Turbulent year nears end for Penn State seniors

An academic year that no Penn State senior was prepared for comes to a close this week when the university holds graduation ceremonies.

Nearly 13,000 diplomas will be awarded this weekend across the Penn State system. In State College, more than 8,500 undergraduates are finishing their bachelor's degrees at the system's main University Park campus.

The same sprawling campus turned into the epicenter of the scandal that erupted in November, the aftermath of child sexual abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

"As we approach commencement and all the related celebrations, I'm sure everyone is ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief," school President Rodney Erickson wrote in an email Wednesday to staff and students. "It has been a difficult year, and I appreciate your dedication and goodwill through it all."

Most students were caught in the middle of the media frenzy that descended on Happy Valley as university trustees, in the days after Sandusky was charged, debated the jobs of then-school President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno.

Sandusky has maintained his innocence while awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin next month.

Many students were among the roughly 4,000 to 5,000 people who took to downtown streets to protest Paterno's dismissal Nov. 9.

The main campus has about 40,000 students. Police have said people who weren't students were among those arrested for causing damage.

But the protest overshadowed the outpouring of support that spilled out two days later, when thousands of students gathered on the steps of the Old Main administration building for a candlelight vigil for victims of child sex abuse. Many students also took part in fundraising efforts for charities devoted to raising awareness about child abuse treatment and research.

Students "have really been the unsung heroes," said senior Peter Khoury, a student representative on the Board of Trustees. "The students have really rallied around each other ... There wasn't anybody else to rally around."

Students came out in droves again in January to mourn Paterno's death at age 85. They lined the streets, often five or six deep, as Paterno's funeral procession wound through campus.

Samantha Hulings said student unity was what she would remember most her senior year.

"I know that a lot of people from the outside see all the horrible stuff that happened, and that's all they see," she said. "Being here in State College, we got to be a part of it. Even though horrible things happened and there was so much negativity, there were so many great things that came out of it."

Hulings also covered the story as literary editor for La Vie, the student-run Penn State yearbook. Editor-in-Chief Jessica Uzar, another senior, said staff discussed with advisers how to handle the scandal and its aftermath before quickly determining the issues had to be covered objectively.

"We determined we couldn't ignore what happened," Uzar said. "I think people would have talked if we had left it out."

So this year's yearbook included pages devoted to the November protest and candlelight vigil, as well as a timeline of events. The yearbook ends with a 24-page retrospective of Paterno's life and career.

The last page includes an image of Paterno's trademark look of rolled-up khakis and black sneakers superimposed on a block "S'' next to a blue ribbon, which symbolized support for victims of child sexual abuse.

Penn State's Career Services offices received some questions about how the scandal might affect seniors' job prospects. Employer recruitment was up across most fields this year, the school has said this spring.