Old Main

The Old Main bell rings during the first day of 2022 spring semester classes on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022 in University Park, Pa.

Students and alumni launched the new “Penn State Forward'' campaign this week to support three “young, forward-thinking candidates” running for the 2022 Penn State Alumni Board of Trustees election, according to Nora Van Horn, a Schreyer Honors College scholar.

The Board of Trustees is Penn State’s highest governing body — established by the university’s charter — that holds responsibility for the “governance and welfare of the university and all interests pertaining thereto,” according to the Penn State Board of Trustees website.

The three candidates supported by the Penn State Forward campaign include atmospheric scientist and nonprofit founder Christa Hasenkopf, educational equity advocate and former Black Caucus president Ed Smith, and OB-GYN and anti-sexual violence proponent Dr. Farnaz Farhi.

The Penn State Forward campaign contains four central pillars, which include climate action, education equity, student safety, and transparent and inclusive governance, according to Van Horn (senior-philosophy, Chinese, and global and international studies)

The Penn State Forward campaign is in collaboration with Harvard Forward, a campaign that landed four trustees on Harvard University’s Board of Overseers who prompted Harvard to divest from fossil fuels, according to Van Horn.

“There’s a legacy of social change being catalyzed at institutions of higher education via these beliefs that the institution is capable of making these changes and with really amazing candidates who are willing to champion this progress,” Van Horn said.

In January 2021, Van Horn said students and young alumni — including herself — began the process of bringing a similar campaign to Penn State.

During the spring 2021 semester, Van Horn said the group began seeking out candidates and searching for alumni who shared similar values and expertise aligned with what Penn State Forward members desired to accomplish through the campaign’s initiative.

Van Horn said the candidate selection process was “robust” and included a diverse group of students who analyzed the candidates to select the best individuals to represent the community.

The Board of Trustees election process

The Board of Trustees established the dates for the annual Alumni Trustee election procedures and decided the nomination ballot phase would begin on Jan. 15 and conclude on Feb. 25, according to a release.

On Jan. 15, nomination ballots were distributed to all Penn State alumni with a valid email address on file. Individuals who failed to receive a ballot may request one with an online form, according to the release.

Only Penn State alumni may vote in the election.

Candidates and ballot positions will then be released in March with the election phase beginning on April 10 and finishing at 9 a.m. on May 5, the release said.

Trustee candidates who receive at least 250 nominations, meet trustee qualifications and formally accept the nomination via writing will receive a spot on the election ballot, which will be distributed to alumni via emails.

The three candidates who receive the most votes at the conclusion of the election will be elected as new members of the Penn State Board of Trustees, the release said.

The Charter and Bylaws of Penn State establish the Board of Trustees as consisting of 38 individuals, many of whom are appointed by elections, according to the Penn State Board of Trustees’ website.

According to Van Horn, only approximately 3% of eligible voters participated in the past Board of Trustees election, which means a low number of the alumni voters actively engaged in university politics.

“The low voter turnout suppresses new ideas and alumni participation,” Van Horn said. “But I think we can increase voter turnout by advertising more that people can vote.”

Van Horn said she’s heard some alumni members say they have withheld from voting in the university’s Board of Trustees elections because they believe their vote fails to have an impact and make tangible change.

“We are a really fantastic community,” Van Horn said. “And we have to be encouraging these alumni that are leaders everywhere — within the country and within the world — to participate in [governance]. That’s how we can make Penn State better. That’s how we can move the [university] forward.”

If there were one word to describe the campaign, Van Horn said it would be “grassroots” because the campaign uses individuals within the Penn State community to collectively make change.

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“It’s empowering to be [one of the] first campaigns saying, ‘No, we can stand up for these ideas. We can stand up for climate change. We can stand up for equity. We can stand up for safety, and we can stand up in a robust way for transparent governance,’” Van Horn said.

Van Horn said many volunteers have been “eager to share this vision” with the community as the election process proceeds forward.

“One thing that motivates this campaign is that there’s not just one issue at Penn State,” Van Horn said. “There are all of these issues that intersect, and the way that we address them as students is often at the bottom of advocacy with petitions and protests.”

