Former lineman preaches off-field success
Anthropology major finds dream job with Pitt athletics
Friday, August 25, 2006Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Penny Semaia said the reason he studied anthropology in college was because it was one of the few majors that held his attention. It must have worked because he graduated on time in 2004 and quickly found a job -- with Pitt's athletic department.
Semaia is the Career and Life Skills Coordinator for student-athletes at the university, a position he was appointed to last year. The job was created to fill what administrators at the school believed was a void in a support program for student-athletes known as the Panther Game Plan Life Skills Program.
Semaia got the job after a nationwide search that included 10 other candidates. The school was looking for someone who could generate enthusiasm for the program, but also someone who was passionate about working to develop and nurture student-athletes.
"My personality is such that, I'm a real laid back and easy to talk to," said Semaia, who also is the sideline reporter for the Pitt football radio network. "That helps me because the students can relate to me and they feel like they can trust me. I also have credibility because I was an athlete myself. So the things they are going through, I can relate to."
Semaia was working in the admissions office and was the coordinator of the freshmen peer program before he was hired for his current position.
A four-year letterman for Pitt football (2000-03) as an offensive lineman, he also was heavily involved in a number of other activities. He served on the student-athlete advisory committee for three years and was its president for one year. He was also secretary of the Asian Student Association, a member of the Black Action Society and a freshmen peer counselor for three years.
"I've always been involved in the university," Semaia said. "And I've always enjoyed interacting with people. So my job really is perfect for my personality."
The program Semaia is with now began in 1995 and was one of the first programs of its type in the country. The main goals of the program are to promote academic excellence, athletic excellence, career development, community service and personal development among student-athletes.
Semaia said he tries helping student-athletes achieve their goals in all areas, but focuses on career development, community service and personal development.
Although Semaia primarily mentors student-athletes, he works for both the career services office and the athletic department. He is under the direct guidance of associate athletic director Donna Sandt, who specializes in academic issues, but also works closely with associate director of career services, Barbara Juliussen.
This year, Semaia installed a six-week life-skills program for all of the incoming freshmen on all the teams. Each session was geared toward a different aspect of campus life. There was a variety of speakers as well.
"The transition from high school to college is one of the toughest ones you'll make," Semaia said. "There is a right way to make the transition and a wrong way. We had [football player] Mike Phillips come in to talk about his experiences and the challenge he faces.
"It is all about finding good role models and getting every student-athlete plugged into the right things and headed into the right direction."
Semaia, who is Samoan and grew up in Utica, N.Y., said his transition to college was tough, but it was made easier by a number of coaches and older players who took the time to be his mentor. That's one reason he's so excited about this opportunity -- he can give something back.
"[Assistant football coach Bob Junko] was one of the most important people I met when I got to campus," Semaia said. "He was one of many mentors, people that just cared and helped me through the rough times. You need those people and I learned that your door always has to be open.