How Penn State Smeal is inspiring generations of families
There’s a blue and white thread that runs through generations of families in Pennsylvania, across the United States, and even around the world.
This tie that binds is the shared connection that exists among the graduates of Penn State and, more specifically, the 90,000+ alumni of the Smeal College of Business.
But this is more than the tale of great careers launched with a Penn State degree. It’s about lifelong friendships and even marriages. Robust and unique programs that prepare grads for satisfying and successful careers. A place that feels like a second hometown, where one can cheer on their team and return, again and again, to revisit cherished memories and watch children and grandchildren become proud Penn Staters.
Here are four stories about multigenerational families rooted in Happy Valley and Penn State Smeal.
“We had families from across the country and the world celebrating together.”
Going Home Again
For years after he graduated with an accounting degree in 1990, Jonathan Taylor’s connections to Penn State centered on coming back for football games and catching up with old friends and business connections.
He valued his education and the career it afforded, but his era’s culture of huge lecture halls didn’t make him feel connected enough to visit Smeal. Then, Michelle Houser, Smeal’s senior director of development and alumni relations, told him, “Let’s give it another shot…If I get you back here, you’re going to feel really connected in ways you haven’t been.”
“She was absolutely right,” Taylor says. He visited, learned about the programs, and got to know current students and professors. He went on to serve on the Smeal External Accounting Advisory Board and later was a judge for years on the school’s “Lion’s Cage” competition, where students pitch their business plan a la the TV show “Shark Tank.”
“That was fun,” says Taylor, who is a partner at Spielman Koenigsberg & Parker LLP in New York.
His own family’s Penn State network includes his wife, Heather, a 1991 College of Education graduate, and his son, Matt, who completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from Smeal in 2020.
Matt Taylor’s favorite memories from Penn State include his time as a Smeal Ambassador — promoting the school to high school students — and working as a teaching assistant while pursuing his master’s degree.
“I had an amazing experience at Smeal and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share information with students who were unsure of their college decision,” says Matt, who is currently an audit associate with KPMG. “As a TA I had the opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of accounting frequently — which was very helpful as I advanced through the Master of Accounting (MAcc) program — and to teach younger students in the college.”
Also, the program made a huge university like Penn State feel like a much smaller place to him, since nearly all his coursework in the final two years was with the same fellow students.
“I made many friends through the MAcc program whom I’m close with to this day, especially at KPMG,” he says. “We’re scattered across several offices but take any chance we have to meet at recruiting or training events.”
Jonathan Taylor says watching his son’s Smeal graduation on Zoom in May of 2020 was a high point of the pandemic.
“The program was phenomenal,” he says. “They had grandmas in the background from Italy and at least half, if not more, of the [graduates] decorated their backgrounds. People didn’t yet have Zoom fatigue. We had families from across the country and the world celebrating together. It was really special.”
A Flourishing Smeal Family Tree
The Babcocks might have the most Penn State and Smeal graduates in one family tree. One family, 11 Penn Staters. Seven went to Smeal, four got bachelor’s degrees in accounting, two earned a master’s degree in accounting (MAcc), and one earned a master’s degree in manufacturing management.
“The lineage is deep,” says Ed Babcock, who had a long and successful career in accounting before joining the Smeal accounting faculty in 2009. In his 13 years there, he was also director of the MAcc program and assistant department chair for the last few years before retiring in 2021.
Coming to Penn State after high school was a big deal for him, a kid from a small, rural town in north central Pennsylvania, he says. His father, a high school principal, and his mother, a teacher, were their generation’s first college graduates and instilled the importance of education in their own children. Ed chose accounting after his father’s friend encouraged him to pursue this path since he was good at math and an analytical thinker.
“I said, ‘what’s an accountant?’” Ed recalls.
At Smeal, Ed was lucky enough to have two professors who took him under their wings and became mentors. Ultimately, his career began in public accounting and culminated as CFO for a telecom business.
“The full story about coming back [to Penn State] 25 years later was anchored in the relationship I had with Mark Dirsmith, who had been my faculty advisor,” says Ed. He explains that when he decided to leave the professional work world for a while and wasn’t sure of his next steps, he reached out to his connections.
“Ten minutes after I sent the email, Mark responded,” Ed says. “It was a one liner — in his typical fashion — and said, ‘Come see me — you were always meant to teach’.” So, he did.
Ed’s wife, Missy, also grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and was the first person from her family to go to a four-year college. She started at Penn State’s Hazelton campus and eventually met Ed on the University Park campus when she sublet an apartment with a friend. Ed and his four friends lived across the hall.
“Interestingly, two marriages besides our own came out of those two apartments and, with the exception of one of their children, every one of their kids are Penn Staters,” she says. “And, of those children who have married, most married a Penn Stater.”
The couple’s son, David, who earned his master’s in manufacturing management from Smeal in 2011, says that in addition to staying in touch with his former grad students through LinkedIn and Facebook, he’s also worked with Smeal graduates during his careers at Procter & Gamble and Knapheide. “Small world,” he says.
“For as long as I can remember I only ever wanted to go to Penn State for college,” says Eric Babcock, who completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting in 2013. “In fact, it was the only school I applied to. I grew up loving all things Penn State and I’m sure that was likely due to family influence. I remember making the trip to Penn State every fall for a football game and I can say I was bleeding blue and white from the first moment I stepped foot on campus. When I got accepted to Penn State, it was a dream come true.”
After graduating and starting his career at Deloitte, Eric returned to State College for recruiting events and interviews. It gave him a chance to connect with students as well as tell the story of his own career journey.
