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“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow  confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr. 

A new program remembers a Penn State hero and imagines a better future

Communication. Understanding. Change. It’s a cycle of transformation that Bill Cahir advocated throughout his career in government and journalism and his service as a member of the Marine Corps. And when Sergeant Cahir was killed in Afghanistan on August 13, 2009, soon after successfully negotiating with village elders and military funding authorities to build a school for girls, his family wanted to continue that cycle in his name. Last year, their support launched Project Cahir Corps, an initiative that channels the interest and energy of Penn State students into addressing the problem of poverty.

“In a very short life, Bill had such a positive influence,” says his father, John Cahir ’61, ’71 PhD EMS. “He was always asking questions, trying to put a story into context, and using his great insights into the hearts of others to help them. If the students who participate in Project Cahir Corps can do the same, it will be a fitting remembrance of Bill and his belief that even without high rank, you can make a difference.”

Bill Cahir grew up in State College—John retired as Penn State’s vice provost for undergraduate education in 2002, and his mother,Mary Anne Cahir ’63 Edu, is a former director of development for the University—and he earned a degree in English from his hometown institution in 1990. Bill went on to work for U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy and Harris Wofford before making the leap to journalism. He was writing for the Newhouse News Service when, motivated by the 9/11 attacks, he made his case for an age waiver and enlisted as a reservist in the Marine Corps. After two combat tours in Iraq, he ran for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 5th District. Although he lost in the primary, he remained committed to service, and he was working with the Marine’s 4th Civil Affairs Group when he was killed, just a few months before his wife, Rene Browne, gave birth to the couple’s twin daughters.

“Knowing Bill Cahir’s story has made all of us—myself, the students, the University—even more committed to the success of the program,” says Emil Cunningham, a doctoral candidate in higher education and the adviser for Project Cahir Corps. The program began to take shape when Bill’s brother, Bart Cahir ’94 EMS, approached the Office of Student Affairs about honoring Bill at their alma mater, and the first group of twelve undergraduate participants, chosen by an advisory committee, started meeting with Emil in the fall of 2012.

Through readings, discussions, and guest speakers, the students learned about poverty on the national and local level. By the spring, they were putting their knowledge into action with two hands-on projects: an outreach and education effort with community partners, including the Centre County Youth Service Bureau, and a strategic plan for affordable housing in the State College area, prompted by the closing of two mobile home parks.

“The goal is to get students engaged to the point where they want to be advocates both here in Centre County, while they’re still in school, and in the communities they’ll join after graduation,” says Emil. “Over the course of just a year, I’ve seen them develop a different perspective on poverty and a different perspective on their own ability to create systematic and sustainable change.”

Kelsey Burton, a dual major in Accounting and French and Francophone Studies and one of the project’s first participants, learned not only how much she can do as an individual, but also how much collective effort can accomplish. “The opportunity to work with other students who are passionate about this overlooked issue was priceless,” she says. “I think that the plan we’re developing can really help in addressing the problem of affordable housing in this area. Project Cahir Corps is allowing a very small group of students to begin on a mission to make a very big change in our community.”

Creating Project Cahir Corps has been, like the program itself, a collective effort. Bart Cahir worked closely with the University to develop the program, and with his wife, Andrea, he is providing annual gifts matched by his employer, ExxonMobil, to get it off the ground. John and Mary Anne have created an endowment to ensure that Project Cahir Corps will continue to honor their son and communicate his values to Penn State students in perpetuity. They hope that other family members and friends will join in with more support, and they hope that the students of Project Cahir Corps will continue to evolve the program in response to the changing nature of poverty in the United States and Centre County.

“We had the opportunity to meet and speak with the students this year, and they have the intellect and the commitment to move Bill’s legacy forward,” says Mary Anne. “We are happy that it’s in their hands.”


What is Project Cahir?

Founded on the principle that communities begin with a core of committed individuals and grow by ever-expanding circles of influence to embrace a larger civic body, Project Cahir is a scholarship initiative that aims to instill, in a small group of Penn State students, a purposeful sense of civic duty, community, and commitment to finding ways to change the poverty landscape of our local communities.

How was the group established?

The group receives its namesake from Bill Cahir who graduated from Penn State in 1990 and lived a life dedicated to civic engagement and duty. Bill worked for several U.S. Senators, as a journalist for the Newhouse News Service, enlisted as a reservist in the Marine Corps where he worked with a Civil Affairs Group. When he was killed in action, his family created this initiative to honor his commitment to civic duty, through the students of Project Cahir

What are the Goals?

  • Inspire a lifelong commitment towards mitigating poverty
  • Provide tools and skills needed to create impactful change in our communities
  • Empower each of us to become advocates for those who cannot speak for themselves

What are the resources ?

The Take Cahir Initiative was created to help Penn State students struggling to meet their most basic needs. It aims to help students with immediate need, but also helps to provide students with the appropriate resources to help sustain themselves. The resources include but are not limited to opportunities for employment, resources for scholarships, resources for individualized help, and others as appropriate.