Talking About a Functioning Democracy

A functioning democracy is a work in progress with many moving parts, one of the most important being vibrant debate and discussion.

That’s just what political science professor Michael Berkman, director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, and Jenna Spinelle, the Institute’s communications specialist, are hoping to encourage with a new podcast series entitled “Democracy Works”

The series—which will air weekly at https://www.democracyworkspodcast.com, and can also be found on Itunes, Google Play and Stitcher—will look at the many issues impacting democracy, and how they work together, through discussions with Penn State faculty, alumni, and guest speakers.

“There are so many overtly partisan podcasts out there—we saw a niche that we could fill by stepping back from the daily news cycle to look at the bigger issues in a democracy, and what different people are doing to make democracy work,” says Spinelle.

“We’re not coming at those issues from a partisan perspective or playing pundits,” Berkman says. “We’re just talking to people about the work they are doing, and putting that in a larger context so that we can all understand what a functioning democracy is.”

Berkman and Spinelle say they were greatly inspired by Pennsylvania’s iron and steel workers: “They came together to build something bigger and better. Similarly, each of us has a role to play in building and sustaining a healthy democracy,” Berkman says.

Upcoming podcast episodes include a conversation with Daniel Ziblatt, associate professor of government and social studies at Harvard, about his recent book How Democracies Die, and interviews with students at State College Area High School who attended the recent “March for Our Lives” event in Washington, D.C..

The Democracy Works Team invites anyone from the broader Penn State community who has an idea for an episode, or who would like to speak to any aspect of democracy, to contact them at democracyInst@psu.edu.

“We know that there are so many great Penn State alums doing interesting work that we don’t even know about, so we encourage people to come in,” Spinelle says. — Savita Iyer

 

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April 3, 2018 at 3:04 pm 2 comments

When Truckers Fight Trafficking

The Freeman Project House on the south side of Columbus, Ohio, looks like any other house. Yet it is distinct from the other homes on the street because it’s been set up to serve as a refuge for female survivors of human trafficking, as a place to help them get a fresh start in life.

The home—which will welcome its first residents this summer—was founded by Barbara Freeman, a survivor of trafficking and a great source of inspiration for Pearl Gluck’s latest movie, The Turn Out.

The feature-length film—which has its world premiere tomorrow at the Columbus International Film & Animation Festival—sheds light on human trafficking at truck stops across the U.S., a huge and underreported problem. Gluck, an assistant professor of film and media studies in the Bellisario College of Communications, fears it could only get worse going forward.

“Wherever you have drugs and addiction, everywhere that young people aren’t being given educational opportunities and where they lack stable environments, and wherever there is prostitution, there is trafficking,” she says. “Predators are everywhere— they’re looking at everyone and at vulnerabilities from homelessness to lack of love. They’re watching what your kids put on Instagram.”

Behind the Scenes Turn Out

Pearl Gluck (center) with actors on the set of The Turn Out

The Turn Out is told from the point of view of a trucker whose active role in a domestic sex trafficking ring rises up to haunt him when he engages with an underage victim. More often than not, victims of trafficking are transported across the country on trucks, but many people are not aware of the fact that truckers are also important players in the fight against trafficking, Gluck says.

“We like to point our fingers at truckers— but they’re on the road, they really see what’s going on, and I wanted people to know that many truckers are actually every day heroes in the fight against trafficking,” she says. “The organization Truckers Against Trafficking trains truckers to observe what’s going on when they’re on the road, to ask someone they think might be a trafficking victim how old they are and whether they’re where they are of their own volition, and to generally report any activity they find suspicious.”

For The Turn Out, Gluck interviewed truckers, lawyers, police officers and many others who are working to end trafficking. She also spoke to multiple survivors, who shared their painful stories with her.

“The trafficking network in this country is vast and it encompasses everything from intricate, nationwide networks run by gangs, to smaller networks that start in the home,” she says.

According to Polaris, the leading organization working against global trafficking, reports of human trafficking increase every year here in the U.S. In 2016, over 8,000 cases were reported, most of which were sex-trafficking cases of underage girls and boys. The average age of a child tricked into prostitution and trafficked is 13.

