Schreyer Honors College (SHC)at Penn State

Scholar Profiles

Meet Emily, Abe, Kate, Nick, Kate, Patrick and Ellie.

Each has a unique story to tell about their Schreyer experience. What they share is a desire to make the most of their time at Penn State.

Read about them. Get to know them. And see if their experiences won't inspire you to create your own Schreyer story.

Emily Zheng headshot

Emily Zheng Finance and Economics

Profile
Abe DeHart headshot

Abe DeHart Agricultural Systems Management

Picture this. The temperature outside is a scorching 120 degrees but the house you are living in has no air conditioning. You take a shower on a hot summer day, step foot outside, and immediately start dripping in sweat.

Abe DeHart doesn’t have to try hard to imagine what that would be like. He lived it while studying abroad in India during what turned out to be the hottest summer in 65 years.

“I think it’s cool how you don’t just adapt to the culture but your body adapts to the environment without even realizing it,” says Abe, a senior in the Schreyer Honors College majoring in agricultural systems management in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Abe found himself in Lucknow, India, courtesy of the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. It was his second summer participating in the program in North India.

“My dad was born in Pakistan and lived there until he was 18,” Abe says. “This was one of the factors why I wanted to go to Lucknow and learn Urdu. I’m learning Urdu because I want to work with farmers in Southeast Asia either in Pakistan or India. When you’re trying to gain the trust of farmers, it’s important that you speak the same language that they do.”

Abe’s future plans hinge on his ability to communicate with the region’s farmers. His goal is to help Southeast Asian farmers better manage the land for greater yields in food production.

Abe DeHart in a field of sunflowers

“The U.S. government is really interested in people working in Pakistan,” Abe says. “They are very focused on food security, which is basically the idea that if people are well fed, they will be more satisfied and less desperate. The U.S. government is doing a lot of work with trying to make sure people are well fed, and farmers are able to provide for themselves.

“I want to be able to practically help farmers. When I went to India, I was able to interview farmers and find out what solutions they envision. With the research I’ve done, I now have a better sense of what the problems actually are, whether it’s a problem of irrigation or maybe they can’t sell their products at the market since it’s too far away. I can go back and help them in the future.”

One of things he was surprised by in Lucknow was the lack of farming machinery and power equipment. “It’s really incredible to see what we take for granted,” Abe says. “Everything that we do with machinery here, they do by hand. People were planting rice by hand, weeding by hand and even plowing using bulls rather than tractors. I was under the impression that if they’re doing this all by hand they probably won’t be happy. However, I was really surprised by how happy and hospitable they were.”

Abe expected the landscape to be barren but was amazed by how it was reminiscent of the U.S. Midwest. “I was so surprised by how green everything was,” Abe says. “I was expecting dry landscapes because the agricultural techniques are significantly different there, but the landscapes were so beautiful. Sometimes you would even think you were out in the Midwest or even western Pennsylvania. There wasn’t a lot of trash around in most places. It was a vivid, tropical green. A lot of the land is irrigated with groundwater. It really is beautiful.”

In addition to being able to speak the language, Abe also was able to relate to the economics of farming. Abe has a landscaping business back home in Philadelphia that he started when he was 12.

“I have two employees and about 60 clients,” he says. “I applied the business concepts I learned here to the situation in India. A lot of people feel that the people over there are different from here. I find that the Indian farmers here are very similar to the farmers here in Pennsylvania. Being able to communicate well with farmers here helped me to communicate with farmers there. People felt comfortable sharing their problems with me as they do here.”

Back on campus, Abe has also been working as an emergency medical technician for the University Ambulance Service since his freshman year. Outside of the classroom, Abe is active in various organizations. He is the vice president of the International Agriculture Club and teaches English classes for International Ministries.

“I really enjoying teaching English because it gives me more opportunities to talk to people from other cultures,” says Abe. “It’s so cool to be able to talk to people who are from other countries.”

