Bruce Etter, 21, has lived in State College, Pa. for 18 years.
The Pennsylvania State University rising senior grew up in the small, college town that was once ranked the No. 1 lowest stress city in the United States by Psychology Today and is affectionately referred to as “Happy Valley.”
As recent as eight months ago, in the mind of an outsider, the name ‘State College’ may have conjured up images of football, Joe Paterno and binge-drinking Penn State students.
But now, State College seems synonymous with one name: Jerry Sandusky.
“It sucks because most people have no idea what State College is really like,” Etter said. “The only thing they think of is Sandusky, who couldn’t be any farther from what this place is about.”
News broke in November that the former Penn State assistant football coach — who lives in State College — had been charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse on young boys. Suddenly, Penn State and the quiet, isolated town of State College turned into the media Mecca of the nation. The “media circus” Etter said, seemed to die down in the past few months and State College returned to normal.
But this week, State College was put back into the national spotlight as 12 jurors were selected to decide the fate of Sandusky, whose trial is set to begin next week.
Over the past school year, as reporters flocked to the town, Etter watched them paint a less-than-ideal portrait of his university and his hometown. But the State College he has always known is a friendly, tight-knit and unique community.
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“In the summer you walk down the street and you see four or five people you know and they all say ‘hello’ to you,” Etter said. “It’s a caring community. It really is Happy Valley.”
Emily Zheng was told by family members who live in China that Sandusky was on the front pages of newspapers in Hong Kong. Zheng, 19, who has lived in State College for 11 years, said it was jarring to see that her small town had made international news.
“It’s really odd that little State College is front page news in Hong Kong. But at the same time you’re kind of isolated from it, because you’re not in Hong Kong,” Zheng, 19, said. “It’s kind of an outer body experience.”
Taylor Springer, 20, shared Zheng’s sentiment. She said State College is often referred to as “a bubble” and few people who lived there have had much experience with trauma or tragedy.
“It’s difficult to see this town you’ve grown up in looked at with a negative eye,” Springer, a life-long State College resident said. “It’s been very different here since November.”
Also, in November, Springer saw a divide between Penn State students and Penn State students who grew up in State College.
In November, when student riots broke out after the firing of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, causing thousands of dollars of damage to the town, Springer said she and some of her friends from State College stayed in her apartment in shock. She said she couldn’t believe students were causing such damage to a place she had called home for her entire life.
Etter said that while the events that have unfolded in State College have brought his neighbors and friends closer together, he thinks it is a shame that his community will probably always have the name “Sandusky” attached to it.
“When something catastrophic happens somewhere, and I think catastrophic is the right word for this, you’ll forever associate that place with what happened,” he said. ”It’s going to have this immediate sting. It might dissipate a little bit, but [the stigma] is going to be that way for our entire lifetime.
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