Edited by Vilma Shu
As senior vice president for finance and business and treasurer at Penn State, Sara F. Thorndike leads financial, endowment management, business, and administrative activities at all Penn State campuses. She serves as a member of the board of directors for Penn State Health, sits on the President’s Council, and chairs the Penn State Investment Council and Health Care Advisory Council.
Before joining Penn State, Thorndike served as vice chancellor for administration and finance and chief financial officer for East Carolina University (ECU) from 2018 to 2021. Previously, she was senior associate vice chancellor for business affairs, chief financial officer, and controller for the University of North Carolina in Wilmington from 2014 to 2018. Before entering academia, she worked in nonprofit and corporate finance. She is a certified public accountant licensed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
Born in Defiance, Ohio, Thorndike earned an EdD in higher education leadership from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, an MBA from Ohio State University, and a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Franklin University.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Thorndike via Zoom to discuss what brought her to Penn State, how she hopes to make a difference in her role at the university, and the importance of financial literacy for students.
Mimi: If this were baseball, you’ve moved to the major leagues after playing with a few minor-league teams, and you took a giant step. What motivated you to do that?
Sara: I loved my job at East Carolina University. I get recruiter emails all the time. Most of the time, I say if I think of anybody, I’ll let you know. The one came through for Penn State, at first, I deleted it. And I’m a big believer that sometimes there’s this intuition, or you get this sense that you’re supposed to do something. For some reason, I felt compelled to open my deleted folder, and I saw this email about a job at Penn State, and it caused me to pause.
During COVID, my husband and I were working at home. And I walked out to his office, and I said, ‘I just got this email from a recruiter for Penn State.’ My husband and family have been so gracious to move with me multiple times. It’s not their favorite thing to do, so I don’t tend to move without having conversations with them first. I said, ‘Do you think I should respond to the recruiter?’ And my husband said, ‘You’ve got to do it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ I’m so grateful that he saw that, too.
We’re originally from Ohio. We both went to Ohio State, so Big Ten was something we thought very highly of. I remember watching football with my dad when I was growing up and I always had a real appreciation for Penn State. I applied, and the recruiter said, ‘You should do this. I think it would be a good fit.’
As I look back at my career trajectory, ECU was so similar in many ways to Penn State—just a smaller version. Greenville, North Carolina, has a lot of similarities to State College as well. They have a College of Medicine with a health system like Penn State. It prepared the table for me to come to Penn State. Still a big leap, but I felt like I was prepared, and I’m so grateful for how that path was laid out for me, and I’m so happy to be here.
Mimi: Good. What’s been the thing that’s stricken you as exceptional?
Sara: The people. It’s important to me to work with colleagues who want to collaborate, think about the mission, put students first, be in a community where people really care about the university, and the university really cares about the people. It’s a real ecosystem.
Mimi: You’ve been here a little over a year. You were the first woman in that job. What does that feel like?
Sara: I’m excited and proud. I don’t necessarily think about myself as the first woman. I think about myself as a person who will do her very best to represent the university in the best possible way and work very hard. At the same time, I’m very excited to be the first woman in the position. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Mimi: And, interestingly, you arrive at a time when three women are in very key positions at this university—you, the incoming president, and the vice president for intercollegiate athletics. That’s unique in higher education. Do you folks communicate a lot as women?
Sara: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sandy [Barbour], and I do talk to her quite a bit. Much of my leadership team is male, much of her leadership team is also male, so we can learn from each other. We have similar communication styles and how we lead. She’s a great sounding board and support. And I’m hoping that Neely [Bendapudi] will be similar. My little interaction with her so far has been very positive. She’s very people-centric. She cares a lot about her work, and it’s evident that she cares a lot about celebrating, appreciating people and the work they’re doing, and recognizing it, which is a similar value of mine.
Mimi: Well, you’ve settled into higher education as your choice of life work. What motivated you to do that in a traditionally male position?
