Joe Paterno funeral: Penn State seniors face tough questions in wake of scandal

January 25, 2012

Of the half-dozen job interviews John Tecce has been on this winter, the subject has come up every time, in some cases dominating the entire interview: How does Tecce, a senior marketing major at Penn State, view the child sex-abuse scandal that shook the university in November? Does he feel the university acted appropriately in firing football coach Joe Paterno in the scandal’s wake? Where was Tecce on the night several thousand students rioted just off campus?

“You don’t know what’s going through [the interviewer’s] head, whether they see ‘Penn State’ on your résumé and assume the worst,” said Tecce, 22, from Downingtown, Pa. “Maybe you don’t know for sure that’s the reason they’re going to deny you a job, but it” might be.

This is a week for reflection at Penn State, as the campus, township of State College and larger university community mourn the death of Paterno, the iconic 85-year-old patriarch of the school’s once-storied football program, from lung cancer on Sunday. Wednesday’s funeral will be followed by a public memorial Thursday at the Bryce Jordan Center. It is a week for contemplating universal, big-picture themes: life, death, legacy, redemption, community.

But for at least one group of Penn Staters — the thousands of seniors set to graduate in May — this is also a time for a very personal, self-centered question: What does the scandal mean for my own future?

As they meet with corporate recruiters and interview with prospective employers, Penn State seniors in many cases are discovering the scandal — in which a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year-period — is very much on the minds of the ones asking the questions.

Sally Chia, 22, a public relations major from Taiwan, said she was interviewing with General Electric shortly after the scandal broke in November when she was surprised by a sudden turn in the line of questioning.

“They asked how I felt about it, [and] what I would have done if I [had witnessed an assault]. I was caught off-guard,” Chia said. “When I didn’t get the job offer at first, I kept thinking, ‘Maybe I could have answered that question better.’ I don’t think it’s an appropriate question to ask just because someone happens to be from Penn State. We’re not to blame for something a former coach did.”

It was a line of questioning the university anticipated in the days following the scandal, as two high-ranking Penn State officials were charged in an alleged cover-up and two other officials — including Paterno — were fired for failing to act decisively enough. On the night of Paterno’s dismissal, thousands of students rioted.

In those first few days, rumors were spreading rapidly that corporate recruiters were shunning Penn State students, or even rescinding job offers.

In a Nov. 11 letter to students and prospective employers, Jeff Garis, Penn State’s senior director of career services, shot down those rumors and offered suggestions to students on how to deal with pointed questions during job interviews. “Students may acknowledge that they are primarily concerned for the victims and also concerned for Penn State in these troubling times,” Garis wrote. “However, students should keep the focus on . . . how they will excel in the opportunity.”

By many measures, Penn State says it is doing just fine from a business standpoint in the wake of the scandal. In an address to the faculty senate this week, new president Rodney Erickson cited, among other things, a 3 percent increase over 2010 in undergraduate-admissions applications and a 10 percent increase in the sum of contributions to the school’s annual fund as proof of the university’s overall health.

Meanwhile, in an interview Wednesday at his office on the campus’s eastern edge, Garis also said his initial fears about a backlash from corporate recruiters have proved to be unfounded, citing a 15 percent increase from 2010 in the number of companies attending Penn State’s Spring Career Day — an increase Garis attributes largely to the improving economy.

“This tells me employers are every bit as interested, or more, in recruiting Penn State students as before,” he said.

Julie Rank, who recruits on college campuses for Brooksource, an Indianapolis-based IT staffing firm, said she still recruits Penn State students as aggressively as before, and said the scandal is “not a topic that needs to be discussed in a professional setting.”

“That puts the students in a very awkward situation,” she said. “No interviewees from other schools are having to answer those same questions.”

But while Garis said he has received little indication that the Sandusky scandal has been a hot topic during students’ job interviews, the students themselves tell a different story.

Michael Higgins, 21, a senior industrial engineering major from Norristown, Pa., said of his four job interviews so far, three have included scandal questions. In one case, an interviewer noted an item on Higgins’s resume — he is vice president of “Paternoville,” an organization that represents the body of students that camps out for tickets during home football weeks — and joked, “I can’t believe you still have that on your résumé.”

“I actually feel that [questions about the scandal are] a good starting point in an interview,” Higgins said. “It breaks the ice, and it kind of lets them know what kind of person I am.”

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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