Penn College President Davie Jane Gilmour joins the Wildcat at a celebration to kick off the college’s first season as a full member of NCAA Division III, where Susquehanna Trailways unveiled a Penn College-wrapped bus. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel

President's Message

Published December 7, 2017

A September 2016 ceremony on our campus prompted me to reflect upon my pathway to leadership of this vibrant institution, my professional home for the past four decades.

Kayla M. Brensinger, a dental hygiene student from Altoona, works with a client in Penn College’s Dental Hygiene Clinic. Services available to the community include cleanings, exams, sealants and X-rays. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel The event eliciting such nostalgia for me was the dedication of a thoroughly renovated Penn College Dental Hygiene Clinic. Beautiful, functional and technology-driven, the circa-2017 version of that lab is state-of-the-art in every respect. I can tell you, firsthand, that the accommodations were far more modest in 1977, but I was thrilled nevertheless to begin working here that year as a dental hygiene instructor and curriculum developer, the first stop on a journey that I would trade for no other.

As I told guests at the dedication, this is the third iteration of the Dental Hygiene Clinic, and it is well worth the wait. It features ergonomic controls, bright LED lights, updated safety features, computer integration, digital radiographs and intraoral cameras – in short, everything befitting an institution that prides itself on being a national leader in applied technology education. And it has additional workstations, so we can enroll more students to satisfy workforce needs.

In October 2016, the Penn College Board of Directors approved another School of Health Sciences program, physician assistant studies, as the institution’s first master’s degree offering. We began offering courses leading to this milestone graduate degree in Fall 2017; conferring of physician assistant master’s degrees will commence in 2022.

Nationwide, we continue to see a shortage of health care professionals, including physician assistants, who can efficiently extend physician care. Addressing skills shortages in a variety of career fields is a Penn College hallmark, and for the students who succeed in the rigorous PA program, some of the highest starting salaries beckon.

Physician assistant student James T. Connolly practices his suturing skills. The August graduate passed the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam and accepted a position with Geisinger Orthopedics. The program is set to award its first master’s degrees in 2022. Further demonstrating our knack for nimbly responding to workforce demands, we approved several new majors in 2016-17 that began enrolling students in Fall 2017: brewing and fermentation science, metal fabrication, and applied innovation. As you might imagine, brewing and fermentation science has attracted the lion’s share of attention in the news media. This new Associate of Applied Science degree combines the science, technology and management skills required to meet the growing consumer demand for unique craft beers.

“At Penn College
we pride ourselves on teaching. Sometimes, 
our students teach us.”

The associate degree in metal fabrication will prepare graduates with an array of skills including welding, machining and sheet metal fabrication, paving the way for employment in a variety of industries or entrepreneurial pursuits. And the bachelor’s degree in applied innovation, by combining innovation courses with technical electives, will prepare graduates to create systems or products that help advance society. (A bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial innovation will follow in Fall 2018, combining entrepreneurship, innovation and design courses.)

For 35 years, helping students achieve their goals has been the charge of the Penn College Foundation, which celebrated that anniversary in October 2016. Established in 1981, the foundation awarded its first scholarships – totaling $2,902 – two years later. The foundation has since surpassed $15 million in total assets, and in 2016-17, it provided $663,366 in scholarship aid to students. Eighteen scholarships were created during 2016-17.

Timothy L. Yarrington, right, instructor of brewing and fermentation science, leads a class with the major’s first students. Photo by Cindy Davis MeixelIt was truly a year for anniversaries, as we also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Visiting Chef Series, culminating with a sumptuous dinner in Le Jeune Chef Restaurant featuring a slate of culinary stars, including renowned Louisiana Chef John Folse in a record-breaking seventh visit. Since its inception, Visiting Chef has allowed our students to learn side-by-side with more than 50 expert chefs (some of them alumni) from across the country and as far away as Italy. Proceeds from the dinner help fund scholarships in the baking and pastry arts, culinary arts, and hospitality management majors.

Meanwhile, a Penn College faculty member’s mastery of pastry arts earned him a spot this year among the “Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America,” as chosen by Dessert Professional Magazine. You will find the profile on Chef Charles Niedermyer in this Annual Report.

The list of student successes in 2016-17 is much too long for inclusion here, but two highlights were the Top-5 endurance-race finishes registered by our Baja SAE students in May and June of 2017. Our success in these off-road-vehicle competitions against teams from large state and national universities exemplifies how students and faculty across multiple academic disciplines collaborate, sharing their talents and skills in pursuit of a common goal.

No look back at 2016-17 would be complete without a recounting of our journey to full membership in NCAA Division III, the creation of a new Wildcat Athletics logo and the founding of the Wildcat Club as a fundraising vehicle to support our valued student-athletes, who contribute to the full college experience found on our campus today. Read "New Era Dawns for Penn College Athletics" for more on that exciting evolution.

Robert Wood, who was awarded the Chef John Folse Excellence in Hospitality Award and the Aramark Hospitality Award prior to commencement, represents his class at the final commencement ceremony of 2016-17. Photo courtesy of Island PhotographyAs current high school students represent our imminent future, I encourage you to explore the success we have achieved with the Penn College NOW dual-enrollment program, which is profiled in "Jump Start." In nearly 50 schools across Pennsylvania, high school students can earn free college credits via Penn College NOW, with partner schools providing a wide range of our courses to students in their home school or career and technology center. It is a marvelous way for students to jump-start their college experience and save on tuition costs.

Many of you know that we use only student speakers at our annual commencement ceremonies in May, August and December. In closing the book on 2016-17, permit me to reference the inspiring remarks made in May 2017 by Robert Wood, a remarkable young Marine Corps veteran (veterans represent many of our finest students) who faced challenges and personal tragedy in his return to college for a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and systems. Those present at the Community Arts Center ceremony that day were deeply moved – including me.

Culinary arts technology student Tessa M. Stambaugh and world-renowned Visiting Chef Rick Tramonto arrange trays of baked-potato skins that they would fill to make lobster double-baked potatoes. Photo by Jennifer A. Cline“We know that a knife is not sharpened on soft surfaces; it takes pressure and steel to really create a sharp edge,” Robert told his fellow graduates. “As people, it’s our struggles and hard times that sharpen us. Fighting through our problems, and overcoming obstacles and challenges, is our steel. To improve implies that we were once less than what we are right now, and every day we should strive for improvement. I guess what I’m really saying is to fight and never give up.

“Tough times will come, and despite how it feels when you’re in them, they will go. But if you choose to give up, there is no going back. Look around you; we are all here together, side by side, in celebration of our accomplishment. We’ve already been through a fair share of trials and tribulations, and we made it, we fought on, we didn’t give up.”

At Penn College, we pride ourselves on teaching. Sometimes, our students teach us.  ■