Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Penny Semaia can seem like a pretty intimidating figure. But once Semaia starts talking, any intimidation falls away. He makes you feel welcome from the moment you shake his hand and exudes friendliness. It’s an infectious positivity many in the Pitt community have become accustomed to in his nearly 20 years at the University.
Semaia first came to campus as a student-athlete in 1999. He was a lineman on the football team, active in clubs all across campus and was known to emcee club events.
Now, 12 years later, Semaia is the senior associate athletic director for student life. He meets with student-athletes across all teams to help them balance life in college and after college.
Semaia sat down with The Pitt News to discuss his experience at Pitt as a student and professional. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
The Pitt News: Who were some of your biggest inspirations who helped make you who you are?
Penny Semaia: The first group are my family members … I grew up in Utica, New York, raised by a single mom with tons of kids. We had a consciousness about ourselves. We knew we didn’t have a lot of money. But we knew we had a great work ethic, and our mom worked her behind off to help provide for us. When I came to Pitt, I took those skills and applied them here.
Then I was introduced to great professors like Dr. Richard Scaglion in my first intro to anthropology course. I ended up majoring in it because of the love and passion I had for his style of teaching. That opened my eyes. Another professor that’s still a dear friend of mine is Dr. Mike Epitropoulos in the sociology department.
The people that helped groom me into the man I am today, many of them are still on this campus.
TPN: Coming from Utica, what drew you to Pitt as a student and what drew you back as a professional?
PS: I was a young man that saw opportunities in anything. I’m a glass half full spirit. But I was also very narrow-scoped in things I was never exposed to … When I came to Pitt I was in awe because it’s much larger than where I grew up … And it seemed like an endless pathway. Now as a professional, I still have that mindset.
TPN: What was your time like at Pitt as a student-athlete?
PS: I absolutely loved and cherished my student-athlete experience. I grew as a person. I grew professionally. It helped groom me for the place I am in now. And I still look back and draw on my personal experiences as a student-athlete to help me move forward and to help today’s generation.
TPN: How did you get to the position you’re in today?
PS: It was my brand as a student. I lived as my authentic self. And people recognized who I was and who I am. When I was a sophomore, I was hired in admissions as a freshman peer counselor for PittStart, and this opened doors for more opportunities for exposure on campus for me.
I went and emceed various shows for other student groups like Greek life, Asian Students Alliance and Black Action Society. And I was a college student-athlete. All of that experience was recognized by the University. So when they created a life skills position, they asked me to apply. I went through the process and went through a national search with other candidates and was fortunate enough to be placed here when it was first created. And now I’m blessed to be running the show.
TPN: When you started in 2005, how did you see your career going?
PS: To me, it was a blank canvas. There was a sense of discovery. How was I going to help paint the picture and the landscape of what we want for our student-athletes? The only thing I had to draw on were my experiences and my predecessor’s experiences. That was Donna Sanft — she at the time was our executive associate AD.
I was focused on how can we face the “er.” The er is the after of bett-er, work hard-er… The same work ethic I had at 23, I have now at 35.
TPN: Over the last 12 years, what differences have you seen in the students you deal with?
PS: There are some cultural things about our campus that have changed from my first day to now. It’s not a cultural thing about this campus, it’s a cultural thing about where we are as a society.
It’s our job to find out how and why students are connecting in different ways… We need to adapt and evolve now with our students. Technology is a big part of that. We need to make sure our services can help navigate that technology. We also found that big group settings aren’t as effective as they were back in the day. We take a more human approach and do smaller groups and a more one-on-one approach.
TPN: What are the specific challenges you find with student-athletes trying to enter the professional world?
PS: The one thing I do feel is a tough piece for our student-athletes is the transfer out of the identity of an athlete. Imagine someone being a gymnast from two or three years old. Then when they’re 21 or 22, this is the last phase of their experience as a student-athlete. What we work with them on is their holistic self. Athletics is a part of you, it’s not the whole you.
First, start with your passions, then to your purpose. From your purpose, build a plan. Then chase that by pursuit.
TPN: Do the students you work with ever come back and thank you personally?
PS: It’s a big reason why I do what I do. I want to help people go where they want to go. About 30 minutes ago I got a call from one of my former wrestlers who just moved from Vegas to Maryland because he got a job promotion. It’s funny because when he first accepted a job in the same industry, he hated it. He would call me every week saying he didn’t know if he could do this. So after two or three months of constant phone calls, I said, “Give it till Christmas. Give it till the holidays, then if you feel this is not the space for you, I will help you with another transition. But until then you’re going to stay and focus.” Lo and behold, come the holidays he received one of his first promotions and it snowballed into more and more opportunities. He is, as we say, crushing it in his industry.
TPN: So, your job doesn’t stop once your students leave campus?
PS: It doesn’t. We live by the mindset “once a Panther always a Panther.” So when our students call us, it’s not official business, it’s, “Hey what’s going on? How are things going?” It’s that element we never want to lose, that human touch.