However, Van Horn said the Penn State Forward campaign allows current Penn State students and the alumni community’s voices to be heard and leave a meaningful impact.

“A lot of students — to some extent — feel disillusioned because it’s really difficult to perform advocacy if you don’t believe that the folks [who] govern the institution are really listening to student demands [and ideas],” Van Horn said. “We need governance that is proactive in addressing these issues and is willing to lead with moral courage, and in a way that is socially responsible for students at Penn State, for the commonwealth and for our nation.”

Van Horn said an important way to view the campaign is that it’s “not just three people who are really trying to get on the Board of Trustees.” Rather, she said she perceives the campaign as a manner of getting student and young alumni perspectives onto the board and into administrative discussions.

“These are people who are recruited by the campaign,” Van Horn said. “They are running for the Board of Trustees because they believe in the same things that we do, [and] they are eager to leverage being on the Board of Trustees as an opportunity to move Penn State forward.”

Dr. Farnaz Farhi

Board of Trustees Candidate Dr. Farnaz Farhi

Dr. Farnaz Farhi, who currently works as an obstetrician and gynecologist at George Washington University, is a 2010 Penn State Schreyer Honors College graduate who studied biology and women’s studies along with civic and community engagement during her undergraduate education.

Although she’s an immigrant to the U.S., Farhi said she still came from a Penn State family.

“Penn State has played a huge part in all of our lives, and it’s been a shared experience, which I think families that immigrate sometimes end up not having because of just how life changes during immigration,” Farhi said.

After attending Penn State, Farhi finished her graduate studies in global health at the University of Oxford prior to attending medical school at the Boston University School of Medicine. She then completed her residency in Philadelphia at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

During her time at Penn State, Farhi said she completed her undergraduate thesis on sexual assault at Penn State, with one of her goals being “to work with the administration to address the challenges and barriers to care.”

Upon being contacted by Van Horn about the developing Penn State Forward campaign, Farhi said, “It was really wonderful to have the opportunity to come full circle [and] work on these issues that had been such a big part of [her] time at Penn State and continue to be a big part of [her] life currently as an OB-GYN,” where she has studied sexual violence and witnessed its impact on people.

Farhi said her decision to run for the Board of Trustees is also rooted in her own experiences at Penn State.

She said she remembers attending a speaking event with a Board of Trustees member during her undergraduate career and feeling like their involvement on the board was unrelated to her own personal academic experience at Penn State.

“I was incredibly impressed at [the campaign team’s] ability to connect the dots and show how there is that disconnect,” Farhi said. “But that doesn’t have to be how it is, and we have the opportunity to have the board truly represent the Penn State that students [and alumni] want.”

On the current board, Farhi said many individuals — like herself and her fellow campaign candidates — “don’t see themselves reflected” in the member list, which she said primarily consists of older white men.

Dr. Farnaz Farhi

“We represent a lot of different identities that individuals both within our alumni community as well as current students may identify with that is not reflected in the current Board of Trustees,” Farhi said.

Farhi said she hopes the campaign’s efforts encourage other alumni to be more accessible and available to current students.

“We are running as three individuals to be a part of the board that is made up of many more than three individuals, and ultimately, we hope to inspire other young alumni to consider their involvement with the Board of Trustees as a way to make tangible improvements for the larger Penn State community,” Farhi said.

Although there are certain goals she — and the Penn State Forward campaign — hope to accomplish if selected for the Board of Trustees, Farhi said there’s also “flexibility” in their plans as they work with students and alumni to recognize better strategies to meet their goals and adapt accordingly.

“We are hopeful that voices that haven’t always had a microphone at the Board of Trustees will hopefully have opportunities to speak and share and hopefully be heard,” Farhi said.

For instance, Farhi said many opportunities are available to increase the support of students who experience sexual violence as well as to empower bystanders to be more involved and ensure improved safety for all.

Farhi said she hopes to work with students to identify “real, practical ways” that would make a “tangible difference on campus — and not just the rhetoric.”

