From Tornado Alley to Happy Valley

Lauren McAfee, a first-year master’s student at the Penn State School of International Affairs, discusses her journey from Oklahoma to State College, Pennsylvania, and what factors led her to enroll at SIA.

Lauren McAfee at the Arboretum, University Park.
Lauren McAfee at the Arboretum, University Park. Credit: Andy Gabriel/Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Lauren McAfee grew up in North Texas, about 20 minutes from Oklahoma. Except for an older brother who moved to New York City about ten years ago, her entire family, and her heritage, are tied to that part of the country; Lauren was raised in a town roughly halfway between Dallas, Texas, and Norman, Oklahoma—home to the University of Oklahoma (OU), where she completed her bachelor’s degree.

"I was afraid to leave home. You know, you grow up in a small town in the South and a lot of people don’t ever leave that small town. And I did not think it was actually going to happen," McAfee said.

Despite her uncertainty, she applied to a master’s program at the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA), got accepted in to the program, and had a decision to make. She had applied to six graduate schools—including two in Oklahoma, one in St. Louis, and one in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, she made the choice to attend SIA.

"Just the idea that I could have the opportunity to go somewhere like Penn State from such a small town in Texas and then Oklahoma, it was super appealing to me," McAfee said.

As it turns out, McAfee is one of two Oklahoma—and OU—transplants to find a new home at SIA this past year. The other is SIA Director Dr. Mitchell Smith, who began his tenure here in July after spending twenty-plus years on the faculty at OU, most recently as associate dean for academic affairs at the David L. Boren College of International Studies. He was previously interim dean of that college and director of the university's European Union Center.

In his first semester at SIA, Smith has witnessed—and helped to foster—an environment in which students coming from all over the country and the world can thrive.

"In Penn State's School of International Affairs we've cultivated a vibrant, globally engaged community within a world-class university. With the excellence of our faculty, the professionalism and caring of our staff, and our highly motivated students, we offer a superb educational experience," Smith said. "Our students are anxious to engage, and I've enjoyed interacting with them during my first semester in venues such as our new International Affairs Discussion series."


SIA’s Open House for admitted students, held in March, was a major turning point for McAfee. Aided by a travel stipend from SIA to help cover the cost of transportation and lodging, McAfee made the roughly 1,200-mile trip to State College to learn more about what Penn State and SIA had to offer.

"For me personally, coming to Open House was a big factor that helped me make my decision," she said. "At the Open House a lot of the faculty and advisers talked to me about my options, and they weren’t trying to sell it so much as just trying to be genuinely helpful, and that really swayed me in this direction."

In addition to informal meetings with SIA faculty and staff, Open House also includes a housing and resource fair, building tours, dinner at a downtown hotel, and the chance to get acquainted with students who will be part of your cohort.

"Everything was tailored to the individual—people within SIA knew my name, came up to me. I felt wanted," McAfee said. "I realized I can’t turn this down, I can’t say no, when everything is aligning perfectly."

Lauren McAfee and Mitchell Smith
Lauren McAfee and SIA Director Dr. Mitchell Smith talking outside the library in the Lewis Katz Building. Credit: Andy Gabriel/Penn State


As welcoming as Open House was, there were other factors that influenced McAfee’s decision to attend SIA. With an undergraduate degree in political science and international security studies (double-major), McAfee now at SIA is working on a customized concentration in national security and intelligence and wants to pursue a career in federal law enforcement with a focus on intelligence gathering. With those goals in mind, she wanted to attend a school with a professional-oriented master’s program and a strong emphasis on career readiness. SIA checked those boxes.

"In the international field, political science and those related studies, the big worry is what are you going to do with that? What kind of job are you going to get?" McAfee said. "And a place like SIA is career oriented, so immediately when you start the program you start that journey. And that was one of the things that I found super appealing."

SIA offers a comprehensive set of career services, including personalized support, professional development workshops, networking opportunities, and annual career trips to Washington, D.C. and New York City that help SIA students gain new insight into the multiple directions they can take with their careers after graduation, and the necessary steps required to pursue those career paths.

"The career trips are a huge factor that I would tell people about because you get to network, you get to meet really great people, people who have worked in international affairs fields for years and years and who know exactly what you need to do to get where you want to go," McAfee said.


No matter whether you are traveling across the country or across the world, moving to a new, unfamiliar location can be intimidating.

"Living so close to home you have a huge support system, then you go halfway across the country and the culture is different, even the language is a little different," McAfee said. "I feel like it was definitely a signifying moment in my life, like, 'this is a really big move, this is happening.'"

Living in a new place, she added, can also push you toward new perspectives and experiences—particularly at a program like SIA that is internationally focused.

"I think being in a place like Happy Valley is really different than coming from a small town in the south, it’s a big change," she said. "I would tell students who are considering SIA that it’s really great inside and outside the classroom. I think there are so many opportunities to learn, not just from SIA but from Penn State in general."

And, as anyone who has traveled can attest, the people you meet often make the biggest impact on your experience.

"The people in my cohort are absolutely amazing. I’ve only known them for four months now and some of them I would consider among the greatest people I’ve ever met," McAfee said. "Just meeting different people, especially from different cultures and different countries, is super nice and I think learning from your peers is probably the most important part of any education."

That chemistry and camaraderie among SIA students is one of the hallmarks of the school.

"I've seen the first-year students coalesce into a mutually supportive cohort, and I'm so glad that Lauren found her way here from Oklahoma to become part of that cohort and to contribute her perspective to a geographically and culturally diverse group," Director Smith said. "With our intensive career development support and strong alumni network, Lauren will have a wide avenue of opportunity before her when she graduates."

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