July 2016

Basketball and Bonding in Puerto Rico

Photo by Steve Manuel

In the sunny climes of Puerto Rico, Penn Staters are eager to reorganize and re-energize, spurred in part by the Penn State men’s basketball team’s participation in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in mid-November. Several Penn State alums are making strides in an inspiring effort to revive their chapter and bring Penn State fervor 1,500 miles southeast of Pennsylvania.

Though the Puerto Rico Chapter has been inactive for 10 years, Penn Staters have been meeting informally to watch football games together at a local establishment in a residential area south of San Juan, said Guillermo Silva ’90. This fall, Coach Pat Chambers’ second career visit to the island (the first was with his Boston University basketball team in 2009) ignited the spark to jump-start the Puerto Rico Chapter again and join the Alumni Association’s network of over 130 geographically based chapters.

“For the last six years, basketball teams from top-ranked schools have been coming to Puerto Rico for the ESPN-sponsored Tip-Off,” said Ivan Santos ’90, a friend and Penn State classmate of Silva’s. “When I learned that Penn State was coming this year, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to have a big event to reorganize our chapter.”

Santos, who currently serves on the Alumni Council, and Silva were co-presidents of the Puerto Rico Chapter for five years beginning in the latter part of the 1990s. Santos had lived in New York City for a few years following graduation from Penn State and Silva had lived in Washington, D.C. Both men were very involved with the alumni chapters in those respective cities. Once they moved back to Puerto Rico, they became involved in that commonwealth’s existing chapter, established by Bob Sherwin ’62. Sherwin and Ronald Flores ’67, who had also been the chapter’s president, passed the torch to Santos and Silva, and helped them out with the transition.

Fast forward to the fall of 2012. At first, Santos thought a rousing Penn State reconnection event could be held right at the basketball arena, but the games were going to take place in a smaller venue that didn’t lend itself to such a gathering. So instead he focused on holding it at the hotel where the Penn State basketball team would be staying and worked with the Alumni Association’s Volunteer Services team on logistics with a two-fold goal—getting Penn Staters together to come out to support the team and simultaneously stirring interest in reviving the chapter. The idea worked.

The Nittany Lions played in three games over the extended weekend in November. They lost the first game on Nov. 14 against North Carolina State (7255), won the second on Nov. 15 against Providence (5552) and fell to Akron on Nov. 17 (8560).

Puerto Rico Nittany Lion fans rooted at all three, and about 75 Penn Staters turned out for the reception on Thursday night following the N.C. State game.

“The athletes’ parents and families of the staff came down to our event in the hotel, along with Coach Chambers,” said Silva. “It was very nice of him to stop by to say a few words to the crowd. It’s something that will stay with me, that so many alumni could come out to support the Penn State team and show their pride. It reminded me of our time at school—it brought us all a little closer.”

As part of the chapter’s restructure, two alumni volunteered to take on a co-presidency: Cedric Sasso ’02 and Javier Rosario ’96. Santos plans to help mentor them in their new roles.

Sasso said plans for the newly energized alumni group include continuing with the chapter’s earlier tradition of student sendoffs.

“We want to prepare the students heading to Penn State with what to expect,” he said. “State College is big, and it’s hard to know where to go at first. We want to make sure they’re ready for it, and to let them know other students from Puerto Rico will be there to guide them, like a family.”

Another Penn State experience Sasso said he and Rosario want to see the chapter support is THON. Both Sasso and Rosario were THON dancers while at Penn State.

“The only way you can help people see what you’re all about is to use creativity to do something positive,” Sasso said. “We hope to teach the current and prospective Penn State students, parents—everybody—why we are the biggest alumni association in the world, what it means to be a Penn Stater and why they hire Penn State students at career fairs.”

Overall, Penn Staters in Puerto Rico are excited to have the chance to reconnect more extensively again, Silva said. “Some of us have families, and we want to instill Penn State pride in our kids,” he said. “For us here, it’s a little more complicated, but if we can pass on our love of Penn State to them, that would be great.”