Monday, September 24, 2012

"Penn State | Happy Valley"

Last week I had the honor of performing and lecturing at Penn State University in State College, PA. Situated right in the middle of Pennsylvania in what is known as the 'Happy Valley', my time there was extremely productive, very memorable, and definitely left me feeling happy - due in no small part to the efforts of my gracious hosts Judy and Beth at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. 

Striking a balance between work / play is how I like to spend my days on tour, and in 48 hours I was able to do just that: lecturing in two Sociology classrooms, performing at a fundraiser for Syrian refugee relief, enjoying a host of local foods, roaming the Amish countryside, and exploring a 30 million year old cave.

I've posted some photos / commentary about my experience below:

Old Main: the first building of major significance on campus is in many ways the architectural focal point of the school - though it can perhaps be argued that Beaver Stadium really is for most of the 50,000+ students ... #LionCountry

The sky was clear and the weather was a perfectly cool. This is the view from the top of a downtown parking garage where you can get a sense of how PSU is situated in the valley ... #SeptemberSun 

Speaking of PSU, I often felt like the 'P' really stood for 'Paterno' ... He was everywhere - from cardboard cutouts to building names ... #FootballMoney

The first class I visited that day was called 'West Meets Middle East' (SOC 300). I was told the mission was to 'prepare students to create an ideologically neutral environment for dialogue so that participants can recognize and voice their true concerns about race relations in a productive and meaningful way'. Upon arrival I quickly realized this was the 'Middle East' component of the group who would later meet with the 'West' component after our discussion. The majority of these intelligent young minds were originally from GCC countries (Saudi Arabia / Bahrain / Oman / UAE / etc.) with a couple of them hailing from other Muslim-majority countries as well (Pakistan / Jordan). Being KSA-born and having attended a Saudi school for most of my young life, I felt like I could relate to their stories and thoroughly enjoyed hearing each of their viewpoints. As always, the girls seemed to shine a bit more than the fellas (no offense guys!) and really carried the conversations to interesting places. The shirt I wore that day fit nicely innit? ... #PunIntended

The next class I had the pleasure of visiting was SOC 119, with 720 students seated in a massive amphitheater-style classroom making it the largest course on race relations in the country. It is taught by none other than rockstar professor Sam Richards, whose cool demeanor and visionary approach to teaching left a huge impression on me (maybe that is why he had the distinct honor of being named one of the '101 Most Dangerous Academics in America' according to some lame book). He was able to keep hundreds of students engaged at all times by asking provocative questions, providing eye-opening statistics to back up his arguments, employing the latest in live polling technologies to gauge their reactions, and synthesizing all this information at lightning speed to keep the discussion fluid and focused. Then to top it all off, he let a Syrian-American Hip-Hop artist close out the class with a live performance ... #AcademicBoss

We even had a live Skype session with an actual Iranian (dan dan daaaaaaaaan) ... Pedram (aka Pedro) was able to challenge the negative stereotypes of how Iranians viewed Americans by saying things as simple as: "if you (Americans) visited Iran people here would love to show you around just to have the chance to practice their language skills with a native English speaker"... When Professor Richards asked him what his favorite TV show was, he quickly replied: 'How I Met Your Mother'... As the US / Israel & their allies steadily beat the war drum with Iran, it was 'dangerously' refreshing to hear this perspective in an American university classroom ... #WageDialogue 

Towards the end of the class, I was given about 10 minutes to briefly introduce myself to the audience and perform a song of my choosing. All he asked was that it include some Arabic in it - so I chose one of my most popular bi-lingual pieces called 'Destiny' in order to speak directly to the hybridized existence of a young Arab-American. In the Q&A session that followed, I pointed out how the use of a Paul Anka sample in the song was intentional. It gave me the opportunity to highlight how the first 'American Pop Teen Idol' was actually the son of Lebanese immigrants who first learned to play music while attending a Syrian-Orthodox church in his native Ottawa, home to one of the largest Lebanese diaspora populations in North America. I truly felt that I was able to contribute to the discussion in a positive way with my presence that day, and many of the students reached out to me afterwards (both in person and on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram) to show their appreciation ... #OneHumanFamily

This guy was seriously #KTG (killin' the game) with his Terra Trike (recumbent tricycle) and mad hatter steez ... #BossOn3Wheels

He. Was. Everywhere ... #PaternoState

Visiting the Department of Food Science was one of my favorite parts of the day (if I could do it all over again, I'd probably be a food scientist / culinary alchemist) ... The Penn State Creamery is the largest university creamery in the nation, with half of the milk coming from a 225-cow herd at the University Dairy Production Research Center ... #BovineBossStatus

They are always changing / testing new flavors and definitely take pride in their craft. The homegirl Ashley (pictured behind the sign) used to work there and insisted on treating me to my first scoops of Pennsylvania's finest ... #FrozenGratitude 

It was a tough choice, but after a couple free tastings I eventually zeroed in on what was gonna be my dairy destiny ... #CaffeinatedCrack

I can honestly say this was some of the freshest, creamiest, most delicious ice cream I have ever had (read: inhaled with the quickness) ... I can understand why alumni far and wide regularly have it FedEx'd to them ... #NostalgiaInATub

God bless the Berkeys ... #LactoseLovebirds 

We ended the day off with a small musical / poetic performance at the Spiritual Center's Memorial Lounge. This event also doubled as a fundraiser for Muslims Without Borders' Syrian Emergency Relief efforts, and I was happy to see many familiar faces in the crowd from my two previous classroom visits. The setting was intimate and the audience was both diverse and engaged. I did my thing ... #NotJustAHobby 

When washing my hands afterwards (the amount of hands I shake post-performance, you would too) I noticed a hilarious sign that I imagine was left especially for the Muslim students. This took me back to my days of being at ISA, where I regularly walked in on teachers cleaning out their toe cheese in the same sink I was planning to wash my face in ... #AblutionEtiquette 

The following day, my host Judy took me on a little tour of Central PA. She was a bit surprised by my fascination with what most city folk might consider 'boring farmland'. I explained that Southern California, my home for the past decade, is beautiful but relatively arid. I grew up on the East Coast, where green fields and rolling hillsides like these brought back many childhood memories of road trips through Maryland and Virginia ... #TheGrassIsAlwaysGreenerOnTheOtherCoast

You know you're in Amish country when you see road signs like this ... #FuelEfficient 

A few hours before my departure we stopped at Penns Cave, America's only 'all-water cavern'. While it isn't quite as magnificent as the Jeita Grotto I often visited during family trips to Lebanon, anything that takes millions of years to create is awe-inspiring and definitely worth the trek ... #AllahSculpts  

Whenever I see stalagmites I'm immediately reminded of the muqarnas in places like the Alhambra in Spain and Imam Mosque in Isfahan ... #ArchNerd

As the legend above illustrates, the story of Majnoon Layla has many parallels across time and space ... #StarCrossedLove 

As I flew away, I was able to sit back and reflect on just how much of a blessing it is to be able to travel and do what I love for a living. From big city shows to rural college towns, there is always something to appreciate if you keep your heart / mind open. Many thanks to everyone who made this trip possible. While I might not be a fan of the Assads, this is one Lion Country I can't wait to see again ;)


- Oo