ATHENA young professional leadership award honors new Behrend graduate

Penn State Behrend graduate Gabi Watson holds her diploma.

“You can be an introvert and still be a leader,” says Gabi Watson, a December graduate of Penn State Behrend and winner of the 2023 ATHENA Young Professional Award.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — When student Gabi Watson switched her major to English at Penn State Behrend, she finally found her path — and her voice. It just took a little courage for her to follow a passion that was there all along, she said.

“I did every other possible major,” Watson, a December graduate, said with a chuckle.

The Erie native started her college experience in the forensic biology program at Penn State’s University Park campus. She quickly discovered that a career in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — wasn’t truly what she wanted. Her college journey led her to Behrend and included stops in the Division of Undergraduate Studies and the political science program.

“I finally realized I belonged in liberal arts,” she said. “I fell in love with the English program and the teachers in it.”

She also felt at home at Behrend, she said.

“I love how close-knit the campus is and how beautiful Behrend is,” she said. “I got all four seasons here in my hometown, where I got a great education and had close relationships with my teachers.”

Before landing in the English department, Watson did some soul searching.

“I grew up reading,” she said. “I knew I loved English, but I didn’t know if I loved literature. I thought choosing English would mean I would just be reading a lot of poetry.”

Then Watson discovered how diverse a degree in English can be.

“I didn’t know how many options there were in writing,” she said. “I felt I was floating around in the English department until I took ‘Writing for the Web.’ I found out you can have a great career in something you are passionate about.”

While she concentrated on professional writing, it was creative writing classes that helped Watson find her voice, she said.

“I learned a lot about expressing emotion and how to transcribe my thoughts into words,” she said.

Watson’s budding confidence carried into extracurricular activities. The self-described introvert was a junior before becoming involved in activities at Behrend, such as the Lion Entertainment Board and an Alternative Spring Break trip.

She grew from observer to participant to executive director of the Lion Entertainment Board, helping to advance the club from four members to more than 30, while developing event-planning skills.

Watson credits her advisor, Massimo Verzella, an associate professor of English, as well as staff members in the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) with putting her on a path to success.

“Dr. Verzella changed the trajectory of what I wanted to do in my life,” she said. “He educated me on possibilities I didn’t know existed. I don’t think I’d be as social or as well-rounded as I am now without his support and that of SLI staff members.”

In turn, she began mentoring other students.

“I learned I like leading a team and helping people find their passion, and I wanted to help other students figure out what they were good at,” she said.

Watson’s success in leadership was recognized beyond campus when she was chosen to receive the 2023 ATHENA Young Professional Award, which celebrates emerging female leaders in Erie.

Watson envisions a career that involves writing, generating social media content, travel, event planning and possibly work in diversity, equity and inclusion. First, however, she’s beginning a six-month stint in the Disney College Program at Walt Disney World in Florida.

She isn’t yet sure what she will do after that program, Watson said. She knows she won’t be a silent observer, though.

“You can be an introvert and still be a leader,” she said. “I never thought I could, but with the right support, I’ve been able to find my voice in writing and in leadership. Wherever I end up next, I know Behrend has given me a solid foundation to build on.”