Gluck hopes more states will take a cue from Ohio and the work done by State Representative Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo), a strong voice in the fight against human trafficking for the past 15 years. Fedor is the architect of the 2014 End Demand Act that, among others, broadened Ohio’s definition of trafficking and increased the penalty of purchasing sex from a minor from a misdemeanor to a felony. She also hopes that more states will create CATCH Courts, which were started in 2009 by Judge Paul Herbert in Columbus as a way to provide victims of trafficking forced into prostitution with a path of rehabilitation, recovery, and support.

The Turn Out is set to premier this week. Gluck has also written and directed Summer, a short film about two teenage girls at a Hassidic Jewish sleep-a-way camp, which premiered earlier this year at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Jewish Film Festival; and Where is Joel Baum?, starring veteran actress Lynn Cohen. The movie won several awards, including best film at The Female Eye film festival.

Savita Iyer, senior editor

 

 

 

March 22, 2018 at 1:17 pm 3 comments

Strumming Circle


The “Club Hopping” feature in our March/April issue offers a brief glimpse inside the Penn State Ukulele Club. But a 75-word short didn’t seem to do it justice.

In this video, you see the club in action—well, in practice, which the club holds every Thursday night in 301 Boucke. It’s open to everyone—students, faculty, and staff—from seasoned pros to anyone who has never picked up the instrument . Just ask Micah Kress ’12, an IT administrator in the College of Science, who found a ukulele in the street one summer and then just so happened to poke his head into the classroom last winter upon hearing the gentle strumming sounds in the Boucke hallways. “I asked, ‘Hey, is this a club or a class?’” he recalls. “They said it’s a club, it meets this time every week; I said, ‘Alright, I’ll see ya next week. When I left I heard them all cheer, and someone said, ‘We got one!’”

It turned out to be a great decision, too. “They helped me push myself,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have made as much progress if I hadn’t. I wish I had joined when I was an undergrad.”

The main draw of the club is the instrument itself: It’s easy to learn, and it’s fun to play. With just four string, the chords are simpler than a six-string guitar, and all the notes are of a higher pitch, which makes the sound gentler and more pleasant. After all, the instrument is probably most closely associated with a light island breeze on a Pacific Isle beach with a piña colada nearby.

When they’re not in the classroom, members of the club can sometimes be found just playing in a quad or vacant lawn space. But they also get gigs, like playing at THON and other campus events. “Basically, the core of it all is to just have fun, hang out, and play the ukulele,” says Nick Pugliesi, vice president of PSUkulele. “We do do a little bit of learning, like understanding the chords, but we mostly just want to have fun.” (You’ll see Pugliesi at the lectern in the video above.)

The club, founded in 2014, currently boasts about 30 members, most of whom happened across the club via word of mouth or at the annual Student Involvement Fair. Carly Danielson, a junior from Pittsburgh, sought out the club after having picked up the instrument the summer before coming to school. “I always thought they were a really interesting instrument,” she says. “I love music, but I can’t really play anything that well. I wanted to pick up something and ukulele just seemed like a really good thing.”

That feeling of happiness inspired by the ukulele is another big draw. “It feels happy when you play it,” says Madison Schrenk, a freshman majoring in secondary education. “Different instruments evoke really different feelings, and the strings of the ukulele—it’s lighter and bouncier than a lot of things.”

“I’d say the ukulele is the instrument of peace,” Pugliesi adds. “It’s really soft and just relaxing. And it does boost morale. “It brightens up my mood. When I’m stressed out, I just take a step back and ukulele is what I play.”

—B.J. Reyes, associate editor

March 21, 2018 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

From Undocumented Immigrant to Immigration Reform Advocate

When she speaks at college campuses across the country, Julissa Arce is often asked why undocumented immigrants in the U.S. don’t do things the “right” way, why they can’t simply “get in the back of the line.”

Her answer is always the same: If there was a right way to come here, if there was indeed a “line” to stand in, then that is where undocumented immigrants would be. That’s where Arce—a former Wall Street executive who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 11 years old, and lived and worked here undocumented for more than a decade—would have happily stood. Unfortunately, “the line is a mythical place,” she says, because contrary to what many believe, there are very few ways for people to legally emigrate to the U.S.