He has also been leading a Bible study for agricultural students since sophomore year.

“My faith is a big part of my life,” says Abe. “It’s integrated with all my goals. Helping people is a big part of that and why I choose to do the things I do.”

“The sky is the limit for Abe,” says Ruth Mendum, director of the University Fellowships Office. “He’s very self-reflective. He’s constantly refining what he’s doing and where he’s going. That means that every time I meet with him, his plan has gotten that much better, sophisticated and informed. He has real leadership material.”

After graduating, Abe wants to return to India and complete a Fulbright research grant on farming systems that will increase farmers’ incomes.

“I would also be interested in working for a non-governmental organization,” Abe says. “I would like to be doing work that allows me to interact with farmers on a regular basis.”

In 10 years, Abe sees himself as the head of an organization doing agricultural work in the developing world.

“I see my organization affecting the lives of thousands of families and giving them the tools that allow them to pull themselves out of poverty,” says Abe.

“Abe’s future looks very bright,” says Thomas Gill, assistant professor of international agriculture. “He can do anything he wants if he puts his mind and heart to it. Success to him is making an impact and being content that he is making a difference.”

Which may be why Abe has found himself far from home the past two summers building the skills and learning a language that is getting him ready for the future.

“When you’re presented with a cool opportunity, go for it,” Abe says. “Don’t hesitate. Do what you’re passionate about. If you think you should do it, just go for it.”

And, for someone like Abe, if you end up in a place where the daytime high is 120 degrees, don’t sweat it. You’ll be ready to take the heat.

Nick Frazzette headshot

Nick Frazzette Bioengineering

Since grade school, Nick Frazzette has never stopped asking “why?”

“My seventh grade teacher would say that she hated when I raised my hand because I always asked the questions she didn’t know the answers to,” Nick said. “That mentality has taken me to where I am today.”

Math and science have always just “clicked” for Nick, a junior Schreyer Scholar majoring in bioengineering in the College of Engineering.

“I like the way that everything is laid out very logistically and it makes sense to me,” Nick said. “I have always responded well to teachers who are able to convey the excitement behind science to their students. The professors I have now, especially for honors courses—it’s very easy to see their passions for the subjects they teach.”

At this point in his academic career, Nick’s long-term plans are starting to take shape. He recently enrolled in the Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate (IUG) Program through the Schreyer Honors College to obtain his master of science degree in bioengineering. That decision means he will stay at Penn State through a fifth year and graduate in 2016.

“The IUG program saves precious time and money by combining a curriculum of undergraduate and graduate level classes, which will help me get to med school or a Ph.D. program one year sooner.

“One year makes a difference when you’re going to be in school forever,” Nick joked.

Nick is very interested in the research side of medicine and hopes to attend medical school after graduation.

Nick Frazzette working in a lab

“I’ve always been fascinated by the development and testing of new drugs, treatment methodologies for patients and the investigatory manner in which doctors cure various diseases,” Nick said.

Fortunately for Nick, his honor thesis aligns with those interests. Nick’s thesis research on drug delivery methods and nanoparticles is under the supervision of Dr. Peter J. Butler, an associate professor of biomedical engineering.

Nick credits being in the Honors College with getting him into a research lab soon after he arrived at Penn State.

“I sent Dr. Butler an email during the first few weeks of my spring semester freshman year and told him that I was a freshman in the Honors College,” Nick said. “He immediately responded back that it wasn’t a question of seeing if I fit, but where I fit.”

When he is not in the lab, Nick devotes some of his spare time to being a teaching assistant for Leadership JumpStart, a first-year seminar that is one of the Schreyer Honors College’s signature programs for incoming freshmen. In the course, students learn about leadership by designing and implementing a semester-long service project.