“I think there is just a high level of pride that Penn State graduates have for their school, and that pride and love for the University tends to rub off on their children,” Eric says. “My wife, Tessa (who holds a degree from the Penn State College of Education), and I already talk about the day when our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Addie, will (hopefully) attend Penn State. No matter where she lands, we will obviously support her — unless it’s Ohio State or Michigan — but you can bet we will be subtly influencing that decision. When parents have such fond memories of their alma mater, they can’t help but hope the same for their children.”
Younger sister, Rachel Ceneviva, a 2016 graduate with a degree in marketing, says growing up visiting Penn State for football games and participating in THON inspired her to become a Nittany Lion. As an undergrad, she first served as a mentor with the Smeal Student Mentors (SSM) program and then as team lead before becoming the marketing director.
“I consider SSM another driving force behind landing my job [as a senior consultant] at Deloitte because it provided opportunities to practice mentorship, work cross-functionally, and lead teams, so staying connected with SSM is a fun and meaningful way for me to continue to pay it forward,” she says. Even in 2022, it’s tough to beat word-of-mouth.
After moving from Colombia, South America, to Miami Beach, Florida, in the 10th grade, Salo Sredni was searching through a U.S. Colleges guidebook in the 1980s for a good accounting education. Penn State’s business program caught his attention.
Turns out, his humanities teacher approved mightily — she was a Penn Stater herself.
“She got super excited when she heard Penn State made it to my list of schools,” says Sredni, who earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1987.
Today, Sredni is managing director of Ocean Azul Partners, a venture capital company in Florida. He serves on the Smeal Board of Visitors and was chair of the college’s volunteer committee for the recently completed “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence” fundraising campaign.
“It gives me great joy to be able to give back and make a difference at a place that was so integral to shaping who I am today,” he says.
Sredni made another connection that changed his life while at Penn State. He met his wife, Ellen, who graduated from the College of Health and Human Development in 1988, while they were involved in Hillel, the campus Jewish organization. They became co-presidents his senior year.
Later, the couple returned to the campus regularly, bringing their twin daughters for football games and events.
“We made it very clear we had no expectations that they go to Penn State and encouraged them to blaze their own trails,” adds Salo Sredni. “But they surprised us.”
“When our daughters Kayla and Rebecca chose Penn State I was thrilled,” his wife notes. “I knew it would be a great experience for them academically and socially. I was also excited when they got to school and would talk about having a class in the Forum, or going to the Creamery, or running into McLanahan’s, I was able to relate!”
Rebecca Sredni says that during her college search she consistently compared other schools to Penn State, and this guided her decision to attend Smeal and complete a bachelor’s in management in 2016.
“There is so much pride being a Penn State grad, everyone always talks about their experiences. It’s hard to not want that for yourself,” says the senior consultant for Deloitte in Chicago.
“There’s so much pride being a Penn State grad, everyone always talks about their experiences. It’s hard not to want that for yourself.”
Kayla Sredni, who earned her bachelor’s in marketing in 2016, says the years of visiting Happy Valley made it feel like home — and Smeal fit her career goals when she was considering colleges. “I specifically chose Smeal because of its reputation among top tier employers and the powerful alumni network,” says the associate strategy director of social and digital at TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York.
She also nicely captures why her family and so many others have such deep connections to Penn State.
“I think many families have multiple generations of Penn Staters because it isn’t a place that leaves you after your four years of college,” she says. “Your time at PSU makes such a lasting impression that you feel compelled to share those experiences with your family members.”
Sharing Memories, Creating Ties
KC McClure says her family is filled with so many happy Penn Staters they joke about “trying to find someone who didn’t have a good experience at Penn State and Smeal.”
So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.
McClure’s Penn State family tree includes her son Jack Aiello, who earned a bachelor’s in management information systems from Smeal in 2022, and her stepson, Mike Aiello, who earned a bachelor’s in integrative arts from the College of Arts and Architecture in 2006.
“It was important to my husband and me that our kids didn’t feel any pressure to choose Penn State, even though we are such fans and supporters,” notes McClure, who earned a bachelor’s in accounting in 1987 and now serves as chief financial officer of Accenture.
“Our kids applied to multiple schools and visited many of them. Two chose Penn State. We knew it was fully their own decision, based on what they saw in the schools, campus, and community,” she says.
The Penn State Smeal connection also extends to her nieces, who now work at PwC.
Meaghan Baranowski earned her bachelor’s degree in finance at Smeal in 2018, followed by her master’s in accounting.
“It truly is the quintessential college experience,” Baranowski recalls. “The fact that we can have so much fun with our friends yet end our time with valued careers is a remarkable thing. I have such good memories at Penn State.”
“It truly is the quintessential college experience.”
Her sister, Hannah Baranowski, earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and a business certificate from Smeal in 2021. She also became involved in Smeal’s student-run Nittany Consulting Group.
“Many NCG graduates are at PwC, so it was beneficial to have those connections before even starting the job,” she says.
McClure, who now serves on Smeal’s Board of Visitors and remains close to other graduates through the alumni network, says the family Penn State connections are real. And, the location itself has something to do with it.
“I think part of it is about being in Happy Valley during those years of your life that leave such an impression on you as a young person,” she says. “You look back and realize just how lucky we were to live and learn in that community. Although it is bigger now, and has changed a lot, one of the things I love is that it still feels the same when we visit, even 30 years later.”
Hannah Baranowski echoes the sentiment: “After hearing [family] stories throughout the years, I knew I wanted a college experience like theirs where I would gain lifelong friends. Whenever I meet someone who also went to Penn State, I always feel that there is a sense of connection that only Penn State grads share. It’s even better to share that with family!”
McClure’s stepson, Mike Aiello, who now works on web user interfaces/user experiences for Amtrak, summed up the Penn State allure this way: “Even in 2022, it’s tough to beat word-of-mouth.”