Izzy’s Story

MEET PENN STATE HOMECOMING’S EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Isabella Webster

My Penn State Story begins, as many do, with a White Out Football Game. As I was applying to colleges my senior year of high school, I spent a weekend visiting friends a year older than me, then first-year students at University Park. From that moment on, I knew that I would go to Penn State. Shortly after I was accepted on December 15th, 2015, I was committed to begin at Penn State’s College of Engineering for Summer 2016.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was underprepared for what being at a major university was like as at first-year student. I seldom felt academically challenged in high school and I generally did fairly well with minimal effort. I didn’t foresee college being markedly different. Within the first few weeks of attending classes, I learned rather quickly that I had no clue how to study. While here for summer classes, I was fortunate enough to have truly amazing professors in the economics department who saw potential in me to do well. My introductory economics professor was the first of many people at Penn State who have shaped me into the woman I am today. He advocated for me as my male classmates attributed my grades in the course to appearances over academic ability, and he instilled confidence in me as a passionate learner that I do not believe I would otherwise have today. I will never be able to thank him enough for being the first person at this university to truly believe in me.
As my first true semester started, I continued to struggle. I failed to find my classes fulfilling, and I struggled to do well in them. Such a patterned continued and, on top of that, my social life quickly began to crumble. It seemed that everyone around me had friends, close friends, people in various organizations who just seemed to click. I didn’t have that. One of my closest mentors in the College of Engineering noticed I didn’t seem to be enjoying my first semester as much as the first-year girls around me. She suggested I apply to be a Homecoming Captain for the following fall. Applications weren’t set to open for another month, but she said I should keep my eye out. Little did she know that this was the next piece of hope I needed. If there has ever been an experience in my life that proved that the smallest bit of encouragement can change someone’s life, this was it. My College of Engineering Mentor was the second of many people to completely change my life at Penn State.
The second semester of my freshman year began feeling more like a blurry continuation of an emotionally taxing first semester than it did a fresh start. I checked the Homecoming website for applications almost daily until they went live. Once they did, I got to work answering a series of questions about why I deserved to be on the Donor Relations Committee having no idea what that committee even did. Quite honestly, I picked Donor Relations because I liked the committee color, Kelly Green. Sitting in the waiting room before my Captain Interview, all I can remember is being so nervous I was shaking. I hardly remember what I said during the actual interview, only how scared I was that I wouldn’t be picked. A week or so later, I got the call that I had been selected as a Captain for Homecoming 2017. I was so happy I cried. I didn’t know then how much of an opportunity there was in front of me. I never imagined that I would eventually lead almost 400 student volunteers and all of Penn State Homecoming. All I knew then was that someone gave me the chance I needed to feel like I belonged, and that was all I needed to keep going. The Donor Relations Director for 2017, whether she knew it or not, was the third person to give me an opportunity to demonstrate what I’m capable of, and give me hope that one day I would succeed here.
I began my time as the Donor Relations Captain excitedly nervous. I loved going to meetings no matter how boring they were some weeks, because I always felt like I gained something from them. More than anything, I was excited to be a part of an organization bigger than myself, excited to be giving back to a school with so much to offer me in exchange. Weeks went by, workshops taught me to write resumes, give elevator pitches, and how to speak confidently in front of complete strangers. As my second semester was drawling to a close, I had high hopes for the fall, especially since that meant I could celebrate my first Homecoming as part of the organization. I finally felt normal, and I finally felt like I was part of a community here. Just as this was all happening, while attending a drag show hosted by QTPOC in Heritage Hall, I got the phone call most children fear for the day they’ll receive: my father was in the ICU, in septic shock, and we didn’t know how much time he had left. Everything froze for me in that moment. I will remember taking that call in my friends’ dressing room backstage for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what to do: my life at Penn State was finally starting to have a few glimmers of hope, but that came at the price of my home life being ripped out from under me. I was set to study abroad mere weeks later after I finished my finals. I had secured a job on campus for when I got back. I finally felt like I might be normal again. None of that mattered anymore in that moment. It was that call, and my friends who stood beside me to help process what my life might look like moving forward, who, once again, changed my life forever.