“The course is very self-taught, self-reflective, and helps to form early bonds with other students that last through all of college,” said Nick, who completed the course the fall of his freshman year. “It’s an honor to be able to help students have the same educational journey that I had through Leadership JumpStart. As much as I like to think I have taught my students something, I can easily say that all 24 of them have taught me something.”

Outside of his studies, Nick is also very passionate about Springfield FTK, a student organization that supports THON, Penn State’s dance marathon that raises money for the Four Diamonds Fund, which supports pediatric cancer research and families of pediatric cancer patients. During his sophomore year, Nick was Springfield’s corporate alumni relations chair.

“Springfield has been a family away from home,” Nick said. “Participating in THON, the word ‘family’ is used almost everywhere and rightly so, but Springfield takes it to the next level. Through my involvement, I’ve formed close relationships with fellow members as well as the organization’s three paired Four Diamonds families – families affected by pediatric cancer in different ways.”

This summer, Nick is preparing to put his Spanish minor to the test when he travels to Latin America for a six-week in-country study.

For Nick, the language may change but chances are his questions will remain the same.

Kate Ortbal headshot

Kate Ortbal Social Entrepreneurship

When it comes to social change, Kate Ortbal doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, whether that’s in the dry clay of a rural village in Honduras or in the depths of computer databases at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

The Schreyer Honors College senior has brought that same dig-in and get-it-done approach to her academic pursuits. Kate chose not to gone down an established program in one of the Penn State’s academic colleges but instead designed her own major in social entrepreneurship, something she doesn’t think she could have done it if she weren’t in the honors college.

“Being in Schreyer has played a big role in me starting my own major,” Kate said. “Because I’m in the SHC, people who have helped me along the way have had faith in my dedication and commitment to what I’m trying to do.”

Kate got the idea for her major after attending a conference at Yale about social entrepreneurship, a concept that most often takes the form of for-profit groups pushing for social improvements.

“The main goal of social entrepreneurship enterprises is to create social change,” Kate said. “I loved this model and couldn’t find anything at Penn State that was focusing on it, so I knew that if I wanted to be able to do exactly what I wanted, I would have to make my own curriculum.”

Many of Kate’s classes initially fell within the Community, Environment, and Development major in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where she learned the most about international development. She has also taken classes within the business, economics, engineering and geography departments.

“It’s really awesome to have completely designed my own education,” Kate said. “I pretty much knew what I wanted to learn, so I went ahead and made it happen.”

Kate Ortbal posing

But it wasn’t until she went to a rural community in Honduras over spring break of her sophomore year that Kate knew what she wanted her focus to be.

“I went to Honduras as a student interested in business, management and marketing,” Kate said. “I came back interested in pushing social missions, and in that way, it really did change the path of what I was doing in school.”

The trip to Honduras was Kate’s first to a developing country, and her goal was to work on building water systems in a community. Together with her Global Water Brigades team, Kate worked directly with local community members to figure out what kinds of water systems would work best for them.

“For Honduras, we figured out that it’s often an issue of water quality, not access,” Kate said. “Because it’s so mountainous, water flows into the city, but by the time it gets there, it’s not clean.”

Knowing the situation in the community, Kate and her team identified water sources, dug trenches and laid pipes that would take water into the community. Then, they installed taps in the community that would allow citizens to access the water.

In the process, Kate learned a lot about how to identify a community’s needs and use her own resources to help others.

“For the first time, I realized how privileged I really am personally and academically being able to go to a place like Penn State,” Kate said. “I realized that, as cliché as it sounds, with privilege comes responsibility. I started thinking about how I could leverage some of the privilege I’ve been given in order to contribute to improve the lives of other people.”

Last year, Kate was the president of Penn State’s Global Water Brigades chapter. Over the 2012 winter break, she organized a trip to Africa and took 20 students from State College to Ghana, where the group installed rain water collectors.

“In Ghana, the issue is not only water quality but also water access,” Kate said. “We built rainwater harvesters that could collect rainwater during the rainy seasons so the people would have it during the dry seasons.”