As the campaign proceeds and the election nears in the coming weeks, Farhi said she plans to engage with acquaintances and friends from Penn State via social media as well as other alumni and current students.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re sharing our message with as many people as possible and hopefully engaging alumni who don’t typically vote in these elections,” Farhi said. “There’s a big opportunity to bridge some of that gap and ensure that all Penn State alumni who are eligible to vote know that they can and know that they can have an important influence on Penn State’s future.”

Christa Hasenkopf

Board of Trustees Candidate Christa Hasenkopf

Christa Hasenkopf is a first-generation college student who graduated from the Penn State Schreyer Honors College in 2003 with a degree in astronomy and astrophysics.

She pursued a doctorate in atmospheric and oceanic sciences from the University of Colorado Boulder following her time at Penn State.

During her life, Hasenkopf co-founded and led OpenAQ, which is an environmental technology nonprofit whose mission is to “fight air inequality by opening up air quality data and connecting a diverse global, grassroots community of individuals and organizations,” according to OpenAQ’s website.

Hasenkopf’s accomplishments in both work and research led her to be featured in Vox, Forbes, and the New York Times.

Hasenkopf has also worked for the U.S. government and taught environmental policy at institutions like John Hopkins University and Georgetown University.

Hasenkopf, who has been mentoring first-generation students in the sciences for several years at Penn State, said she’s been “hearing and seeing their perspective on issues at Penn State,” and said many issues have not been addressed or received the attention they should get.

“I’m a big believer that examples matter,” Hasenkopf said. “Examples are everything, [especially] for knowing what your possibilities are, and that’s why mentorship and teaching have been super important to me because I know I really needed those examples to understand where I could fit in or what I could do, and I know how hard it is when you don’t have those examples to attend to.”

Before coming to Penn State, Hasenkopf said she didn’t have family who attended the university and hadn’t even visited State College before.

Hasenkopf said she remembers being at Penn State during the fall of her freshman year and feeling “incredibly inadequate” and doubting if she could do it.

“College was a very foreign thing to me, and I didn’t know how it worked,” Hasenkopf said. “It’s all to say, for folks in the community who don’t have a network of [people] who have gone before them to create a Penn State legacy — or to have really gone to college — I see you. I feel you. I want you to know that there are so many possibilities and so many things that you can do.”

Christa Hasenkopf

Hasenkopf said her own experience at Penn State was “transformational” as it “changed the direction” of where she could go and the opportunities she had available.

However, Hasenkopf said she saw through mentorship programs and other activities at Penn State that “this wasn’t the case for everyone” who attended.

Hasenkopf said she also saw the impact of educational disparities from teaching at a high school in Baltimore after completing her undergraduate studies.

“The thing that made me want to decide to run on the Board of Trustees was the fact that there was this coalition of students and young alumni who had so thoroughly put together pieces of this platform and [made] it so it wouldn’t just be my ideas [or any other candidates’],” Hasenkopf said. “It was really a way to start getting the heartbeat of Penn State and making sure [those ideas] would be surfacing with how we would be leading.”

As an atmospheric scientist by training, Hasenkopf said the climate pillar of the Penn State Forward campaign is “especially close to [her] heart — both because the climate crisis is an existential crisis for the entire world and also for the role that Penn State can play in helping to combat that, and I think it’s a fairly significant role.”

Within the climate pillar, Hasenkopf said they hope to focus on divesting from fossil fuels and developing “transparent and robust socially responsible practices around Penn State’s investment process for its endowments.”

During the nomination period and leading up to the Board of Trustees election, Hasenkopf said she plans to maintain connections within the Penn State community and expand her connections among students, faculty and administration who are “on the ground doing the work or learning or experiencing Penn State.”

Hasenkopf said the Penn State Forward campaign members plan to engage with different student groups to discuss all four pillars of their platform and further information about the Penn State experience in order to continue shaping their platform and evolving it.

As this is the first year of the Penn State Forward campaign, Hasenkopf said she’s excited for next year and the years to come.

