Saturday Diary / Tarnished and traumatized, we are still Penn State
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Near the end, you start thinking about the beginning.
Squeaky clean Penn State University, tucked away in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania, felt as though it were being uprooted when charges of child sexual abuse were filed against a respected former football coach and related charges were brought against top university officials.
No one had seen it coming.
Overnight, the campus and surrounding borough of State College were suffocated by satellite trucks as news crews broadcast the story around the world. Professors would deviate from syllabi, finding teachable moments in the erupting scandal -- from how not to handle public relations to discussions about child sexual abuse.
By that Tuesday evening, confused and frustrated students collected in hordes, aimlessly moving through campus and town.
The next morning, Penn State's beloved football coach, Joe Paterno, announced that his career at Penn State, spanning more than six decades, would end at season's close with his retirement. He admitted later that perhaps he should have done more when he first learned of the accusations against his assistant.
All the while, in the basement office of the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, there remained an unusual sense of normalcy in the yells flying across the newsroom, the rigidity of the deadlines and the tired, familiar faces of colleagues-turned-family.
On the night of Wednesday, Nov. 9, we waited. About 15 student editors and I crowded around a computer live-streaming a Penn State Board of Trustees meeting. Yet another bomb dropped: Both Paterno and university president Graham Spanier had been fired.
We literally stopped the presses. Articles were rewritten, graphics redesigned and a team of reporters and photographers poured out of the office into the streets, where students gathered yet again, except this time riots broke out. A news van was flipped. Collegian reporters were pepper sprayed but still met their deadlines.
On Friday night, in stark contrast, thousands of students gathered on the lawn of the administration building for a candlelight vigil. Through songs, tears and togetherness, Penn State started mending.
As editor of the Collegian, I tucked away my feelings as a Penn State student. It's journalism 101: Reporters must try to be objective. And yet there we were, a staff of about 300 Penn State students with one of the nation's biggest stories breaking in our backyard.
Tremors from the fall continued into spring semester: On Jan. 22, Joe Paterno died after battling lung cancer.
The year's roller coaster of emotions shifted yet again, this time, to mourning.
My list of potential colleges fell from three to one as soon as my dad and I stepped onto Penn State's University Park campus.
I didn't go there because I wanted to be a journalist. In fact, I didn't want to be a journalist.
Charmed by the campus' snow-covered beauty, I went to Penn State because it felt like my kind of college: colossal, brick classroom buildings; opportunities soaring above and beyond the Old Main bell tower; so many students that I was sure to make life-long friends.
I went to Penn State because I knew I could make it my second home.
I went to Penn State because I knew I would get a great education.
Four years later, I am grateful for all I've been able to do as a student in the College of Communications. Last March in South Africa, I even got to go cage-diving with great white sharks to write an article about this controversial tourist venture.
I don't know who I would be if I hadn't worked on the student newspaper for four years. The friends and memories I made at Penn State are second to none.
Still, I can't say I bleed blue and white. I could count on one hand the number of football games I went to. I don't have a favorite Creamery ice cream flavor. I never participated in the 46-hour dance marathon, opting instead to cover it for the newspaper. My list of shortcomings as a Penn Stater goes on.
In mid-May, I left Penn State as an alumna, my Honda Civic stuffed with boxes, clothes and newspapers, unsure what to make of the tumultuous year behind me and undecided on whether it changed my connection to the university.
I had enrolled at Penn State after immediately falling in love with everything about it. Four years later, I didn't know how I felt. My heart ached for the men who said they were abused by Jerry Sandusky. I felt betrayed by the administration.
But while this college town tucked between the mountains wasn't quite what I remembered from four years earlier, things were getting better and the people there seemed to be growing closer than ever.
Maybe in time, I could fall in love with Penn State again.
After months of relative quiet, the story picked up again Monday as the Sandusky trial began.
It's still a reflex. Wherever I happen to be, I drop everything to eavesdrop on conversations or tune into the news when I hear the word "Sandusky."
At this point, the Penn State diaspora holds its collective breath. The wish seems to be, "Let justice be served."
In the beginning, I wanted to know what the end would look like and, I suppose, soon we'll know.
But what defines "the end?" For the victims, recovery may extend years beyond a verdict or sentence. We can hope more questions will be answered about the university's handling of the Sandusky affair -- from former FBI director Louis Freeh's internal investigation and other investigations and litigation.
As for me, I hope for reflection and growth, and a revived faith in my alma mater. As they say, we are still Penn State.
First Published June 16, 2012 12:00 am