But in contrast to her trip to Honduras in which she was only doing manual labor, the trip to Ghana required Kate to take on a lot of organizational responsibilities, too.

Kate had to coordinate the relationships between and among Global Brigades, Global Water Brigades, Penn State, the university’s travel department, student health services and the U.S. Embassy. She also had to make sure everyone got their visas, didn’t get sick, and actually made it onto the plane both to Africa and back to State College.

“The mission was cool, and being on the ground was cool, but the managerial thing was its own business,” Kate said.

That being said, Kate enjoyed being able to see both sides of the process.

“Everything seems easy until it’s your job, whether your job is to be a student participating in this kind of experience or if your job is to be an organizer coordinating an event of this scale,” Kate said. “It was a great experience to be able to see it from both sides.”

This past summer, Kate got a taste of the same kind of organizational challenges, but this time, it was in a professional setting.

Kate interned at Ashoka Innovators for the Public, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. whose website provides a platform for entrepreneurs to share information about their products.

“Think of it like Facebook for social startups,” Kate said.

In her role, Kate worked on the product team to figure out the best way to display startups’ information on Ashoka’s website to encourage people-to-people funding.

“It was an incredible internship, and I couldn’t have done it without Schreyer,” Kate said. “It was their grant that allowed me to take the internship in the first place.”

For her honors thesis, Kate will again be focusing on the importance of effective products, looking specifically at why interventions in developing countries fail and how those could be changed. Her goal is to come up with a framework that could show how positive interactions with life-changing products — much like the gravity water systems she worked with in Honduras — could result in successful interventions in developing countries.

“A customer journey map looks at a person’s experience not just in the process of purchasing a product, but before they get it and after, essentially to see how a product can change a person’s life,” Kate said. “The goal is to be able to map how people interact with a product and figure out how to make it work best for them.”

After graduating, Kate’s not entirely sure what she wants to do. She could see herself working for an NGO, a nonprofit or even doing innovation consulting. One thing she does know is that she wants to be in a position that will let her make meaningful change.

“I truly believe that businesses don’t just have to be confined to creating economic value, but that they can create social value, too,” Kate said. “The most important thing to me is to be in a position where I can help do that.”

Long-term, Kate has a clear idea of what her dream job would look like: running her own consulting company that would help NGOs or companies implement efficient and effective social solutions.

“I get really excited when I think about the moment when ‘more’ — more sales, more production, or more profit — can be replaced with ‘better’ — better products, better lives, or better livelihoods,” Kate said. “I’m really just trying to get people behind that.”

Kate Thompson headshot

Kate Thompson Anthropology / Community, Environment & Development

When people hear that Kate Thompson went to Madagascar over the summer, they think she stepped into a cartoon adventure.

And Kate will agree that the lemurs she was studying for her thesis research are indeed cute and cuddly. But her study of the species has a serious purpose.

“I was in Madagascar to do my honors thesis research on lemurs,” says Kate, a senior Schreyer Scholar double majoring in anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and community, environment, and development in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “I focused my research on the aye-aye species. They are a highly endangered species, and I do research on them in hopes of aiding conservation efforts.”

It wasn’t the 2005 animated feature film that set Kate on the path to Madagascar but rather entrance into a research lab her first year on campus. Kate worked in an archaeology lab with the late Dr. Brian Hesse, a professor of Jewish studies, anthropology and ancient Mediterranean studies.

“He inspired me to look at study abroad programs dealing in human-wildlife interactions,” Kate says. “Working with Dr. Hesse I realized I like doing work with ancient animals, but doing study abroad in Kenya and Tanzania taught me I also like working with modern-day animals too. So I came back and worked with Dr. George Perry. We created the thesis project. I then went abroad and learned the techniques that are used for conservation and wildlife management.”

Kate’s research in Madagascar focused on how lemurs choose what they eat and why.