She said she’s enthusiastic to see “how diverse and wide the Alumni Board of the portion of the Board of Trustees can be and represent so many different experiences and really make Penn State be the place that it potentially could be.”

Ed Smith

Board of Trustees Candidate Ed Smith

Ed Smith, a 2006 and 2010 Penn State graduate, obtained his undergraduate degree in economics through the College of the Liberal Arts and a master’s degree in college student affairs in the College of Education.

Smith then studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education to receive his doctorate.

“As a two-time alum of Penn State University, I was part of movements to build a better Penn State — whether it was leading the Black Caucus at the time [or] ensuring that LGBTQ student rights were protected and that students felt safe on campus trying to destabilize a culture and sometimes policies that maintained sexual violence and misconduct,” Smith said.

During his Penn State experience, Smith served as Black Caucus president and has advocated for educational equity and justice throughout his life.

Smith said his values “tremendously” align with the priorities of the Penn State Forward campaign, and he said he holds “a deep love for Penn State — a critical love — that sometimes manifests in [his] advocacy.”

“It’s important that the university system adequately serves students and ensures that the experience they’re having in the classroom, around the campus environment [and] as they traverse through their respective communities, enables their success, enables them to thrive and enables them to live their whole selves and be who they ultimately want to be — both for themselves and their communities,” Smith said.

If selected for the Board of Trustees, Smith said he hopes to be able to audit the recommendations put forth through the diverse groups in the Penn State community — including students, faculty, staff and community members — to ensure that the best ideas and proposals are implemented.

“We want to be able to be an agent of equality, to ensure that we not only have good reporting and data to track those disparities, but to [also] eliminate them eventually and harness the best of what Penn State can provide as far as academics and social and financial support to get those disparities eliminated,” Smith said.

Smith said he holds “transparency in governance” to be an important concept that allows the Penn State communities to “take stock in the things we invest in, the research we’re doing [and] the capital investments and projects being completed.”

Ed Smith

Smith said he believes organizations “thrive” through “diverse leadership,” which he said is highly correlated with increased positive experiences by community and organization members as well as increased achievement of goals.

Tied to diverse leadership also comes the opportunity for mentorship, and Smith said he supports having great mentorship experiences in place to help students thrive during — and after — their academic journeys.

“I enjoyed my time at Penn State and had a lot of fun, and key to that enjoyment was my experience of being mentored by key faculty and staff who took an interest in me and saw something important,” Smith said. “Now being able to translate that back to people who are coming after me — either arriving at campus as first-year students or transferring from a commonwealth campus to University Park — I think it goes all ways.”

Smith said he hopes to be able to help students on campus who are struggling with issues by being “someone in position who understands [some] part of that struggle” and could better “translate those experiences to decision makers.”

Throughout his career, Smith said he studied higher education policy at the federal and state level, taught in educational facilities across the “education spectrum” and now funds higher education research, capital projects, policy advocacy and student movements.

“I think we would like to see folks who can wrestle with the current challenges that the university is experiencing as it pertains to a federal actor, as it pertains to state policy [and] as it pertains to its relationship with the community in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Smith said. “Those who bring a diverse mix of [backgrounds] as well as those who are still evolving in their professional careers can bring that to the board and improve it in many ways — anticipated and unanticipated.”

Going into the future, Smith said he hopes to see the university and its members “chase a better version of [themselves],” and he said one way for this to develop is through communication with community members to continue learning more about how to improve the university.

Therefore, Smith said the Penn State Forward campaign members plan to immerse themselves within the community to “unveil” priorities and hear feedback and recommendations on how to improve their goals.

Van Horn, who’s been working on the Penn State Forward campaign since its beginnings, said there are three ways people can get involved, including making a donation, volunteering to spread the message and endorsing the candidates.

“The campaign is really motivated by the idea that we believe that Penn State can champion climate solutions,” Van Horn said. “We believe that Penn State can amend educational inequities. We believe that Penn State can ensure student safety.

“We believe that Penn State can have transparent governance structures, and we want to be the catalyst to enact those ideas and make them a reality.”

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