When Penn State athletic teams hold alumni get-togethers, the days are fun and festive, with former Nittany Lions trading plenty of stories about the good old days and what is new in their lives, personally and professionally.
Men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik, however, is pretty sure years from now when he asks current player Calvin Mende about his work life, the answers will be brief — and vague.
“I think those conversations will come with a waiting period before they become declassified,” Pavlik joked. “I’m sure Cal’s going to look at me and say, ‘I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you. Sorry, I can’t tell you that.’ ”
The redshirt sophomore is one of the team’s top players, and has the potential to be a professional volleyball player in leagues overseas. But Mende may instead focus closer to home, wanting to serve his country instead of deliver serves — and spikes and blocks.
Mende is majoring in security and risk analysis at Penn State, part of the College of Information Sciences and Technology, and is learning to look at data and pictures and to determine what it all means. He even joined three other students in the program for a session in December near Washington, D.C., for a presentation about global issues from military personnel and other government entities. The discussions extended from areas of potential conflict, like the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, to places in need like Puerto Rico, rebuilding from hurricane devastation last fall.
Among the close to 50 in attendance, the group from Penn State were the only college students in the three-day session, with the rest professionals in some form in the field.
“I had a lot of fun and learned a lot down there,” said Mende, who didn’t necessarily see anything classified but did have access to information that is not publicly accessible.
“Images that you can’t just go on Google Earth and find,” he joked.
The Schreyer Honors College student is studying in the Red Cell Analytics Lab, a program that annually sends graduates to law enforcement and various government agencies. The lab is led by Col. Jake Graham, a retired Marine who spent 26 years serving around the world.
The students study threats in all shapes and sizes, from domestic to international, from military to climate change. They collate information on foreign governments, economies and world events and try to find warning signs while trying to maintain objectivity.
“We have to decompose that stuff and strip out all of the slant, all of the organizational bias,” Graham said. “You’re looking for a fact-based analysis, very objective. What we teach in our program is critical reading, critical writing, critical examination, inference building, challenging assumptions, constructing analysis and competing hypotheses.”
Part of the process is reversing the vantage point — viewing the U.S. from the nation or region in question. Among the students in a class on deception and counter-deception is Penn State football safety Koa Farmer, and Graham is happy to throw in football analogies to help explain topics.
“It’s like a defensive coordinator looking at the offense,” Graham said.
Also soaking in the details is Mende, who would be considered an atypical Penn State student — not to mention an atypical volleyball player — even before looking at his field of study.
He stands 6-foot-11 and hails from Redlands, Calif., just north of Los Angeles. He had hardly seen snow before he got to State College, and admitted he got odd looks from others on campus during his first winter snowfall when he was playing like a little kid while other students walked to classes.
He’s also a former water polo player, using his long frame as a goalie. Having that additional experience has helped his conditioning, and his joints. He doesn’t have the post-practice and post-game knee pain that most athletes his size have.
Mende has been sidelined the past few weeks with an ankle injury, but as a right-side hitter he is one of the Nittany Lions’ top offensive threats. His average of more than three kills per set leads the team and he is tied for third with his 12 total blocks, helping the No. 9 Nittany Lions to a 5-2 record heading into Saturday night’s match at St. Francis.
With his studies, and how Mende operates in general, Pavlik can see how Mende’s academic life assists on the court.
“He files things away, and you never see him surprised by the same thing over and over again,” Pavlik said. “There’s a confidence about him on the court of, ‘I can handle anything.’ ”
Combining the intelligence, size, skill and potential for future improvement, Pavlik also can see Mende having a chance to put on a Team USA jersey down the road. While that is a long way down the road, it could possibly mean following in the footsteps of another standout Nittany Lion — 2008 National Player of the Year Matt Anderson is the current starting right-side hitter for the U.S., and has played in the past two Summer Olympics.
To pursue that possibility, Mende would have to embark on years of playing professionally. He would have to follow paths like those of Anderson, who plays for a team in Russia, or two other former Nittany Lions and 2016 Olympians, Max Holt and Aaron Russell, who are in Italy.
He has a few years to mull his future, and the mere thought of playing for Team USA is just an abstract possibility, but Mende does know that day to make a choice may come.
“There’s a part of me that wants to pursue my sport as far as I can and I don’t want to regret that later down the road,” he said. “That’s an opportunity you don’t get to pursue later in life. But at the same time, being able to help the nation, the country that way, I think I would have to choose that if I was given that opportunity.”
What he has been learning in the program has broadened his perspectives, seeing stories and issues around the world in a different way than before he started in the program.
“There are so many different reactions that could occur,” he said. “There’s a chess game we’re playing right now and it’s not clear what the solution is. Every day there are people coming up with brand-new strategies and some work better than others.”
Mende hopes there will be a day he can be looking at the images and reports — the chess board — and helping come up with those brand-new strategies.
Not that Pavlik or the rest of the Nittany Lion volleyball family would ever hear about it.
“I’m looking forward to (team alumni weekends) very much,” he said. “I can’t wait to tell people, ‘That’s classified.’ ”