They were all there: Grant, Jack, John, Rachel, Logan, Marissa and Alexa, who brought her dog.
The faculty came, too, with plates hot from the stove. Even Zach Irwin showed, and he retired years ago.
The year-end dinner is a tradition for the political science program at Penn State Behrend. This year, because of COVID-19, the restaurants were closed; the seniors, and their professors, were stuck at home.
The program chair, Robert Speel, had an idea: He set up an informal, after-hours video call, and he “Zoombombed” it with special guests, including U.S. Sen. Robert Casey and U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a 2004 graduate of the college.
“Most of our students were disappointed by how the semester ended,” said Speel, an associate professor of political science. “They missed out on a lot of the traditional celebrations. This was a way to still have the dinner, and to make it one they’ll remember.”
Casey called in from Washington. He talked to the group for nearly 15 minutes.
“I hope that one of the things you consider in the years ahead is some kind of public service,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to run for public office, or work in government, but I encourage you to find some way to give back.
“Service isn’t a one-way street,” he said. “When you serve, you begin to better understand people’s struggles. You understand their limits, and the capacity you have to bring light to others’ lives. We need that now more than ever.”
Reschenthaler, who represents Pennsylvania’s 14th District, was the first guest to join the call. He talked about his career path, including his work in Iraq, where he was a prosecutor for the U.S. Navy’s JAG Corps.
He remained on the call for nearly an hour, talking with the students and reminiscing with other alumni guests, including Mauricio Cortes, a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. State Department.
“Government can do great things,” said Cortes, who is working to implement the new NAFTA deal, “but you have to make sure your voice is heard. If there is something about the government that you don’t like, say something, or do something about it. It’s up to each of us to hold our federal employees and elected officials accountable.”
More Zoom windows opened, bringing additional alumni into the discussion. Lauren Piera Jowell, an international relations officer at the U.S. Department of Labor, talked about her experience in the Peace Corps, teaching English in a small village in Ukraine. Kyle Hannon, who manages Casey’s Erie office, and Melissa Hayes Shirey, a former president of the Erie County Bar Association, reminisced with faculty members and offered career advice to the program’s new graduates, including John Jarecki, who will continue his studies at the University of Dayton School of Law this fall.
“It was really valuable to get that kind of insight from so many people with that level of political experience,” Jarecki said. “I knew Guy Reschenthaler would be on the call, but Sen. Casey was a complete surprise.
“It wasn’t quite, ‘Please hold for the president,’” he said, “but it was still a pretty surreal moment.”