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Penn State’s Amateur Radio Club keeps ham radio alive in a cell phone driven society

Penn State’s Amateur Radio Club has been around since 1909, making it the university’s oldest club still in operation — but its members refuse to let their organization be left behind in the now fast-paced, cell phone filled society.

Colloquially known as ham radio, amateur radio uses the radio frequency spectrum for the purpose of non-commercial communication, recreation, competition and wireless experimentation.

“It's old school, but new cool. Ham radio has a history of over a hundred years,” Rick Gilmore, professor of psychology and the adviser of the Ham Radio Club, said. ”We hope to convince a new generation of folks to get their licenses and join us on the air.”

Gilmore became the club’s adviser following the retirement of his colleague and “fellow ham.”

His ham radio experience has spanned much of his life thus far, though not always continuously.

Though Gilmore initially got his license from the Federal Communications Commission during his time in graduate school, he said his passion for ham radio and the community came about a bit later in life.

“It wasn’t until 2016 when I read a book — a science fiction book — where amateur radio played a small part in the story,” Gilmore said. “I said, ‘Well, I was always interested in ham radio, [so] I’m going to get my license again.’”

This time, he also found a ham radio community to “learn the ins and outs [of the hobby] and get some support.”

“One of the reasons why I am excited about the Penn State club is that amateur radio is a technical hobby, yes, but it is also a social hobby,” Gilmore said.

President of the club Eric Wu said the Ham Radio Club is “probably different from other clubs on campus.”

“We are more of a hands-on club, so we have high frequency radios in the club room,” Wu (senior-mechanical engineering) said. “Club members come into the club room and operate the radio and talk with people around the world.”

Wu, who is also a student auxiliary officer for the university, noted that while the club is about communication and getting on the radio to talk with other people, ham radio can also serve as “an emergency resource during a public crisis.”

Ham Radio Club, though often thought of as a technical hobby, is open to people of any major. Wu said the club has members studying a wide variety of majors — including business, education and computer science.

“All majors are welcome if they would like to know more about ham radio,” he said.

Anybody interested in learning more about amateur radio is welcome to join the club, and no experience is required. Wu himself said he was a student pilot when he first realized his interest in ham radio.

“I was a student pilot three years ago, so we always talked to air traffic controllers when we were flying,” Wu said.

After speaking with traffic controllers in the air, Wu said he would go back to his car and still feel like he should be talking with somebody on the radio.

Other members of the club have different stories of their introduction to ham radio. Ruth Willet is the event planner for the university’s Amateur Radio Club, and she got her start in morse code.

“Ham radio is a service and a hobby that enables two-way communication around the world,” Willet (graduate-acoustics) said.

Willet said that one aspect of ham radio she really enjoys is being able to speak with other people all over the country and world.

“We listen to [the] radio all the time, but that's just listening — it’s one way,” Willet said. “Amateur radio allows us to actually have conversations with people anywhere from across town, to across the country, and even with astronauts on the International Space Station.”

Along with Wu and Gilmore, Willet encourages people of all ham radio backgrounds and all majors to join the club.

Though a license is required to operate a ham radio individually, Willet explained that it’s not necessary for students to get their licenses before joining the club.

“The great thing about the school club is that we have a license already,” Willet said. “So, as long as you’re here with someone licensed like Eric or me, you can get on the air and learn things.”

Members wishing to earn their license to operate a ham radio outside of the club can also expect help and guidance from already licensed members in passing their FCC license test.

“We can do test prep for club members to get their license. Most of the club members now have their own license,” Wu said.

Willet expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that the goal of the Ham Radio Club is to “help people learn about the hobby.”

“If you’re interested enough to get your license, we’ll be here to help you the whole way,” she said.

Willet said the reasons behind getting a license extend beyond just using the radios — especially for students.

“One big thing is that there's multiple organizations within amateur radio that administer scholarships,” Willet said. “So, if you get interested with the club and get your license — even if it's just an entry-level license — you can apply for scholarships.”

There are many upcoming plans and activities the Ham Radio Club will participate in within the coming months, including a “School Club Roundup,” where students involved in ham radio from elementary to college levels compete to make contact with as many people as possible in a given time.

Willet said she also wants to plan “Fox Hunts” — a form of ham radio hide-and-seek where small, low power transmitters are hidden, and the rest of the group searches for these transmitters, often using handheld receivers.

“Anybody of any background, any interest [and] any major is welcome, and we will find things for you to do,” Willet said. “If you want to learn about the technical side, you can build. But if you just want to talk to people, we already have the equipment. Just come and learn how to talk to people.”


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