“Aye-ayes are solitary animals that only come out at night and are very ‘antisocial’ in the sense they need massive areas of land to live comfortably,” Kate says. “The aye-aye are very interesting because they’re like primate woodpeckers. They tap on a tree and then listen on the inside to find bugs.”

Kate Thompson in front of anthropological displays

Unlike other travels abroad led by a Penn State faculty member or in the company of other students, Kate went to Madagascar first with her professor, and then alone in collaboration with the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership. Once there, she assembled a team to assist her with her research.

“I got a research team together and hired all the guides who were Malagasy people,” Kate says. “My team was fantastic. This was the first time they worked with a foreign scientist and the first time they worked with a girl. They were so patient with me.”

Kate and her team would hike day and night, rain or shine, to look at the different variables determining where an aye-aye chooses to eat.

“We went out with a massive machine that had really long spikes,” she says. “We would hammer the machine into the trees, and it listens to how fast the sound goes from one spike to another. It lets you see how rotted a tree is by making an acoustic map of the tree’s insides. We tested ones the aye-aye ate and ones they skipped to see if there was a difference.”

For Kate, it was important that her thesis research have tangible findings that could be applied long after she returned home.

“I hope I can do something that builds the community instead of just doing research, coming in and leaving,” Kate says. “I think we’re at a time where there needs to be change. Now it’s time to make a different integrated effort.”

Kate wants to continue to do extensive research because the species’ future is at great risk.

“Believe it or not, 20 percent of the world’s primates live in Madagascar, and 94 percent of these lemurs are threatened or endangered. Worse still, Madagascar only has about 10 percent of its forest left.” Kate says. “This is why this research is so important to me. A long time ago, there was a bigger aye-aye that lived in Madagascar but went extinct. I want to see how far they went and what they were eating. At the same time I want to do a two-part dissertation where I look at variation in aye-aye feeding behavior across the island and across evolutionary history.”

“Kate has done extremely well,” says Dr. George Perry, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts and biology in the Eberly College of Science. “She’s very passionate about ecology, conservation and also about working in foreign countries and interacting with the local people. It’s clear how important it is for her – that’s obvious from the moment you start talking to her.”

Kate’s commitment to connecting with people ran into some challenges when she first arrived in Madagascar and faced some culture shock.

“It’s very difficult to navigate your identity as a white person trying to fit in,” says Kate. “It was confusing and frustrating trying to fit into a new culture. It was challenging to balance relating to my team-who area also my peers but also be a figure of authority. If you go in there and act like you know everything, you’re not going to be included in part of the community. I realized it was going to be difficult, but I decided I wanted to learn the manners, dialect and culture. I had to start like a baby and be humble enough to learn everything”

Kate eventually gained acceptance to the point where she was invited to the wedding of one her teammates. “I received a thank-you gift after going to the wedding,” Kate says. “My new ‘sister-in-law’s’ parents gave me a chicken, a real live chicken, and I named it Britney Spears because they absolutely love Britney Spears. Her pictures are everywhere!”

Kate believes she was able to quickly grow accustomed to the culture because she was willing to compromise.

“You have to give up some things,” says Kate. “I did little things like wear traditional clothes to fit in. There are times when you have to comprise your cultural identity to show that you respect someone else’s.”

Kate also grained a greater sense of gratitude through her many experiences.

“I also learned that my attitude is my choice,” she says. “I got parasites on the trip and lost 15 pounds. I wasn’t doing so well physically, but I had a choice. One day I walked in the forest and immediately got a leech. My friend was humming to himself, and I asked him why he was so happy. He said he was happy because we’re going to have good day today. I then realized it is your choice to be happy. I learned that from field work. It’s what you make out of it.”

With the research she completed in Madagascar, Kate says her short-term goal is to finish her thesis.

