Locust Walk Talk: Penn Alumni Volunteer Leadership Retreat

Author: Casey Ryan, C’95

If you are reading this blog, mostly likely you are one of the 290,000 plus alumni from one of Penn’s undergraduate, graduate, or professional schools.  This outstanding group comprises the association called Penn Alumni. You are a member of Penn Alumni.

In your day-to-day life, you probably don’t always think about your alumni association and what they can do for you.  In Alumni Relations, we do.  In addition to supporting our alumni for their post-college academic needs, we work to organize and train our volunteer leaders to keep them best informed about the University as well as to provide networking opportunities among our Penn volunteers to find synergies to take advantage of and to share lessons to learn and grow from.

To do this, Alumni Relations hosted its annual Penn Alumni Volunteer Leadership Retreat this February for the Board of Directors (Penn Alumni’s governing board of 60 members including our Alumni Trustees), the Council of Representatives (a cadre of 300 members consisting of the presidents of the undergraduate class, regional alumni clubs and Penn Alumni’s constituent groups), and regional alumni clubs leaders (all regional club board members in addition to club presidents). These volunteers were invited to return to campus to be updated on the University, to network with their fellow volunteers, to come together for training, and to have access to their Penn senior administrators and their Penn Alumni liaisons. The retreat, now in its fifth year, came about to supplement the winter Penn Alumni Board and Council Meetings to take advantage of our volunteers’ time together in Philadelphia and provide the programming that they have asked for.

Alumni at dinner watching a demonstration

In planning the retreat, we adopted Penn’s Academic Theme, the Year of Games, to identify many of our retreat speakers to provide an insider’s experience of the impact of the academic theme on our students. This academic theme covers a great number of topics including athletic competition, negotiations, applying gameplay functionality in non-game contexts, and the impact of play on health and political strategies to start. Penn’s Provost Office started this initiative in 2007 to sponsor a series of events around an academic theme chosen by faculty, staff and students. Events featuring the theme that defines the academic year start with the Penn Reading Project and continue all year long with interdisciplinary conferences, symposia, exhibits, performances, and more, all produced on Penn’s campus by our schools, departments, resource centers, and partners.  In keeping with this theme, our volunteers had access to programming to learn about robotics, group dynamic strategies, politics and Penn’s student athletes.

I wanted to share with you what our volunteers learned while back on campus.


Dr. Daniel D. Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Associate Professor and Raymon S. Markowitz Faculty Fellow, and his lab study and research the topic of Robotics and Machine Learning.  His research analyzes on topics ranging from applying knowledge about biological information processing systems to building better artificial sensorimotor systems that can adapt and learn from experience. To illustrate this particular process, Dr. Lee and his students demonstrated this research and its more fun application with the robotic soccer team.  Dr. Lee and his students programmed the robots to analysis all outside stimuli from the location of the red “soccer” ball and then reacting appropriately to the object.  This entertaining exhibition highlighted the lab’s ultimate goal of making machines that better understand what we want them to do. Follow the links to learn more about Professor Lee, the robotics program at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Laboratory.

Ashleigh Thomas, Eng’13, with a “soccer” playing robot

Group Dynamic Strategies:

Santo D. Marabella, GRS’91, MBA, DSW, addressed the attendees with real-life working tactics for the group dynamics of volunteering.  He discussed the complex relationships among the volunteer, his or her peers, and the University staff, and how interactions among all groups should make the participants feel their time and contributions are valued and respected.  Each group was then asked to develop ways of operating on their individual committee level as well as on the overall Penn Alumni level. Before breaking everyone into their respective working groups, Santo gave guidelines for establishing strategic themes for the Board, and for developing activities for the many committees, affinity groups, and alumni societies over the next year.

Santo D. Marabella, GRS’91, MBA, DSW, addressing the group


Dick Polman, the full-time Maury Povich Writer in Residence, Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, serves as a part-time national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Over lunch, Polman gave a fascinating talk about the current political climate, touching upon the seemingly unstructured prevalence of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He shared his insight to the evolving GOP race to suggest who he thought would be the Republican presidential candidate while also focusing on Mitt Romney and addressing what he called the “Santorum Surge.”  Bringing into play his work covering the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Presidential campaigns, he fielded questions from the group, citing the economy and its recovery as well as rising gas prices as the variables that will influence Americans at the poll.  You can read more by Polman on his blog, American Debate.

Volunteers taking a moment to ask Dick Polman follow up questions

 Student Athletes:

Four of our outstanding student athletes, Kai Peng, W’12 (varsity sprint football), Douglas J. Miller, Jr., C’12 (club lacrosse), Adrienne Lerner, C’12 (varsity soccer), and Matthew Gould, W’14 (intramural basketball), discussed their commitment and desire to play sports at Penn.  Matt, who is also one of Penn Alumni’s work study students, also introduced the Red and Blue crew, the dedicated group of student fans.  The athletes then talked about the differences between varsity, club, and intramural sports, as well as highlighting the NCAA guidelines and how they affect Ivy versus non-Ivy varsity sports teams.  Their commitment to their respective sports and to their studies was obvious; all the athletes reported doing very well in their classes.  Each student also spoke about the fantastic impact of Penn Park on Penn’s athletics programs as a whole and how it has increased the resources for a Penn athlete. For example, Doug, the club lacrosse co-captain, shared that his team’s practice time has significantly improved from happening from 11 PM until 1 AM before Penn Park to a more reasonable 9:30 to 11:30 PM now that Penn Park is open and operational.

Our student athlete, sitting in the order mentioned above

Our volunteer leaders let us know through several anecdotes that the weekend was worth their time. Networking with their peers to share best practices gave them ideas for future endeavors with their Penn group.  Hearing the reports on the University to share with their members when they return was beneficial.  And, having access to some of the University’s best minds was, as they say in the MasterCard commercials, priceless.



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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Alumni Programming, Casey R., Clubs, Locust Walk Talk, Volunteering

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