Like most towns of its size, State College doesn't often make national headlines. In fact, I’m often surprised to learn how many out-of-towners have simply never heard of it. "State College?" quite a few have asked when I tell them where I'm from. "But what's the name of the town?"
“That is the name of the town,” I insist.
I haven’t heard too many of those questions lately though, at least not since State College made national news several months ago when it was featured in a special edition of the popular National Public Radio program “This American Life,” which highlighted Penn State in a special report on excessive drinking on college campuses.
Shortly after the program aired, friends and acquaintances from around the country began contacting me, wanting to know if I lived anywhere near that awful neighborhood where all this wild partying and drinking was going on. “Near it?” I responded. “I live right in the center of it. Now you understand why we never leave our windows open at night.”
For better or for worse, State College is now on the map. People around the country are talking about it. It’s become a story.
As journalism instructors in a town like this, we often struggle to find good stories for our students to cover. That’s because, in general, big news and major events don’t happen here. For many people, that’s one of the advantages of living in a place like this, but for those of us who teach the business of news, it presents a unique challenge.
To make sure our students get a taste of the type of work real reporters do, we often send them out to cover borough council or school board meetings. And sometimes we create news events by organizing panels on hot-button issues, which our students are encouraged or required to cover. In recent years, for example, we’ve held several panel discussions on how the media have covered major national stories, among them the 2008 presidential election and the 2006 Amish schoolhouse killings.
This year, we’ve decided to bring the discussion even closer to home. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, representatives of the State College community, the university and the Penn State student body will take part in a special panel organized by the journalism department at the College of Communications titled “Dangerous Drinking: Is There a Solution?”
Participating in this panel, in 162 Willard Building, will be State College Police Chief Tom King; District Judge Carmine Prestia; Linda LaSalle, the associate director of educational services at University Health Services; Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and Damon Sims, cochairmen of the Partnership Against Dangerous Drinking; and Panhellenic Council President Sara Linkosky.
Is the solution tougher sanctions? More education about the perils of alcohol? Bigger fines for citations? A ban on alcohol in the dormitories? Our panelists will be asked to address these and other questions.
We may not be able to reach a consensus, but what’s certain is that we will have given our journalism students a unique opportunity to cover a local story that’s gained national attention and one that affects them directly.
Seating is limited, but please stop by if you have a chance and hear our distinguished panelists weigh in.
Judy Maltz is a senior lecturer in the department of journalism at Penn State.