From temporary classroom space under a roller skating rink in Chester to a picturesque residential campus in Middletown, Penn State Brandywine’s first half-century has been a remarkable story of growth, transformation and determination.
Sept. 25 will mark 50 years since classes began with 236 students and 11 full-time faculty members at Penn State Delaware County, as it was known until 2007. Penn State established the local campus at the request of the Delaware County Commissioners, who provided startup funding and the land where the campus is now located.
Under the leadership of founding director John Vairo, the campus from day one had an entrepreneurial vision and a can-do attitude. Those traits were essential when converting a former supermarket into a makeshift college campus, timing lectures with the organ music and roar of roller skates from above and using the local YMCA gym for athletics.
The spirit of those early days endures, and I see it reflected in the alumni I’ve met during our 50th anniversary celebration this year. They fondly recall their time at the Chester campus in the late 1960s or the one building we had on the Middletown campus in the early 1970s, when a church across the street was used for additional classroom space.
From the very beginning, the promise of our campus was to offer opportunity. It still is, even as we’ve grown to 1,400 students, six buildings and 112 acres.
We strive to provide a high-quality education with accessibility and affordability in mind. More than a third of our students are first-generation college, and we rank second in diversity among all of Penn State’s 24 campuses. Students’ opportunity for success is bolstered by our many academic-support and summer-learning programs.
We offer the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree at Brandywine or to begin a degree and complete it at another Penn State campus. Our students have the opportunity to engage in research side-by-side with accomplished faculty. They can travel internationally through our global programs or participate in community service projects close to home. They excel in intercollegiate athletics, with four of our teams winning conference championships last year. They prepare for career success through internships, mock interviews, campus job fairs and the guidance of our advisory board and alumni. And by raising funds for THON, Penn State’s annual student-run dance marathon, they have the opportunity to comfort families impacted by pediatric cancer.
We now offer the opportunity for on-campus housing and all the benefits that come with it, including building lifelong friendships. A student from Delaware County might have a roommate from Belgium, China, India or Nigeria, creating a cultural exchange that complements what they learn in class.
Through the Invent Penn State program, local small businesses have the opportunity to grow and improve their operations through mini-grants, seminars and access to the expertise of our faculty and students.
Our community has the opportunity to use our library and tennis courts, enjoy campus lectures and programs and attend events we host, such as Middletown Community Day and Sen. Killion’s senior expo. Campus speakers have ranged from Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Philly sports icon Julius Erving.
It would have been hard to imagine five decades ago just how much we as a campus and a university would change, and it’s even more remarkable to consider how much we as a society have changed, particularly in areas of technology. What was science fiction just a few years ago is now reality. The impact on universities and higher education in general has been profound.
While change has always occurred, the increasing pace of that change is amazing. It’s difficult — impossible, really — to visualize how much different we’ll be in another 50 years.
The ways we deliver instruction may continue to evolve, but I’m confident we’ll remain a vibrant campus of learners, doers and caring and committed citizens. Our students, faculty, staff and alumni will still embrace academic excellence, shine in athletics and co-curricular activities and make a real difference in our community, our region and the world.
For Penn State Brandywine, those qualities are timeless.
Kristin R. Woolever is chancellor of Penn State Brandywine. She is only the fourth executive officer at the campus since it was founded in 1967.