Driven by an uncommon dedication to their alma mater, distance is not a deterrence for alumni who travel back to campus for Impact Smeal Day.

Cristal Brun attended her first Impact Smeal Day shortly after completing her MBA program. The experience inspired her to return the next year and again the year after.

“I found it was a great opportunity for me to come back, give back, and show my support for the school,” says Brun, who resides in Miami and works for The Vertex Companies, LLC, as a senior director in their Claims and Expert Services/Contract Claims Group.

In November 2023, after a several year hiatus from the event, she decided to renew the tradition. Only this time, she brought her daughter Natalia.

“This is Natalia’s senior year of high school and she’s been applying to different colleges,” explains Brun. “I thought it was a great opportunity for her to see where her father and I went to school, and to view Penn State through the lens of a prospective student by taking part in the different breakout sessions and discussions.”

Their day also included a tour of campus with a Smeal student who took the time to answer all of Natalia’s questions, and an insider’s look around Beaver Stadium — a special event organized specially for the 10th anniversary of Impact Smeal Day that Brun says “wowed” them both.

PS Smeal Cristal Brun
​Cristal Brun, a senior director in The Vertex Companies, LLC, Claims and Expert Services/Contract Claims Group, traveled from Miami for Impact Smeal Day and brought her daughter, Natalia.

“As we were leaving campus,” says Brun, “Natalia turned to me and said, ‘I forgot how much I love Penn State. Thank you for bringing me!’ It was such an enriching opportunity for her.”

Brun and her daughter aren’t alone in these sentiments. Over the years, countless Impact Smeal Day participants have traveled from near and far for an experience they describe as both educational and motivating. Some, like Erin O’Leary, have even been moved to become more involved in Smeal.

Rekindling Connections and Building Networks

“I’m a little embarrassed to admit that at first I was a very unengaged alum,” says O’Leary, a certified merger and acquisition advisor and president-elect of Smeal’s Alumni Society Board. “Once I did take part in Impact Smeal Day — about eight years ago — I found it really fulfilling. That feeling hasn’t left. Even now, since I’ve moved away from Happy Valley to Boston, I continue to maintain a relationship with Smeal.”

Impact Smeal Day was born out of a simple goal: to strengthen the school’s community by drawing alumni back to campus so they could interact with one another, faculty, staff, and current students. It’s a goal the biannual event continues to achieve, according to Jen Crispell, Smeal’s director of alumni relations.

Erin O’Leary, president-elect of Smeal’s Alumni Society Board, traveled from Boston for Impact Smeal Day.

Impact Smeal Day was born out of a simple goal: to strengthen the school’s community by drawing alumni back to campus so they could interact with one another, faculty, staff, and current students.

Since its launch in 2013, Impact Smeal Day has both grown and evolved. “With limited space in the Business Building, our goal is less focused on increasing the attendance at each event,” says Crispell, “but rather on providing quality opportunities for engagement, and encouraging new participants to join us each semester.”

She explains that the day mirrors a professional conference, with different sessions and events from which attendees can pick and choose. With expanding faculty, and course and program offerings, there’s always something to showcase. “This almost makes it easy to think about what the agenda looks like,” Crispell says.

Impact Smeal Day always kicks off with a cocktail and networking event the night prior. The following morning, Charles H. Whiteman, the John and Karen Arnold Dean of Smeal, gives a “State of the College” address to officially start the day. This is the only portion of the agenda that is livestreamed, allowing alumni and professional graduate students everywhere the chance to tune in.

“It is a one-hour, deep-dive conversation,” says O’Leary. “He makes it very collaborative and allows people to engage and respectfully push back at times regarding ongoing initiatives within Smeal. Dean Whiteman really does an outstanding job.”

The balance of the day consists of numerous opportunities for alumni and students to connect, collaborate, and respectfully challenge one another on relevant topics in a variety of forums. For example, during the fall 2023 event, some of the panel discussions focused on international business; data analytics and supply chain management; and workforce diversity and inclusion.
The opportunity to coach a team participating in the Business with Integrity Case Competition was what stood out to O’Leary. The fact that they won the event was a bonus.

And then there was the tour of Beaver Stadium. “We won’t do this every time, but we wanted to offer something special to celebrate Impact Smeal Day’s 10th anniversary,” Crispell explains. “A lot of people really enjoyed the opportunity to tour the spaces they may not get to see, like the press room, the locker room, the player tunnel, and then the more specialized areas such as the Mt. Nittany Society lounge, and the Letterman’s Club, which is where former players can view the games and features a lot of history. It was a really cool experience.”

Beyond the sessions and the experiences, Crispell and O’Leary agree that what brings alums to Impact Smeal Day is the opportunity to give back.

“A lot of our graduates see this day as a way to come to campus, share their experience, see what the undergrads and graduate students are doing now, and compare it to what was done years ago,” says Crispell. “They enjoy being able to share what they know and have learned with the next generation of business leaders.

“This was the first time we invited our professional graduate students to join in the event and many of them enjoyed being able to harness the alumni network and make connections that will help them propel their career,” she continues. “The faculty and staff who participate also enjoy having the alumni there for the students. It lets them see what’s possible when you graduate from Smeal.”

“Penn State is a world-class organization that goes toe-to-toe with any school in the U.S.,” says O’Leary. “That’s what Impact Smeal Day does. It lets students see the world beyond. The idea of carving out your own path can be overwhelming, but this event adds guardrails to the process. It lets the students know there are alumni out there — the largest alumni network in the world — who can help you close the gap. But you need to be willing to engage with them.”