“I want to finish my thesis and finish it well,” she says. “My thesis is my identity as a student. My identity that I’ve gone into the field, conducted my own research and designed my own experiments. Long-term, I would love to get my Ph.D. in anthropology. I would also love to become a college professor and have my own field site that does both research and community development employing local people as guides, educating families and providing healthcare. My team jokingly called me ‘Momma.’ They said they believed in my dreams of having my own field site and hoped to work with me there one day.”

“I think she’s going to be very successful,” says Paula Hesse, senior lecturer of Jewish studies and classics and ancient Mediterranean studies whose late husband launched Kate on her research travels. “I imagine her at a research institution or university. She’s going to be doing something she really enjoys. I think it’s wonderful if you can be that interested and always amazed at what you’re doing.” Kate is excited about what the future holds.

“I have a lot of faith going forward,” Kate says. “Because of Schreyer, my value and efforts are going noticed and that doesn’t happen everywhere. Both with academic and financial support I am always going to be indebted. I am a very proud student of all the opportunities this has given me. I’m going to be very excited to wear the Schreyer medal.”

Patrick Boynton headshot

Patrick Boynton International Politics / Geography

If you give Patrick Boynton a history book, he’ll probably ask you for an atlas to go along with it.

As an international politics and geography double major and a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, Patrick has spent the last three years looking at the way geography, political events and data interact with one another.

Last fall, he studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, getting a firsthand look at the interaction between politics and geographical issues. While in Switzerland, Patrick took classes, but he also attended three separate conferences about regional development in Europe.

One conference, about the development of the Alps, was in a Swiss resort town. The second, about urban planning, was also in the Alps. The third, about multiple European countries’ individual problems, was at the European Union headquarters in Brussels.

“The common theme in these conferences was the whole issue of development in certain areas and what certain stakeholders were or weren’t okay with,” Patrick said. “Urban sprawl — and how to try to contain it while balancing the politics involved — is a big issue that a lot of countries are facing.”

Patrick’s honors thesis combines his interests in international politics and geography. He’s looking at various refugee camps and examining how they transition from being temporary structures to permanent ones.

“Refugee camps aren’t, in theory, supposed to last that long,” Patrick said. “But what happens when they last 10, 15 or 20 years? That’s what I’m looking at.”

It was also while studying abroad that Patrick came up with the idea for what has become one of his major endeavors: a student-run organization called State of State.

Planned for March 30, State of State will be an on-campus conference that features talks by a mix of students, faculty and community members about issues pertaining to Penn State. Topics include the future of higher education, urban development and landlord-tenant relations.

Patrick Boynton standing in the Hintz Alumni Center

Dr. Michael Berkman, a professor of political science and director of undergraduate studies in the College of the Liberal Arts — as well as Patrick’s honors adviser — has become familiar with the project and taken note of Patrick’s initiative.

“I’ve been impressed with his persistence and sense of vision,” Dr. Berkman said. “He has come in to talk to the political science faculty and has encouraged us to participate and engage with the program.”

Patrick initially got the idea when he and fellow Scholar Suzanne Zakaria were both studying abroad in fall 2012. When the two would Skype each other to talk about what was going on at Penn State, they recognized the need for a forum in which other people could do the same thing.

“We thought this kind of conference would be a great way for people to talk about big issues at Penn State,” Patrick said.

Since returning to campus last spring, the two have put in many hours to get the project off the ground. According to Suzanne, it couldn’t be done without Patrick’s patience and ability to focus on short and long-term goals.

“Patrick is extremely hardworking and works seamlessly behind the scenes to make sure the big picture all comes together,” Suzanne said. “He’s great at talking through ideas with you to help you focus your vision.”

In addition to Suzanne, a number of students on the State of State executive board are Schreyer Scholars.

“Without having been part of the living-learning community of Schreyer, I don’t know if we would be able to draw on this many people to work on the project,” Patrick said. “The best thing about the Schreyer Honors College really is the community, whether that’s in Simmons and Atherton or in the organizations that SHC kids tend to gravitate toward after moving off campus.”