That summer I spent as much time with my as I could. I watched him come out of comas with no idea what my name was. I also spent a month studying product development in Singapore alongside some of the most brilliant people I’ve met at this university. After that, I worked on campus as LEAP Mentor helping incoming students in the College of Engineering adjust to life at Penn State. While doing all these things, I chose not to confide in my co-workers and friends why I spent most weekends at home, or why I sometimes spent entire days isolated in my room speaking to no one. I didn’t think anybody needed to know I was struggling because I didn’t think that I would benefit anyone, least of all me. As fall semester quickly approached, my dad was finally pulled from out-patient care. He had made a full recovery with one caveat: his pre-existing dementia was aggravated to an extent that he could no longer drive, no longer care for my brother, no longer work, and no longer consistently remember details about the people in his life. I made my plans to return to Penn State in the fall knowing that my father would likely be alive for the foreseeable future, but may never again know anything about me. This is a part of my story very few at Penn State know, but it’s a part of my story that showed me what I could overcome- what I had to overcome. It’s the part of my story that would give me a springboard to seek out every opportunity I could find while at Penn State. It’s the part of my story that taught me how precious our time is and that we must seize every moment we can and make the best of it.
Starting my sophomore year, I was newly determined to make an impact somehow during my time at Penn State. I joined a THON OPPeraations committee in the hope it would let me give back to those families fighting with pediatric cancer. The people on my THON committee would serve as my support system throughout that entire year more than many of them will ever know. I made it through my first successful Penn State Homecoming. The weather was worse than I could have ever imagined, but those six days of absolute Penn State pride are some of my fondest memories to date. There is nothing quite like a sub-freezing, snowy parade day to foster some quality interpersonal bonding. As the weeks went on, I approached my Homecoming Director- the one who previously changed the course of my life- to ask if she thought I would be a good candidate to replace her as next year’s Donor Relations Director. She encouraged me to apply, offering to serve as reference on the application. I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, but I filled out my application, turned it in, and interviewed for the position anyway. Days later I would get a call from the 2018 Homecoming Executive Director telling me I had been selected for the 2018 Homecoming Executive Committee. It didn’t feel real, I didn’t know if I could do it, but, I knew that I had to try I had to seize this opportunity and allow the challenge to help me grow. I went in expecting to grow as a person and leader not knowing I would, in fact, come out of the experience ten months later with some of the best friends I’ve ever had, a plethora of life lessons to carry with me, and a sense of pride in my school stronger than I could have ever imagined.
Upon embarking on my journey as the Homecoming Donor Relations Director, I also made the choice to alter that academic path I had been on up until that point. Much like my first semester, I was failing to find my classes satisfying, and I wasn’t thrilled about the career options I had in front of me. After some fairly extensive research, I decided that switching my major to either cybersecurity or IST was likely the best choice for me. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time, but I had high hopes it would pay off. As all this panned out, I also started my role on the Homecoming Executive Committee. Within the first few weeks I had learned how to send proper emails to those who had previously intimidated me, had learned to speak to businesses about why they should support my organization, and had met some of the most motivated and inspiring people I’d come across at Penn State. From my very first day in the role, I knew I had made some of my dearest, lifelong friends and that still holds true today. During my time as Donor Relations Director, I had not only the privilege of giving back to Penn State Homecoming, but I met people who taught me how to be a good friend and place the interests of our team above my own. My co-directors from Homecoming 2018 are some of the most important people impacting my Penn State Story, and I owe much of who I am today to their influence on me.
