UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- “We are Penn State” is a phrase often heard around Happy Valley during football season and THON weekend, and it has become synonymous with students’ love for their school. But unbeknownst to many Penn Staters, there is a group of elementary school students in Texas chanting the same cheer.
One might not expect to find any blue and white fans 1,500 miles away from Penn State’s University Park campus cheering for Penn State, but Penn State’s impressive alumni network of more than 500,000 members across the globe raises the odds.
Penn State alumnus Steve Hinchman’s daughter Alyssa Hinchman, recently added her class of first-graders at McFee Elementary School in Katy, Texas, a Houston suburb, to Penn State’s fan base through the No Excuses University (NEU) program. NEU is a network that pairs colleges and universities with struggling elementary schools nationwide with the goal of providing support and encouragement for at-risk students and preparing them for secondary education opportunities. Many of these students struggle with poverty on a daily basis, raised in families by parents who never had the opportunity to attend college. NEU believes that despite the challenges faced by students in their network, receiving an education is not out of reach. Since its induction in 2009, the NEU network has grown to include a total of 150 schools in 14 states across the country. It supports more than 100,000 elementary, middle and high school students in their dreams of attending high school and eventually college.
When school started last fall, Hinchman needed a NEU partner for her first-graders; she chose Penn State. Based on her father’s connection and her recognition of the University's commitment to academic excellence, Penn State was easily her first choice. “I believe the NEU program in connection with Penn State will expose the idea that a college education is an attainable goal for every student. Through this program, my students will be prepared to attend the college of their choice.“
Hinchman contacted Colleen Swetland, assistant director of alumni relations in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, to investigate ways Penn State could partner with the school. The Penn State Alumni Association and Swetland both sent packages to Hinchman and her students containing Penn State memorabilia that they could use to decorate their classroom, as well as some basic information about Penn State that might resonate with the students.
A Penn State banner decorates a classroom in McFee Elementary School in Katy, Texas.
The decorations are a constant reminder of Penn State’s presence in the classroom. Now, Hinchman often uses the “We are!” chant to capture the attention of her students, who eagerly respond with a deafening “Penn State!”
"I taught them a little bit about how the chant came about, and they (the students) will tell you that saying 'We are, Penn State' means we are a family," she said. "Having Penn State in our classroom has certainly united us as a family, here in the classroom.”
You could say Hinchman’s students were more than grateful for the new goodies. The students responded with hand written thank-you notes describing how much they admired their new Penn State decorations and sharing what they learned about the University. The students summed up their feelings towards Penn State as "great, excited, surprised and proud."
Weeks later, another package arrived from Texas. This time, it contained handmade holiday cards from the students, all bundled inside a blue folder, with “We love you Penn State!” scrawled across the front. The various “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Holidays!” cards inside were all decorated with a Penn State theme, some with pictures of the Nittany Lion.
Hinchman emphasized the student’s love for the NEU program and Penn State.
“My students are very proud of Penn State, and they absolutely love wearing their Penn State shirts every Wednesday,” she said.
When asked how they thought the NEU program could help them down the road, the students emphasized how the program would help them be respectful, responsible and smart individuals who were ready to work hard and attend college.
One card from a student named Allison reads: “Dear Penn State, Thank you for my shirt … Our class is proud of you.”
Our message back to the first-grade students at McFee Elementary School in Katy, Texas, is that Penn State is proud of all of you. Keep up the great work, because after all, WE ARE destined to succeed and so are you.