And according to Dr. Berkman, Patrick follows a line of other self-starting Schreyer Scholars in the political science department.

“Every year, we seem to have a handful of Scholars in political science who take on leadership roles on campus by starting these kinds of programs and getting people involved with them,” Dr. Berkman said. “I absolutely see Patrick in that same vein of students who display those kinds of leadership talents and skills.”

Working to make sure that State of State comes together isn’t the first time Patrick has been in charge of behind-the-scenes coordination. Last summer, he interned with the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank in New York City.

In the speakers department, Patrick handled the logistics behind the think tank’s efforts to get certain foreign policymakers to come speak at the New York City offices.

While at the Council on Foreign Relations, Patrick even got reintroduced to a world leader he had met during an earlier visit to Penn State. Besides getting to reacquainted with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who visited Penn State for a lecture co-sponsored by the SHC last March, Patrick also said he learned more about what types of academic paths are necessary for certain policymaking jobs.

“I definitely learned a lot about prerequisites,” Patrick said. “I learned things like, ‘If you want to do this job, you need a master’s degree, or if you want to do this job, you need a Ph.D.”

Eventually, Patrick might like to go to law school. Though his focus has primarily been foreign affairs until this point, he’s starting to become more interested in the government’s ability to adapt to the digital age and tackle big technology issues — themes he might one day like to study in law school.

In the meantime, Patrick said he wants to spend a few years working for a political consulting firm on a political campaign. Patrick specifically hopes to be able to work with polling data in order to take sociology and the mapping side of geography and apply it to politics.

“The geography of regions affects people and their needs in so many more ways than we might think, and I think I could add a lot to a campaign or political organization by looking at the implications of geography as they relate to people’s political concerns,” Patrick said. “It would be really cool if I could do that.”

Ellie Skrzat headshot

Ellie Skrzat Fine Arts

Ellie Skrzat, a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, is an experienced storyteller — but she tells stories in ways you might not expect.

Give Ellie the story of Joe Paterno’s life and she’ll create a colorful portrait with pastels that gets hundreds of “likes” on Facebook. Give her one word at the start of an improv show, and within minutes, she’ll produce a monologue that will leave an audience in fits of laughter.

Ellie, a fine arts major in the College of Arts and Architecture and a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, has concentrations in drawing and painting — skills she has used to produce illustrations for local and national news sites including Onward State and Slate.

“Illustrating is the perfect combination of the right and left parts of my brain,” Ellie said. “Not only are you showing that you understand how to paint and render an image, but also that you can comprehend a text and give some kind of commentary on it.”

Ghislaine Fremaux, an assistant visiting professor of art at Penn State, has become familiar with Ellie’s work in her capacity as Ellie’s thesis advisor.

“Ellie’s art is informed by her wit, her intelligence and articulateness,” Fremaux said. “She is articulate in speech, and that seems to have conditioned her articulate handling of paint to match — frank, astute, keenly attentive and descriptive but never verbose.”

Being articulate also comes in handy in Ellie’s role as president of Penn State’s Full Ammo Improv Troupe, which she has been a member of since her freshman year.

Full Ammo’s shows — which happen twice a month — begin when an audience member gives the troupe a word. That word prompts one troupe member’s opening monologue. After that, the group takes the theme and runs with it for an hour of improv.

Ellie Skrzat in her art studio

“As it is with illustrating, with improv, you start with a story and have the chance to make it your own,” Ellie said. “It’s all about listening to the people who you’re on stage with and responding to what they’re doing.”

But Ellie already knows how to build off of others’ humor. Growing up, there was a lot of laughter going on in the Skrzat house. Ellie also surrounded herself with entertaining friends, many of whom either served as fodder for unintended improv training or subjects for her paintings.

“Ellie’s art is clearly influenced by the camaraderie that's so present in her own life,” Prof. Fremaux said. “She loves, appreciates and marvels at people. There cannot be portraiture of such high order without that.”

