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Reality Shows, and the Power of School Loyalty

(Photo Credit: Food Network Star)

This summer, food writer Whitney Chen became a contestant on the reality-TV show "Food Network Star".

And after four episodes, Ms. Chen is still alive in the competition - much to the delight of a nation of Lehigh alums.

That's because Ms. Chen is a Lehigh alumna - and a graduate with a degree in industrial engineering, which is no mean feat at a school like Lehigh.

Ms. Chen's quest for Food Network stardom reveals a side of Lehigh people that simply isn't present in folks who go to larger, less personal, schools.  (more)

Maybe it's because it happens during the "off-season" of summer, but my wife and I have happened to see some of the different Food Network Star programs over the years, which has created such popular TV personalities as Melissa D'Arabian, Aarti Sequeria, and Guy Fieri.

It seems like every year, I say I'll swear myself off watching these programs, which veer from simple over-the-top reaction shots to actions and activities during the show that just seem too forced to be "real".

But every year, my wife and I seem to end up get sucked back into watching the program - and this year, with the Lehigh connection, I've been more interested in the program than usual.

***

Fitting from a school founded by the famous railroad tycoon Asa Packer, if you browse a list of famous Lehigh alumni, there are an inordinate number of business leaders that top the list.

Alumni like industrialists (Lee Iaccoca, Eugene Grace), current and former CEO's (Phillip Kent, William Amelio) - and even, for good measure, oilmen (Ali Al-Naimi, former CEO of Saudi Aramco).

Basically, when most folks think of Lehigh alums, they think engineers and businessmen. Without giving short shrift to the education and arts and science schools, nationally our Patriot League institution is still mostly known for graduating future stars in the world of business and engineering, not celebrity or entertainment. (Full disclosure - I'm a proud grad of the Arts and Sciences school, and last I checked I'm doing alright.)

Maybe it's because of Lehigh's reputation that so many alums get interested when a former alum does something that involves the spotlight.  Ms. Chen has that spotlight - at the moment - and has a chance to catch that elusive media fame that even escapes the many other world-shaping Lehigh alums.  

There are a few - like Rob Riley, who has made a name for himself playing in "Lombardi" on Broadway - but not many.

If Ms. Chen becomes a Food Network Star, she could be a household name.  If that happens, more people could know the name Whitney Chen than William Amelio.  It may seem crazy, and it may not seem right, but it's the truth.

And her Lehigh-ness - and her connection to the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton area is something that has not escaped Kelly Huth of the Express-Times, either:

Whitney Chen may have a degree in engineering, but the 2005 Lehigh University graduate is trading it in for a shot at food glory.

She will be among the 15 contestants competing on Food Network’s reality cooking show competition, “Food Network Star.” The show premieres 9 p.m. Sunday.

“It will be weird to watch myself,” Chen says in a phone interview. “And it’s wild to walk in New York City and see cabs driving through with our pictures on them.”

Chen earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, according to the Lehigh University Alumni Association.

“Lehigh is such a special place to me, and I’m sure I’ll be back,” Chen says.

****

Why does a reality show make alums like me - and undoubtedly many, many others - beam with Lehigh pride?

If you're a Penn State graduate, every year you emerge from a cast of thousands in order to join a cast of millions of Penn State alumni.

And if an Ohio State graduate makes the finals of Design Star, or an Arizona State graduate ends up as one of Charlie Sheen's "goddesses", if you're a Buckeye or Sun Devil you may not even notice.  After all, there are so many of you.

But when you go to a school like Lehigh, it's a different situation.

Lehigh enrolled 1,212 first-time, first year students last year, and has a grand total of 4,781 undergraduates at last count.  In a country with hundreds of millions of human beings, it's a relatively tiny number.

And Lehigh undergrads, increasingly, come from all over the country.  Last year, 36% of the student body came from places other than nearby New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania, and the percentage is increasing.

Sometimes, when you're an undergraduate at a school like Lehigh, it feels like an academic grind - it's no cakewalk.  While it sometimes seems from the outside like an existence of non-stop Beirut games all week, it actually also is a stressful existence as well with tough academics, all-night projects, and a lot of unnatural hours of work.  

One formative experience I had at Lehigh came during a class of about fifteen students, with a teacher that was such a brilliant researcher that he was incomprehensible in a classroom setting.  All of us had to bond and work together to make any sense of the material so we could pass the class, taking important time out during the week so we could pass - and we all did.

Lehigh alums are bound by that work, of course, but also those shared experiences on the campus as well: the midnight trips to Campus Pizza and (back in the day) Greekers, parties at the fraternities (never called just "frats") - and, of course, "The Rivalry" between Lehigh and Lafayette.

And there's also the part of the country where Lehigh resides - the Bethlehem/Allentown/Easton metro area, just north of Bucks County to the south and Coal Country to the North.  

It's not in the middle of nowhere, like Bucknell or Colgate, yet it's not swallowed in the middle of a giant city with plenty of other things to do, like Fordham or Georgetown. 

Many of the folks who come to this area from elsewhere learn to love the area - as I have - and end up continuing to live around the area as well.  Some feel at home at this gateway to "real America" (which unofficially starts west of 476, incidentally).  Others fall in love with the history of the area, whether it be the revolutionary war period history, or the industrial period history. Even others just love to white water raft, canoe or ski - which is a convenient hour away from the Lehigh Valley.

I know it all seems a bit hoary and written by the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, but it's true.  There is this connection to this place that seems to be shared by many Lehigh alumni that largely seems to come together after you've been away from the place for years.  Lehigh isn't the only place where this happens, but it's size, unique history, demographics and location seems to lend itself to this better than most places.

(It also goes a long way towards explaining Lafayette's alums connection to their school as well - after all, they share almost all of the same attributes as Lehigh, save the fact they're a little closer to New Jersey's orbit - and "The Rivalry", too, as the schools are so close, so similar and generate such similar strong possessive feelings towards their alma maters.)

*****

This powerful confluence of factors aren't at the forefront of our minds when watching the Food Network Star and seeing if a Lehigh grad will be able to be a member of the stable of Food Network stars.  But it's really there - and it's something that is always there, behind the scenes. 

It's that connection that has Lehigh fans rooting for Ms. Chen in a big way - and hoping she will be starring in her own cooking show this fall.

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