Presidential Leadership Academy announces new class

Each year, the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA) at Penn State chooses 30 exemplary first-year students and the academy is excited to celebrate the next round of standout members. 

The PLA fosters an environment where students of diverse backgrounds are welcomed to advance their critical thinking skills to confront highly nuanced problems in our community and globally. The academy members call this “thinking in the gray.” In the fall, these students will begin their PLA journey with a seminar class with Penn State president Eric J. Barron, something academy members have done since it was founded by Edward R. and Helen S. Hintz in 2009. 

This year, the Presidential Leadership Academy received applications from 161 students. Of those, 87 were chosen to partake in a two-part interview process consisting of a virtual one-on-one interview and a virtual group interview. That group of 87 was narrowed down to 30 students who were chosen based on their critical-thinking ability, communication skills, and diverse viewpoints. 

PLA’s 2021 class members are in major and minor programs spanning every academic college at Penn State. Seven of the 30 members are enrolled in the Schreyer Honors College. Outside of their academics, new PLA members have a breadth of experiences at Penn State, participating in Engineers without Borders, Glee Club, THON, UPUA, BLUEPrint, LionScouts, the Smeal College of Business’ Sapphire Leadership Academic Program, Interventional Student Orientation Leader, the Salt Company, Blue Band, and the Penn State Fencing Team. 

The rising second-year students come from all walks of life and bring diverse perspectives with them. Twenty students consider their home state to be Pennsylvania while five other states are represented, including New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maryland, and Florida. One member is from Washington, D.C. Three members have home cities and countries outside of the United States in Nigeria, Honduras, and England. Many of the students are fluent in more than one language. 

Sébastien Kraft, a fourth-year student, recognizes the strength of having diverse experiences. 

“One of PLA’s key virtues is the human component,” Kraft said. “Our blend of 30 students from a variety of backgrounds puts the ‘people’ aspect at the forefront.”    

For the incoming second-year students, the PLA provides an experience that does not exist anywhere else on campus. Valarie Hibbard, an elementary and early childhood education major and member of the Blue Band, said she is “excited to be a part of the PLA and have a place where students, along with important members of faculty, discuss heavier topics freely and work together to improve not only University Park, but PSU campus as a whole.” 

Hibbard also noted how she aims to develop skills in the academy that will be useful in her career and life. The incoming class will begin its PLA journey by taking a seminar class with Barron, which discusses difficult issues that face Penn State and other universities across the nation.

Ayden Herold, a College of Communications student and another member of the incoming class, is most looking forward to working with his fellow classmates next year.   

“I really love getting to know people and doing projects,” Herold said. “Going on trips together will probably make us a tighter and trusting group.” 

Outside of the pandemic, members of the PLA have participated in at least two integrative trips a year. These trips provide students the opportunity to see leadership and decision-making in various areas of the country.   

“The trips are a great opportunity to bond with all of the students in PLA while also providing us with opportunities to network with individuals across the country and build our leadership skills,” said Madison Burnard, a fourth-year PLA student. 

Angelina Santamaria, another fourth-year student, agreed. 

“Being in PLA has been such a fun and amazing experience for me,” she said. “Going on all the field trips has helped me to make meaningful and professional connections and given me more guidance on the type of career I would like to have. I feel as though I have made so many meaningful connections with my peers and I believe that we will all shape the work in a powerful way.”   

Members of PLA’s class of 2020, while participating in PLA predominately virtually, have been excited about what PLA academically has had to offer so far.  

“I’m really looking forward to this next semester in PLA because I’ll get to meet the rest of the group in person for the very first time,” said rising third-year student Alex Koehl. “This past year has been full of interesting and thought-provoking discussions with President Barron and my classmates. Even better, learning how to develop policy with my amazing classmates in HONOR 301 has piqued my interests in educational equity. While we were not able to travel this past year, getting to decorate cookies or learn about Fulbright and Teach for America programs with alumni and other students was a great way to get to know one another and form relationships outside class. And the fact that this was all done over Zoom gets me excited for what is to come as we transition back to in-person.” 

Each year’s application pool yields people from many different backgrounds but all first-year students who apply must have a 3.2 GPA at the time of application. Each prospective member must provide a résumé that highlights their external activities and leadership as well as two letters of reference, one of which is required to be from a Penn State faculty member. First-year students may also be nominated by faculty and staff at Penn State. Nominations are due shortly before the application deadline at the beginning of February. A complete application also includes two essay questions, which are announced when applications open near the end of the fall semester. 

For more information on Penn State’s Presidential Leadership Academy, visit  

The following is a list of the members and their primary academic colleges (many students have double-majors in multiple colleges):  

Rayna Alexander, College of the Liberal Arts 

Alex Almonte, College of Arts and Architecture 

Lindsay Aluquin, College of Health and Human Development 

Semilore Babawale, Eberly College of Science 

Atharv Bhave, Eberly College of Science 

Brandon Bixler, College of Agricultural Sciences 

Benjamin Brauser, College of the Liberal Arts 

Julia Briselli, College of the Liberal Arts 

Aditya Datta, College of the Liberal Arts 

Fatim Diaby, Eberly College of Science 

Luke Finestone, College of Nursing 

Madelyn Fisher, Smeal College of Business 

Carlos Gatlin Inestroza, College of Engineering 

Lauren Groff, Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications 

Amy Hall, Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications 

Abigail Han, Eberly College of Science 

Ayden Herold, Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications 

Valarie Hibbard, College of Education 

Mia Holland, College of Health and Human Development 

David Hutchinson, College of Arts and Architecture 

Praneet Kaki, Eberly College of Science 

Joshua Leynes, Division of Undergraduate Studies 

Kayla Marrero, Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications 

Nora O’Toole, College of Information Sciences and Technology 

Christine Palmer, College of Engineering 

Meysoon Quraishi, College of Agricultural Sciences 

Maansi Shah, Smeal College of Business 

Alejandro Toro, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences 

Caden Vitti, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences 

Jackie Zheng, College of Arts and Architecture


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