For Ellie, the goal is to depict those unique personalities using paint.

“I paint portraits because I really enjoy the characters who I get to hang out with on a daily basis, and I want the world to appreciate them as much as I do,” Ellie said. “It always amazes me when a meaningful part of a person’s identity can come across successfully in something as nonpermanent as a painting.”

For her honors thesis, Ellie will be combining her passion for painting and improv. She’ll be recording a Full Ammo show and painting the cast members as though they’re the characters they’re portraying.

“I’m really into portraying compelling characters, whether that’s through paintings or improv,” Ellie said. “I’m hoping that my thesis will combine those two things.”

The end result: an art show in April 2014 that will feature the portraits and looping audio of the show.

While she loves painting, producing and tinkering with her work is in some ways just as difficult as writing long academic papers, as many of her friends are doing.

For big projects like this one, Ellie plugs in her headphones and gets to work in her on-campus studio.

“The moments leading up to putting paint on canvas, I sometimes wonder if I even remember what to do,” Ellie said. “About a minute into the process, though, I get in the zone. Every brush stroke is a problem in some way, and you become obsessed with continuously fixing the problems until you have an image that you're happy with. When it comes to my art, I’m my own worst critic, and it can be challenging to deal with that pressure of wanting to get it just right.”

But Ellie also knows how and when to work quickly. When she sketched the drawing of Joe Paterno, it took her less than an hour.

“My friend who also worked for Onward State called to tell me that Joe Paterno was dying and urged me to go draw something right away,” Ellie said. “I ran home from the dining hall and drew it in half an hour.”

Ellie ended up selling the drawing and donating all proceeds — $1,075 — to the Penn State Dance Marathon.

Illustrations like the one she did of Joe Paterno were the kinds of projects Ellie would do for Onward State. She would attend Onward State’s pitch meetings and when someone suggested a story idea, Ellie would volunteer to draw an illustration to go along with the text.

“Ellie is great at transforming ideas into beautiful drawings and paintings worthy of hanging on your wall,” said Eli Glazier, a former Schreyer Scholar and co-founder of Onward State. “No matter the task, Ellie dives in head first, insisting on quality, and fretting when she doesn't think she's done her best.”

Last summer, Ellie continued on her path of combining journalism and art. She had internships in New York City for two well-known national blogs, Slate.com and xojane.com.

At Slate, a daily national news and culture magazine, Ellie was able to produce a few illustrations in addition to her day-to-day photo editing tasks. For a series about skyjackers — the people who hijacked nearly 160 American flights in the 1960s and 1970s —Ellie was tasked with finding photos to accompany the stories about each skyjacker. When it was proving difficult to find the rights to certain photos, Ellie quickly sketched of one of the skyjackers and brought the drawing into her editor’s office.

A few editorial decisions later, those sketches — and the stories they went with — ended up on Slate’s homepage.

“Through Schreyer, I learned that any bit of initiative is enough to get you noticed by people who will appreciate it, and that’s exactly what I did at Slate,” Ellie said. “I had an idea, and I seized an opportunity to share it.”

After graduating, Ellie hopes to work at a publication like Slate or xojane.com with the eventual goal of doing freelance illustrations. Though fewer journalism publications are hiring these days, Ellie said she thinks there will always be a need for illustrators.

“Illustrations provide something that photos don’t because, while they’re technically journalism, they have more of an artistic voice,” Ellie said. “I think there will always be a place for illustrations.”

And while harnessing her creativity isn’t always easy, Ellie is confident in her ability to continue to come up with new ways to tell a story — no matter what the medium.

“When I was just getting started, I didn’t think I could rely on myself to constantly generate ideas about how to interpret certain things, whether that’s events or people or images,” Ellie said. “But I learned to be confident in my ability to consistently be creative. It’s not a skill that’s just going to go away.”

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