Julissa 1

Arce—who spoke earlier today as part of the Penn State Forum series at the Nittany Lion Inn—considers herself “lucky” as far as undocumented immigrants go. Her parents brought her into the U.S. by plane and on a valid tourist visa, and that made things easier for her years later when she married her American boyfriend and applied for a green card, before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2014. But for Arce, the relative ease of the final administrative processes can never erase the torment of being undocumented, of waiting in stomach-churning fear for the authorities to get wind of her status, realize that her social security number and green card were fake. When would they come for her, Arce wondered almost every day, as she successfully completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin (she began studying there the year Texas passed a law allowing noncitizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges), completed internships at Goldman Sachs in New York City, and accepted a full-time job with the firm, rising through the ranks quickly to become vice president?

Inevitably, the ax fell when Arce had every piece of the American dream she’d always wanted, with a phone call informing her that her dad (her parents returned to Mexico when she started college) was seriously ill.

“My mother begged me not to go,” she said, because her undocumented status meant Arce would not be allowed to re-enter the U.S., “but I knew if I did not go, I would never be able to live with myself. Anyway, while I agonized about whether to go or not, my dad died. That was the cost.”

Everyday across the U.S., undocumented immigrants are facing similar dilemmas, Arce—who quit her job at Goldman Sachs after she got her green card—says, and having to take difficult decisions with painful consequences.

Since revealing her incredible story in 2015, she’s been a tireless advocate for proper immigration policy—particularly as it pertains to Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. She is chairman of the board of the Ascend Educational Fund, a New York-based organization that provides educational scholarships and mentoring to young, undocumented immigrants who want to go to college.

“Education was my way up and I’d like for others to have the same opportunity,” she said. “That’s what we come here for—opportunity.”

Arce’s 2016 memoir, “My (Underground) American Dream” has been adapted into a television miniseries starring actor America Ferrera.

Savita Iyer, senior editor

In the May/June issue of the Penn Stater, we’ll feature interviews with experts from across the university on the topic of immigration.  

March 20, 2018 at 4:33 pm Leave a comment

Inside Our March/April Issue

Many alums will no doubt be reminiscing about the first time they saw the Phyrst Phamily, late nights at Café 210 West, or memories of the recently closed Rathskeller when our March/April issue arrives. The nostalgia comes in the form of Penn State alumni who are a part of the Happy Valley music scene. We catch up with a number of local musicians and bands, some of whom arrived on the scene relatively recently, and others whom your parents might have seen. The photo feature starts on p. 40.

We also take a look at how Cael Sanderson has turned Penn State into the nation’s most formidable collegiate wrestling program. Former ESPN reporter Dana O’Neil ’90 profiles Cael Sanderson to explore what drives his sustained success. And a new book by Roger Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g chronicles the life and legacy of Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president.

You’ll also meet Kurt Gibble, the Penn State scientist who’s trying to make the world’s most accurate clocks even more precise; learn from nutrition professor Penny Kris-Etherton which  “good” fats your body needs; and find out why nursing students sometimes wear scrubs to classes.

It’s all in our March/April issue, arriving in mailboxes this week.

—B.J. Reyes, associate editor 

March 1, 2018 at 3:01 pm Leave a comment

In Tune with the State College Music Scene

The cover story for our March/April issue celebrates some of the alumni who have shaped the sound of State College nightlife for the past 30 years. You can read more about them below, and—assuming you can’t get to Zeno’s or the Phyrst this weekend—relive the sights and sounds of some of your favorites live on stage.

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Molly Countermine ’02g

Born in State College but raised in the South, Countermine never lost her connection to Happy Valley: Her parents, Terry Countermine ’73g and Sherry Corneal ’76, ’87, ’90g, were around for the founding of the Phyrst Phamly. She grew up playing music, first with her father and then in bands in college, then went to grad school at West Chester and “kind of put it on the back burner.” When she returned to her hometown in her late 20s, she was eager to get back into it.

“I think I was back two months when I joined the Phyrst Phamly,” she says. “Around that same time, I started teaching at Penn State.”

Today, it’s hard to say which gig Countermine — that’s her on our March/April cover — is better known for: Professor of Health and Human Development, or vocalist in some of downtown’s favorite bands. While teaching and eventually going back to school to get her PhD, Countermine established her own legacy on the local scene, as a member of both Pure Cane Sugar and Ted McCloskey & the Hi-Fi’s, as well as her own band, Maxwell Strait. She left Pure Cane Sugar in 2015—as a full-time professor and mother of three kids, the schedule simply became too much—but still plays regularly in town.