Sara: As I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to space camp, and I thought I’d study engineering. I was in Civil Air Patrol in high school. I did everything possible so I could go the military route and get into engineering to be an astronaut. And then, when I got into college, I had some health conditions. I had asthma growing up. I realized that’s just not going to be a good career path for me. And I found accounting. It may sound a little unusual, but I really like accounting. I like problem-solving in the framework of accounting. I’m very career-driven, and my parents were very career-driven. When I went into corporate finance, I thought I would climb the corporate ladder. Frankly, that industry has a lot of male leaders as well. Science, engineering, and mathematics are also male-oriented fields. But I grew up believing that you could do anything, and gender didn’t matter.
Mimi: Did your parents instill that in you?
Sara: They did. My mom was a nurse. My dad owned his own company as an electrician. I just knew I was able to do anything I set my mind to. So, in corporate finance, I was working a lot, and I remember saying to my husband, ‘If I’m going to work this much, I really want to feel like I’m making a difference in the world.’ And a week later, a friend of mine offered me a job at a nonprofit health care institution. I thought this wasn’t the corporate career ladder that I would climb, but it really felt like the right thing to do. They needed me, and there were a lot of benefits to taking the job. I wanted to go back to get my MBA, so it enabled me to work during the day and get my MBA at night.
I also started our family during that two-year period. I had my son over a one-week break from school and went back to work within a week. I was able to bring him with me, which was great. My husband and I used to transfer him at the Dairy Queen at night. I would drive from work to the Dairy Queen, and he would take our son, and I would go to Ohio State and get my MBA at night. It was our work-life balance, and we made it happen.
I told them I would stay until I got my master’s. And then, once I got my master’s, I knew I was ready for more. I learned a ton in that job. The next thing that felt natural to me was higher education. I really wanted to be in a job where I was challenged. I could help change lives, and I felt like I was in an environment where I could do that on a day-to-day basis. I worked for a private college for ten years. Then, I got my doctorate in higher education leadership, and I’ve never looked back. In many regards, higher education is like running a city—maybe bigger. We have housing and food services, all our students, and transportation; we have an airport here. It is about as complex as you can get. I love it.
Mimi: How do you manage everything on your resume? Tell our readers how you do that balancing act.
Sara: I have a great team, and they are very capable. They do a fantastic job running various units that report up to me in this position. I also stay extremely organized. I work long days, and I love it. We collaborate and communicate a lot. We have meetings to understand the connections between each other. When we’re fully staffed, the leadership team is right around 18, and it’s diverse. I remind my team that it all boils down to how do we support access and affordability for students? The decisions we make every day attract and retain our students and help them get the quality education that literally changes lives.
Mimi: What is a change you have made since you arrived here?
Sara: I’m very big on team building, connections, and collaboration. So, I emphasize that with my team. Sharing gratitude is very important to me as well. We have a large unit with more than 5,000 employees, and making sure that they feel appreciated has been a priority. From a program side, one of the things I’m most proud of is the Live On grants, which is a discount on housing and food services for students that need it so they can live on one of our campuses. It’s not something we have done in the past, and it is making a difference and enabling students to come to Penn State who otherwise might not have been able to.
Mimi: And what are the qualifications for that category?
Sara: There is an application process, and Financial Aid works with Housing and Food Services. Some of our campuses have more open capacity than others; University Park, we tend to be pretty full, but a number of our campuses have available occupancy. The students have a need, and we have a supply, so we match those up. It’s a great retention tool, but we are still trying to measure it because it’s the first year, and I do think it’s attracting students to come. We are trying to serve more students because we want them to stay longer than one year. Data has shown that if a student lives on campus, they are much more likely to be successful academically and complete their degree. And I think that’s even more the case at some of our other commonwealth campuses. So, if we can provide the students with food and housing security, they can focus on their academics; that’s so vitally important.
Mimi: You’re passionate about student financial literacy. Tell me about that.
Sara: Financial literacy is important to me. When I was in college, my dad gave me these cassette tapes on getting out of debt, how to live more of a debt-free lifestyle, and it was perfect for me because I hadn’t accumulated a lot of debt yet. I also wasn’t of the mindset that I needed to live within my financial means. It changed my perspective. Within a couple of years, my husband and I were able to pay off all his debts, and we put me through college, all three degrees, without any debt, and it has had a phenomenal impact on our lives, and it’s something we’ve instilled in our kids.