In fact, it was the opportunity to engage with alumni, faculty, and others in her Online MBA program — and to see the campus in person — that prompted Kim McGuire to travel from Birmingham, Alabama, for Impact Smeal Day this past fall.

“I started the program in 2022 and have loved the opportunity to interact with my professors and classmates on screen, but wanted to meet them in person too,” she says. “I was torn, however, between attending my graduation this past December — which was hard with the holidays — or attending Impact Smeal Day. My advisers sold me on the latter.”

The Gift that Keeps Giving

From the moment she set foot on campus, McGuire says she was welcomed with open arms. “I came the night before and took part in the Pre-Impact Smeal Day Reception with the Alumni Society Board. It was kind of intimidating to walk into the beautiful Business Building and into a room where you don’t know a soul, but everyone was so warm and welcoming. I even met Dean Whiteman, who asked me about my experience!”

McGuire, too, loved the case competition.

“I sat with the three young women who ended up winning and was so impressed by them. They had such a clear vision of who they are and what they want to be, and they’re only 22 years old,” she says.
“I had never been to a case competition before, though I did something similar with my local high school and it was really neat to hear them talk about their presentation and how they approached the competition.”

Don Ziter, a 1981 Smeal graduate who serves as a private equity and investment banking advisor with the Gerson Lehrman Group, a consulting firm, has been traveling from Clearwater Springs, Florida, to attend Impact Smeal Day for the past few years.

Kim McGuire traveled from her home in Birmingham, Alabama, for Impact Smeal Day and the chance to engage with alumni, faculty, and others in her Online MBA program.

“I’ve been mentoring Smeal students for years and having a blast. These students are bright and ambitious, and I draw so much energy from them.”

“I’ve been mentoring Smeal students for years and having a blast. These students are bright and ambitious, and I draw so much energy from them,” he says. “At the same time, I remember having a lot of questions when I was their age, but I didn’t have many mentors in the business world to talk with. Coming to Impact Smeal Day gives me a chance to meet with these students face-to-face.”

When meeting with his mentees, Ziter talks with them about a range of topics, including their interests and how they can home in on these in class, the importance of internships, how to interview, and what things they really need to worry about. “All the things I wish a working professional had discussed with me when I was a student. It’s fun to help them focus.”

Ziter admits he didn’t have high expectations the first time he attended the event. “I thought there would be presentations given by talking heads. I didn’t expect this level of interaction with fellow alums, or the opportunity to gain their perspective on different topics.

“When I meet with people at Impact Smeal Day, it’s interesting to hear how many are in a similar role and to share ideas and experiences,” he continues. “It’s nice to know that when you have a situation you’re not sure how to address, there are alums who can help you brainstorm a solution.”

For those who regularly attend Impact Smeal Day the message is clear, there’s more than meets the eye and if you try it once, you’ll probably come back again. Don Ziter, above, said he enjoys watching students compete in the case competition.

“Smeal gave me the tools and resources to get me where I am today. I truly believe it’s important for alumni to give back. It’s our responsibility.”

Like many others, Ziter also enjoyed seeing the students in action during the case competition. “You get to see the students’ creativity and ingenuity,” he says. “In business, your ethics are tested every day and you need to have some experience to know that not everything is black and white. Sometimes you must navigate the gray. At Smeal, these kids are learning they can be the smartest person in the room.”

Brun agrees.

“Impact Smeal Day is a great opportunity to make new connections with fellow alums and to meet today’s students. They’re very inquisitive and want to know about real life experiences. For example, I do litigation consulting, and specialize in forensic accounting and fraud investigations and was able to share some of my experiences in this field,” she says.

“Smeal gave me the tools and resources to get me where I am today. I truly believe it’s important for alumni to give back. It’s our responsibility.”

While she loved the session about establishing workforce diversity and inclusion, the one Brun found particularly valuable focused on the resources Smeal could offer its graduates. “I learned that the school has a dedicated Alumni Career Services office that you can connect with if you’re looking for a new job, and that if I ever wanted to make a completely different career move, for example, they can not only assist with the resume, but they can also make the necessary industry connections…it speaks to the power of the alumni network.” she says. “Learning about the breadth of resources the college has to offer alone is a good reason to attend Impact Smeal Day.”

Looking Forward to fall ‘24

The ensuing months were busy ones for Crispell, O’Leary, and the other members of the planning team as they worked to finalize the Impact Smeal Day agenda for spring 2024 — an event that was particularly poignant given the impending retirement of Dean Whiteman.

“We know there will be many moments that focus around engagement with him,” says O’Leary. “He’s been such a wonderful leader for Smeal.”

There were also plenty of networking opportunities, including the annual Smeal Awards Celebration & Hammond Society Recognition that took place on April 4, and the same rich selection of presentations and sessions that attendees expect.

But Crispell and O’Leary weren’t the only ones looking forward to the spring, and the fall 2024 Impact Smeal Day planned for Sept. 20.

Inspired by her experience at Impact Smeal Day, McGuire shared that she’s hoping to establish a Penn State Alumni group in her hometown of Birmingham. “Impact Smeal Day really lit a fire for me,” she says.

Likewise, Brun’s daughter Natalia applied early decision to Penn State and has been accepted. Now, she has some big decisions to make.

Both McGuire and Brun planned to be at Impact Smeal Day in April.

When asked what she would say to anyone who’s on the fence about attending Impact Smeal Day, O’Leary responded without hesitation. “Every journey starts with the first step. I would say, take that step and come check it out.”