In the past week, the world has caught wind of—and collectively teared up from—an uplifting viral video of a special education teacher down in Florida. Whether you saw it on the Today Show, ABC News, or on your Facebook feed, we were all grateful that Chris Ulmer shared a glimpse of his classroom with us. Specifically, how he starts class every day: by taking 10 minutes to praise each individual student.
Guess what? This incredible teacher is a Penn Stater. Ulmer ’10 graduated with a communications degree—specifically, media studies. In a phone interview this week, he told us that what he learned about social media in his four years at Penn State is being put to good use. “I understand these things come and go in waves,” he says. “Right now it’s a ‘high wave’ because of a viral video. I’m trying to capitalize on it, because the worst thing would be for it to disappear and nothing comes of it.”
See, Ulmer has a bigger goal in mind. In April, he started a blog called Special Books by Special Kids to promote acceptance—not just awareness—for kids with disabilities. (First, he had to get permission from the school, his students, plus their parents.) Instead of putting money into his savings account, he took $600 from his monthly paycheck and invested it into Facebook advertising. Every day, he taught school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then worked on the SBSK blog until 10 p.m. He created videos with the students. And, he mapped out a 5-year plan of how to parlay this blog into a book, which is ultimately a collection of these stories about—and by—his amazing students. (Any proceeds would be split 50/50 between the children and the mission.)
He set a goal for 70,000 followers in one year, but thanks to the video, it’s already reached 126,000 followers after 7 months. Just last week, he had over 7 million page views. Oh, and after previously turning him down earlier in the year, publishers are now calling.
Back in our May/June 2013 issue, we looked at Penn State women’s basketball player Gizelle Studevent ’13 and her involvement with Penn State Athletes Take Action. Studevent started the program, which began as an independent study project, with the hopes of having student-athletes talk to middle schoolers—starting with sixth graders at Mount Nittany Middle School—about the dangers of bullying.
Studevent has graduated, but PSATA is still around. Centre County Report took a look at the program, which is now led by women’s volleyball player Kendall Pierce and former basketball player Kevin Montminy ’15. It has expanded to include 110 Penn State student-athletes and now visits several middle schools in the area—not bad for a former independent study project.
Bill DiFilippo, online editor
We weren’t exactly sure what to expect when we scheduled a photo shoot with the Nittany Lion for our Nov./Dec. cover. Would he show up at Hintz Family Alumni Center dressed in his fur? Would he have an entourage? The fall is his busiest time of year—how long would he actually be able to stay? Photographer Bill Cardoni arrived early that October morning to set up the backdrop and test the lighting. Shortly after, the student arrived in his street clothes with a bag over his shoulders; he said hello, shook hands, and carried in a few extra props that we still needed for the story. We thought that he was making an extra trip out to his car, but then he… disappeared. I glanced at my phone and saw this text message from him: “I’m almost done getting dressed. Any last minute things you need to communicate before I can’t talk?”
Well, didn’t see that one coming. I replied, “I think we’re good. We’ll direct you in the shoot.” And, about five minutes after sending that text, the Lion came bouncing into the conference room. He clapped his hands, as if he were arriving at Beaver Stadium, and even passed out Penn State buttons to us. The “student” with whom I had been working on the story was nowhere to be seen, but the Lion had arrived.
Later in the shoot, the photographer asked the Lion to jump. The Lion nodded OK, gave a quick glance over his shoulder, and didn’t just “jump,” but totally stuck a backflip. When we asked him to hold the cowbell for a picture, he couldn’t help but bang on it and look toward us to deliver the “P-S-U” chant. And when he put on the “Thriller” jacket, he danced as if he was in front of 94,000 fans.
Suffice it to say, it was a pretty fun photo shoot. And when it was time to go, the Lion grabbed his things, motioned to all of us goodbye—a pat on the back, a kiss on the hand, a big wave from his furry paw—and he was gone.
Amy Downey, senior editor
Rod Nordland ’72 has seen a lot in his journalism career, and been exposed to plenty of danger: He’s spent more than three decades abroad, primarily covering conflict—in places like Iraq, Chechnya, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. In fact, he’s wearing a bulletproof vest in our March/April 2005 cover photo (left); at the time we profiled him, he was working for Newsweek as its bureau chief in Baghdad.
Nordland, now a New York Times correspondent, traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, earlier this week—and quickly wound up in the hospital, a victim of poison gas. But it was not at all the kind you might think. In an online article, Nordland recounts, with a good bit of humor, the situation at his hotel that led to his hospitalization. It’s a good read, and an enjoyable counterpart to the much more sobering tales of war that he also tells so well.
Tina Hay, editor
Tonight, my family and I will head over to a local elementary school for one of those parental rites of passage: our son’s school band concert. What makes this one different (and maybe even unique) is how Penn State professors are involved in polishing the far-from-perfect sounds of our son and his fellow fifth graders.
“Partners is Music” is a collaborative effort between Penn State music educators and State College area schools, through which members of the various elementary school bands come together each fall to prepare for a joint concert. That’s why, each Wednesday for the past six weeks, I’ve been dropping off my trumpet-toting kid at the Blue Band building for rehearsals before the sun has even cleared Mount Nittany. Those early mornings haven’t been easy, but we’re excited to see the payoff tonight.
As parents, it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen all the ways the university enriches the local community. From Penn State student teachers in our kids’ classrooms, former Nittany Lion football players teaching their gym classes, or just typically talented students helping out with extracurricular activities of all sorts, it’s another reminder that we’re lucky to be here.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
Our most recent issue wasn’t the first time we looked at Penn Staters at sea. As pointed out to us by LCdr. Ronald L. Smith ’77, we ran a picture of several Nittany Lions aboard the USS Saipan back in our March/April 1991 issue. There were seven Penn State alums in the shot – Smith, Lt. Thomas A. Forrest ’85, LCdr. Dennis Spangler ’67, LCdr. Donald McCall ’77, Capt. Wayne Pavlischek ’79, LCdr. Don Ditko ’77, and Lt. James Granger ’85 – along with two others who were on the ship but weren’t in the picture (Capt Dale Willey ’82 and 2Lt. Michael Bodkin ’89). The group was also joined by Joe Paterno…well, kind of: they were joined by a cardboard cutout of Joe Pa.
Between the nine Penn Staters on this ship and the 15 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, “the Floating Lion” doesn’t just apply to the Blue Band’s trademark drill.
Bill DiFilippo, online editor
Imagine the play Julius Caesar. Now imagine that it takes place in a contemporary African nation. Now imagine that you’re watching this version of the play while sitting on the Old Main lawn.
That happened over Blue White weekend in April, as members of the Penn State School of Theatre Master of Fine Arts program put their own twist on the Shakespearean classic. Director and professor of theatre William Kelly explained that modernizing the performance made it easier to understand and informed the audience of things going on in the world.
If you’d like to watch the entire play, here’s a link – it begins around the 1:29:00 mark and Penn State’s Philharmonic Orchestra performs beforehand. Who knows, maybe the next time we write about Penn Staters on Broadway, we’ll mention some of the people from this show.
Bill DiFilippo, online editor