So, when I did my dissertation, I did it on financial literacy and its impacts on student health and wellness and life satisfaction. I repeatedly found how students who participate in some financial education courses in college literally changed decisions that set them on a path that gives them a lot better information to make decisions that work for them about how they live from a financial perspective. I want to see every student have that. I’m involved in an organization called HEFWA, the Higher Education Financial Wellness Alliance, that provides education to students across the country from different higher education institutions. I think no student should leave college without knowing basic financial skills to make good decisions. I want to pay it forward for what I was given when I was young.
Mimi: And you’re going to start such a program in action?
Sara: We have a great one here at Penn State. The Sokolov-Miller Center is amazing, and I have offered to volunteer there.
Mimi: What other innovations have you introduced here?
Sara: I have a very open, transparent, collaborative communications style, so quarterly—we’ve had to do it on Zoom—but we’ve tagged Sharing With Sara, so that everybody in Finance and Business, over 5,000 people, can log on and listen to updates, ask me questions, and hear how things are going and connect. We did something recently called Cheers for Peers so you could nominate someone who’s done something good and I can reach out to them and thank them for the work they’re doing. I’m trying to have those connection points so people know they’re making a difference. I want people to know how much we appreciate what they do. So many of the folks in Finance and Business don’t know those that get rid of the snow, sweep the walks, or keep the electric on, do our policing or balance our checkbook, buy our paper products. I could go on and on and on. When it works well, nobody realizes that it’s going on. When it doesn’t go well, people start to think about it. We want people to know how much we appreciate the work they’re doing on a day-to-day basis, which is part of my style.
Mimi: Good for you! Give us some clues as to how you keep your cool when you’re involved every day of your life in a complicated juggling act.
Sara: For me, it’s staying organized and proactive. It helps me not get overwhelmed, so when things get intense or stressful, if I feel like I’m more prepared, it helps me keep my cool. In general, I tend to manage crises pretty well because I’m a doer. If you bring me a problem, I want to fix it. I want to get to the solution.
Mimi: Because that’s what makes you feel successful. Have you identified areas that you believe can make a difference from the status quo?
Sara: One of the bigger challenges in higher education is keeping the cost of attendance low. And it’s even more challenging in Pennsylvania because we tend to be higher. After all, we don’t have the same resources that other states have. Again, I want to make a difference by thinking about how our operations affect those costs and how we leverage our assets. For example, do we have intellectual knowledge or people who can partner with private industry with money or capital and come together to create something that we could not have done separately? Or how do we reduce costs by creating new processes or procedures? Those are the kinds of things that excite me because if we can keep that cost of attendance as low as possible, then we have more students who have the opportunity to be here.
Mimi: Now, let’s talk about the university and the community. There needs to be an even stronger partnership between those two forces.
Sara: I’m with you one hundred percent. I am on several community boards—the United Way board, the CBICC board, and the PA Chamber board. Part of the reasons Penn State supports this position being on all those boards is for that town-gown-university-community relationship. I’m a big believer in what blesses one blesses all. How do you come together and discuss what you need to accomplish in a helpful way that meets in the middle somewhere? Whether it’s bringing new industry to the community or bringing new activities that will attract students and youth, the university supports the community. We have many connection points with our local government relations or public safety, where there are groups of people who talk about how we all can support one another and continuing to have that dialogue.
Mimi: You are amazing, and I welcome you.
Sara: Thank you. I find you inspiring. The few conversations that we’ve had, what you’ve experienced in your life, what you’ve overcome, what you’ve accomplished—I’m in awe. There’s a lot I can learn from you.
Mimi: It takes one to know one. I’m looking forward to continuing our early friendship. Thank you for giving us all this time and the wisdom of your lifetime. Just knock their socks off. You can do it. We’re proud to have you, and we’re cheering in the background.Sara: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.