When I first arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975 as a freshman, I was struck by the sheer beauty of the campus, the sheer numbers of students converging on the campus and milling about, and the endless displays of Penn clothing and logo-stamped merchandise for sale all around campus. But my first swag purchase was a light grey t-shirt emblazoned with huge block letters that read: "NOT PENN STATE". It never struck me that there could be such confusion between the school I was about to attend in Philadelphia and the larger state college located in the center of the state. But I though the t-shirt was pretty funny.
But I was soon to learn that many fellow students were quite sensitive to the confusion. "Half my family thinks I'm going to Penn State," said one of my roommates, who hailed from Staten Island, "I don't think they know the difference."
It only took me a few weeks to experience that confusion. On one of my first visits home for a weekend, I had one of my dad's friends ask me if I had bumped into Joe Paterno on campus yet. "Nope, not yet, " I smirked. My dad didn't think it was so funny. "He's going to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia," he quickly retorted. "Didn't know they had a Philadelphia campus," said his friend. I thought my father was going to slug him.
"Don't worry," I said, "we know the difference."
Later that weekend, one of my uncles (I won't say which one) asked me a similar question and asked me if I could get tickets to the next Penn State football game. This time, my father looked at me with a smile and shook his head. "No, that's almost impossible for me," I answered.
Eventually all of my family understood what university I was attending, and didn't ask me about Joe Paterno or the Nittany Lions or anything like that anymore. Several cousins did in fact eventually attend the school in State College, and are proud alumni.
After a week like this one, I am certainly glad that I'm an alumni of the place with the t-shirts---still for sale to this day---that say "Not Penn State."