As I began to find my footing in a new Academic College, with a new major, and a new leadership position I was excited to take on, my life took yet another unexpected turn. Within weeks of my fourth semester, I learned that one of my closest friends was struggling with deep depression, and that I was the only person who knew. Without even so much time as to think about what action steps I should take, I immediately started calling every relevant resourced in the Student Handbook for help. I learned quickly both that Penn State has a plethora of avenues to get help if you’re struggling, and that it is complete social taboo to admit you’re struggling to help someone worse off than you. My small group of friends and I remained silent as we spent hours on the phone with counselors, every evening receiving updates on her status, struggling to explain to others what was going on in our lives. We didn’t think about whether there were resources for us to take advantage of, and didn’t think to ask for help. This experience was formative in my sophomore year as it taught be to seek out everything that is available, and how to value someone else’s life above my own. It also taught be about the holes existing in current resource systems. Later, this would serve as a driving factor behind my run in UPUA. It would help motivate me to advocate on behalf of other students, and take actions ad I can to address inadequacies. At the time, however, the experience taught me how supportive the Penn State community members are of eachother.
In spite of the fact that I have to explain to every person I meet what my major actually does, switching my major to Security and Risk Analysis within the College of IST was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The college has provided me with more wonderful professors than I ever could have, career counselors who not only listen to my goals, but are willing to actively help me achieve them, faculty who act as fierce advocates for their students, and a warm welcoming atmosphere that fosters not only academic and professional, but personal growth. My career counselor helped met with me first as I was switching into SRA and wanted to know what my job prospects might look like. She would later lead me and a dozen other women to the Grace Hopper Conference where I had the opportunity to network with my dream companies, meet Penn Staters and female technologists from around the world, and gain more professional confidence in one week than I had in the previous 2 ½ years. I owe most of who I am professionally to the College of IST. Not only have my classes and professors prepared me to take on my career, but the incredibly mentors and advisors here have proved truly invaluable to my success. They each play an important role in not only my Penn State Story, but my total personhood.
In contrast to the beginning of my sophomore year where I began determined to change my trajectory at Penn State, I began my junior year with intentions to continue growing in the roles I already held. Homecoming Week in 2018 was one of the most stressful, but rewarding experiences of my life so far. It was truly amazing to watch a year’s worth of hard work pay off. Having the opportunity to meet so many amazing Penn Staters on the various courts was a one-of-a-kind experience that inspired me to continue making an impact. I chose to purse making that impact by applying to be Executive Director for Homecoming 2019- the one-hundredth Penn State Homecoming. I have been in that role since October and it has been an amazing journey thus far. This fall, I look forward to realizing the week of celebration leading up to the one-hundredth Penn State Homecoming. I look forward, more than anything, to meeting even more amazing Penn Staters and hearing their stories.
Penn State Homecoming has served a defining element of my Penn State Story; albeit, I feel, more than anything, the people within this organization made me who I am today. Serving as a Captain taught me how to break down large goals into small, attainable tasks, and how to be patient. Serving as a Director taught me how to fail, how to lead others, and how to be kind to those around me without an expectations of reciprocation. Serving as Executive Director, thus far, has proved to be one of the most challenging, but rewarding endeavors I’ve ever embarked on. I am humbled and honored to be a part of an organization so much bigger than myself; but, I am even more honored to help those around me grow professionally, and, more importantly, personally as they take on their various roles.
I have faced many challenges personally, academically, and professionally during my time at Penn State. I’ve lived through my father actively dying while I’m away at school; I’ve battled deeply with mental health, both with my own and with friends; and I’ve worked hard to spark cultural change in my organization even amidst harsh pushback, but the people I’ve met along this journey have not only shaped my Penn State Story and my time here, but they have altered the course of my life for the better. Penn State and the people here have taught me to be the strongest version of myself. It is here that I learned how to be resilient, how to overcome, and how to take ownership of my own life. I cannot imagine another university with the resources or, more importantly, the people to provide me with such an uplifting experience. There is no doubt in my mind that my life would be in a much more challenging place had I attended any other university. Regardless of how I have struggled while here, regardless of the challenges being here posed for me, I am proud to be a Penn Stater. I am proud to have attended this school. I am proud to have left an impact on the people here that, hopefully, serves for the overall betterment of the university. For the rest of my life I will carry the mission of my organization and the values of this university in my mind and in my heart. I will never forget the people who impacted my story while here. I will never be able to emphasize enough the impact that each and every person at this university has had on my life. Thank you to each and every Penn Stater I’ve had the privilege of meeting. We are, from 1919 to 2019, a community worth coming home to.