Natalie Zetts never intended to come to Penn State Altoona, let alone earn her degree from the college. But time has a funny way of changing attitude and perception.
Originally accepted to University Park, Zetts was concerned about the financial aspect of attending that campus. Her mother suggested that she check out Penn State Altoona as an alternative. Zetts, from the small town of Drifting, Pennsylvania, visited, thought the campus was pretty, and figured she could always transfer after two years, so she decided to enroll. She began taking classes through the Pathway to Success: Summer Start Program program, an initiative that spans six weeks during the summer before a student’s first year at Penn State.
Zetts lived in a residence hall and met two other students who would become her closest friends. She took two courses, was able to meet several professors, and get a feel for what college would be like, but it was still a tough transition for her. “At first I didn’t like it at all, I’ll be honest. I had a rough first year not knowing what major I should choose and being in a new atmosphere. I didn’t want to stay here. I thought Altoona couldn’t offer me what University Park could.”
But slowly, she started to get involved around the campus. Over the next year and a half, she got a job at Eiche Library where she met more students. She joined the Christian Student Fellowship organization and enjoyed a mission trip to Tennessee over spring break. She developed a core group of friends and no longer felt so alone.
While she was making strides on the social side of college, Zetts was still struggling to find a good fit academically, changing her major five times over the last two years. She started with kinesiology, then changed to business, then nursing and nutrition, then back to kinesiology. Finally, she decided she wanted to go to physician’s assistant school, so she chose to pursue biology. Once she started taking courses, Zetts realized she actually liked the field of study and her professors’ enthusiasm for it was contagious. Still, she was reluctant. “I knew I liked biology, but I was overwhelmed with the math and physics courses I need to take. I didn’t know if I could do it.”
But Zetts found encouragement from everyone around her. “I know my professors and advisers by name and they know me. I have had three amazing advisers helping me who have all truly cared about me as a person. They know my story, and I’m not just a number to them. I wouldn’t be where I am right now without them.”
Because of her positive experiences, at the end of her sophomore year, Zetts decided to finish her degree at Altoona. “I really fell in love with the people here. It might sound dumb, but my professors made me realize what I'm capable of. They told me ‘yes, you can do this, yes, you can do that.’ They believe in me and have pushed me, and because of them, I now believe I have what it takes to be a biology major and successful student.”
That confidence has nurtured her involvement in another area of academia—undergraduate research. Zetts says she was interested in research because she knew she would need the experience for graduate or physician assistant school. All she had to do was ask one of her professors about the possibility, and the next thing she knew, she was working with Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Johannes Raabe. Together, they study the relationship between student-athletes and their coaches and how positive or negative feedback from a coach affects their success. The research is in the early stages of data collection. “I feel really honored to have this opportunity because I know it’s a big deal to do research as an undergraduate. It’s just another example of what Penn State Altoona offers students.”
Raabe may eventually publish something on the research with Zetts acknowledged for her work. She’s looking forward to continuing the research throughout the summer and the possibility of leading her own research project in the next academic year.
Zetts has learned a lot about herself over the last two years. She is comfortable with who she is and the path she has chosen. She would like to become a leader and mentor for other students who may be struggling to find their place at Penn State Altoona. She says the college provides many opportunities, but students must take the initiative. “College is what you make it—you create the experience you want. It is about studying and classes, but it’s also about gaining some independence and figuring out who you are as a person. College gives you so many opportunities that can change your life, but you have to be willing to take them when they come and do some things that might scare you.”
Zetts knows Penn State Altoona isn’t perfect, but she feels as though she belongs here. She loves the small size and family feel and the passion faculty and staff have for the campus. “I’m so excited about my next two years here. Penn State Altoona started as a place I couldn't wait to leave and has turned into a place that I now call home.”