And each semester, she still teaches HDFS 129: Intro to Human Development to 600 undergrads, many of whom eventually end up dancing and singing along at her gigs.

“Every week, I get somebody at the Phyrst who was in my class when there were 18, and now they’re 21, and they’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ It’s fun,” she says. “I’m not just this distant teacher—I’m this person who is doing what I love to do outside of the classroom. I get a little bit of credibility because of that.”

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Mark Ross ’83

The son of a coal miner and musician from southwestern PA, Mark Ross grew up with twin loves: baseball and music. Baseball was the priority through his high school days, but around the time he headed to Penn State, he saw a trio of memorable shows in Pittsburgh: The Nighthawks, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and a hot young Texas guitarist named “Little” Stevie Vaughan. “I bought their records off the bandstand, took one of my dad’s old guitars, and taught myself to play off these records,” Ross says. “It was watching guys who were better than me, trying to mimic them.”

After cutting his teeth with a number of State College bands, Ross teamed up with Tonya Browne ’85 to form Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band. The combination of Browne’s powerful voice and Ross’s hot-shot guitar playing made the bluesy quintet one of the most popular bands in town through the late ’90s, and also led to gigs on international festival bills alongside the likes of B.B. King.

Today, Ross plays a mellower style with Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats, but he’s still an integral part of the local scene—and not just as a player. He also owns the State College music store Alley Cat Music, and designs custom guitars and amps as co-owner of PennTone. He’s also a former children’s music specialist at Penn State’s Child Development Lab, and has written and recorded his own children’s book and accompanying CD.

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Bill Filer ’76

He’s a rarity on the local scene: A guy who’s made a long career as a solo act. He was in a number of bands in his younger days, and has played countless side gigs, but it’s as a solo guitar-and-piano act, most memorably at the Allen Street Grill, that Filer has provided the sing-along soundtrack to countless nights on the town.

“I think some people look down their noses at people who do cover songs, but people want to come and have a good time. They don’t need my ego, and I’m OK with that,” Filer says. “I work hard, I’m always on time, and honestly I’m not the greatest musician, but I’m fairly gregarious. I just can’t express how lucky I’ve been.”

You can still catch him on Friday and Saturday nights at the Grill, but for local musicians, Filer’s real home base is his home studio, Audible Images, just outside of State College. That’s where he puts his broad musical knowledge and his electrical engineering degree to work. “I’ve recorded most of the folks in town at one time or another,” he says, “and I don’t think there’s an instrument I haven’t recorded.”

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Daryl Branford ’96

If you’ve seen a great bar band in State College anytime in the past 20 or so years, there’s a good chance you heard Branford laying down the beat. From his undergraduate bands Out of the Blue and Pluv to Sideshow Bob and Original Soul Project to his current gigs with Pure Cane Sugar and Ted McCloskey and the Hi-Fi’s, Branford has been the scene’s go-to drummer for nearly 25 years.

“I’ve always been determined to play music, and to try to earn a living playing music,” Branford says. “However successful things were, I always try to remember that I’m doing it because it’s my passion. There’s a lot of cool things that have happened independent of me—a lot of great musicians, a lot of great bands. I’ve been fortunate to be able to play with some really great people.”

Branford moonlights—or daylights, more accurately—as a design visualization specialist at Penn State’s Huck Institutes of Life Sciences.

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Ted McCloskey ’90

A bandmate of Branford’s in Sideshow Bob, Ted McCloskey is the most prolific songwriter on the scene: His most recent album, 2016’s Last Flower Standing, was his ninth since 2002. He’s also got a new record coming out this year with Countermine, who refers to him as her “musical husband.”

McCloskey’s band the Hi-Fi’s might just boast the most connective tissue on the scene: Both Countermine and Branford are part of the regular lineup, as is bassist Rene Witzke, who is both Countermine’s actual husband and a former member (with Mark Ross) of Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band.

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My Hero Zero

The kings of the current party scene, MHZ are paced by Jason Olcese ’06, who recorded an album for his undergraduate thesis in the Schreyer Honors College. Music has long been the focus for Olcese, aka “Jason O,” who says he left rural Northeast PA for State College because “with 40,000 students, there had to be somebody to play music with.”

