. He’s been involved in professional activities at universities on five continents and has visited 39 countries.

Though they haven’t always been able to travel with him, his friends and family have been fortunate to see the world through his eyes, thanks to Wilson’s passion for photography.

“My interest in photography started in graduate school, when I had opportunities to go abroad to pursue research in Australia and Singapore,” he said. “Taking pictures allowed me to document my experiences in a way to share them with friends and family.”

Shomir Wilson, assistant professor in the College of IST, has a passion for photography. He's pictured here at an exhibition showcasing his work.  Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

The more pictures he took, the more he began to learn what gives a picture value and what differentiates a great picture from an average one. He is especially inspired by textures, as well as technically challenging photography such as nighttime photography and unusual compositions.

“A big part of my approach to photography is minding aesthetic things, such as color and lighting, at the same time as minding the technical aspects — all of the details that go into the science of photography,” he said.

In his travels, Wilson estimates that he’s taken tens of thousands of pictures. One of the most memorable moments was one he captured during a safari in India two years ago: a royal Bengal tiger crossing the road 40 feet in front of him.

“I remember that particularly well because it was such an intense moment,” he said. “It began with the sounds of other wildlife sounding the alarm that a tiger was approaching. Then it slowly emerged and walked across the road.”

“I remember thinking, ‘this is such a rare opportunity; I’d better get this right,’” he added. “I knew if I didn’t get it, I’d never have another chance.”

While the majority of his photographs aren’t as chilling as the tiger encounter, Wilson said that he’s recently become more interested in photographing people.

“It’s more challenging because they’re moving, and there are sometimes a lot of things going on,” he said. “It’s a different frontier for me. You can’t predict what the subject is going to do. I really have to mind the technical aspects of each photo.”

Last Updated January 29, 2019