This is a very special time around Penn State for about 10,000 young folks and their families. They'll fill a jam-packed Bryce Jordan Arena, listen to a speaker tell them they are the future of the world, and then walk across the stage to collect the prize for which they have been dreaming of and working for so diligently for the past twenty years.
This year, I'm familiar with the story of at least a part of the road traveled by one young lady making that walk this weekend. Her name is Carol Chang of Houston, Texas, and we share a common start in life...we both attended Robert E. Lee High School in southwest Houston.
In late fall of 2007, I found myself on the road in Texas for several business appointments, one of those being an invitation to speak to a couple of wood shop classes at my alma mater. I had an interest in the WoodLINKS program, which is an industry effort to reach out to and support woodworking education in local high schools. It turned out Lee had a wood shop program participating in WoodLINKS. Mr. Johnny Brooks, the Lee wood shop teacher, had found the program very beneficial to the school's program, and he had been able to develop at least one great industry relationship through the program by which students were being trained and hired in the finer skills of working with wood.
Mr. Brooks shared with me the success of his program (which continues to this day) and invited me to stop by and speak to his students while I was in the Houston area. So on a warm Friday morning in late October of 2007, I found myself speaking to about forty young folks, all of whom had looks on their faces that clearly expressed the thought of "Who is this guy, and why is he showing us slides of Pennsylvania?"
For I had thought I would thrill the young folks with some pictures of the Gettysburg battlefield in order to provide some relevancy to my invitation for them to consider coming to Penn State. What better point of reference, I thought, for the young minds of Robert E. Lee to consider, than the place that was the focal point of that great general's career?
But, a few things had changed at my alma mater since 1974, the year of my emancipation from that learned institute. Primarily, the demographics. These were no longer young sons and daughters of the Confederacy, but sons and daughters of the world. Southwest Houston, unknown to me, had become a center of immigration for the southern United States, and the students were more attuned to the World Cup soccer standings than to American history of the 19th century. In fact, the school had dropped the "Robert E." from its name in 2000, and is now known simply as Lee High School.
So, as the picture of the view from Little Round Top appeared on the screen, and I proudly began to explain the significance of that place, it was more than a little disconcerting to realize I had a sea of blank faces in front of me. It dawned on me that perhaps I had been mistaken on their knowledge of the battle, so I asked...
"Can anyone tell me what Gettysburg is famous for?"
"Abraham Lincoln gave a very famous speech there."
A few more moments of disbelief...they, not believing I was asking these dumb questions, I, not believing they didn't know what I was talking about.
Finally, in the back of the room, I saw a small hand go up, hesitantly.
"Was it the Gettysburg Address?" the young lady of the hand meekly inquired.
"Yes!" I encouraged her. "And what war was that?"
She looked like she didn't want to answer, and everyone else in the room still had glazed eyes. Finally, she offered..."World War One?"
That was my introduction to Carol Chang. She came up to me after the presentation; she was interested in Penn State. She loved working with wood, and it sounded like she could learn more about it at Penn State. Mr. Brooks told me that Carol was one of his best students; she had taken an internship with his partnering furniture company that summer, and was currently working on a table she had designed herself. We headed into the shop to take a look at it.
This is about the stage the table was when I saw it. I could tell that the table that was to come, and the young lady that designed it and was building it, were something special.
Her design lines, and the techniques used to accomplish them, were far beyond anything I remembered from my bird house days of wood shop.
Mr. Brooks mentioned that Carol's exposure to the furniture company, and the equipment the company had donated to the school, had enabled her to do things that were far beyond their capabilities a few short years before. The students were well past birdhouses and cutting boards; they now worked on tables, chairs and cabinets. In fact, the class wasn't even called wood shop anymore; it was called Cabinetmaking I and Cabinetmaking II.
I have since found out that high-school woodworking classes across the country have built relationships with the wood industry under several different programs, and that a lot of today's woodworkers are coming into the industry with advanced skills learned in high school. What a great thing.
Here's the finished piece. Carol won first place for it in a national competition that is sponsored every year by WoodLINKS.
And in the fall of 2008, Carol started on her degree in Wood Science at Penn State at our Mont Alto campus, just a few miles from where that famous World War I battle of Gettysburg took place.
At Penn State, Carol didn't have much time to add to her portfolio. In addition to taking a full schedule of courses every semester, she worked for three years in the Model Shop of the College of Architecture. The shop is a great facility with state-of-the-art woodworking equipment where the architecture students are required to build models of their projects for various classes. Carol worked as a technician in the shop, maintaining equipment and eventually, teaching the other students how to use it all.
The little bird she's holding in the picture is her first experiment with "band-saw sculpturing". I think you can see the talent she has.
So, here's Carol Chang this week, proudly standing in front of Old Main in her cap and gown. She walks the stage this weekend, the next phase of her life completed and a Wood Products degree in hand. She's waiting for the next phase to start, hoping that she can find a great job in the woodworking or furniture design industry. If you happen to know of something she might be interested in, drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll forward it on to her.
Another young Penn State person, Going Wood. I have no doubt I'll be featuring some of her future work in this column.