He found those collaborators with My Hero Zero, whose lineup includes fellow alums Mike Lee ’95, Greg Folsom ’95, and Jordan Thompson ’13. Their trademark sound relies on uptempo covers that get—and keep—the crowd moving.

In addition to regular gigs at the Phyrst, downtown Champs, and the Jersey and Delaware beach scene, MHZ are also longtime favorites at THON. Olcese says that when the band first started playing their set in the packed BJC, “It was the most exciting thing we’d ever done, playing for that many people. But then we started getting to know some of the Four Diamonds families, and it shifted the focus from us to how we can make it all about the kids. The FTK thing really started to sink in.”

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Velveeta

The “Original Un-Originals,” proud purveyors of ’80s cheese, Velveeta seem to have mastered the obvious idea of building their act on rockin’ covers of fun, popular songs. It just so happens that the idea wasn’t all that obvious at the time. After forming as a grunge-inspired band called Broken, the band that would become Velveeta realized that playing originals would only get them so far in Central PA. So they figured they’d give it a go as a cover band—but with a twist.

“We decided to try this experiment to see if we could play these songs that nobody would touch—stuff that was considered very uncool at the time,” says bassist John Matthews ’94. “It was like fishing: You throw a certain type of bait out there and see if they bite.”

The bait was mostly 80s classics like “Come On Eileen” and “Jessie’s Girl,” songs that the band put through a “grunge filter,” as Matthews puts it, but stayed largely faithful to the originals. Within months, he says, most of the band members were able to quit their day jobs. “It exploded,” Matthews says. “It was a unique live music experience in those days. Nobody else was doing it.”

It’s proven to be an approach with staying power, as Velveeta remains a favorite in State College and pretty much anywhere Penn Stater congregate: In December, they traveled to Florida for a wedding of Penn State alums who hired and flew them down for the reception. Matthews and the rest of the band—Brent Martin ’93, Brian Kriley ’93, and John “Bones” Harper—were happy to oblige.

‘We never intended Velveeta to be serious content—hence the name,” he says. “We just wanted it to be fun.”

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Natalie Berrena Race ’06 ’08

She was used to performing in front of a crowd, but for most of her college days, that meant chasing a ball across artificial turf as a member—and eventual co-captain—of the Nittany Lion field hockey team. Natalie Berrena had always loved to sing, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to do it in front of an audience. It wasn’t until her senior year that a friend who knew her secret—and her talent—convinced the booker at The Brewery that she was a manager who repped an up-and-coming singer-songwriter looking for a local gig. “She went behind my back,” she says now. “Then she came to me and said, ‘I have you booked for a gig, and you’re doing it.'”

She did indeed, bringing a keyboard to play and sing through her very first set: “It was something I always wanted to do, I did it, and I loved it. Then I didn’t want to stop.” She hasn’t, playing with Pure Cane Sugar and her own band, Raven and the Wren, where she gets to showcase her original songs.

Like so many local musicians who came here for school—and in her case, a memorable run as a student-athlete—State College has proven a hard place to leave. “I’m so incredibly grateful that I get to do what I love and get paid for it,” she says, “in a community that really supports the arts.”

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Jeff Tomrell ’06

For Go Go Gadjet, the goal has always been getting the crowd moving. That’s just fine with Jeff Tomrell, whose background as a party DJ helps keep him focused on that goal. “When we started in ’05-06, our set was all current pop songs mixed with ’90s throwbacks, and we built our sets so that the music didn’t stop once, one song running into the next,” he says. “We wanted to be as close to a DJ set as we could.”

That commitment to non-stop energy remains even as Tomrell and his band mates have fine-tuned their approach over the years, mixing in some originals with punched-up covers of popular hits, like their recent version of the iconic early 2000s hit “Drops of Jupiter.” And while they play most of their shows these days outside of State College, their hearts are still in Happy Valley—as is (at least) one very memorable gig each year. Earlier this month, they played THON for the 11th time, including their ninth in the coveted closing spot.

“Year after year, we get to see some of these same families, and some of them come out to clubs we play in their area,” Tomrell says. “We’re trying to deliver this experience to these people who have this insanely difficult life, and now that some of us have children of our own… it’s our most important show.”

Ryan Jones, deputy editor

February 26, 2018 at 6:47 pm 1 comment

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