University of Pittsburgh

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Gifts of the Season

Hailing from Steelton, a small town south of Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River, she longed for an urban campus different from anything she’d known. A clarinetist and avid football fan, she also hoped to play in a marching band for a bowl game—a goal she realized as a member of the Pitt Band.

Written by Niki Kapsambelis

A Pitt alumnus lives and learns by example

As the holidays approach, a busy consultant juggles hectic job demands while also relocating back to her hometown near Harrisburg, Pa. She dashes out, between appointments and house chores, to finish her Christmas shopping. She wants to hold fast to this season, to reminisce, to remember well.

The holiday season always reminds Valerie Corbin Ketchen of how much her parents sacrificed for her and her siblings. Somehow, the couple always found ways to stretch a salesman’s paycheck beyond its practical limits. Under the sparkling tree, there were always plenty of gifts for all five children. And that was just one tangible example of everything the Corbins did to help their children thrive.

So, Ketchen was particularly determined to show her gratitude. That season, her mother, Jacqueline Corbin, was battling fibrocystic sarcoma, a type of cancer.

“It made a world of difference to me that I could give back to her,” says Ketchen about her return home to be near family during her mother’s illness.

On one of her shopping trips, Ketchen and her siblings purchased a beautiful coat as a gift for their mother—something to keep her warm during central Pennsylvania’s blustery winters; one practical way to say “thank you” for all those years of sacrifice.

Those years included encouragement and financial support so that Ketchen could attend the University of Pittsburgh. She had dreams of working in government policy. Hailing from Steelton, a small town south of Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River, she longed for an urban campus different from anything she’d known. A clarinetist and avid football fan, she also hoped to play in a marching band for a bowl game—a goal she realized as a member of the Pitt Band.

The first time she saw the Pitt campus, Ketchen recalls, she was driving into Oakland with her mother, laying eyes on buildings she had previously seen only in pictures. “It was evening, the Cathedral was lit up, and she was so excited for me,” says Ketchen, her voice catching at the memory. “She made some big sacrifices for me to be at Pitt, and she was so happy when we drove up.”

A few years later, Ketchen earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies, which launched her career in government affairs. Early on, she worked for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., crunching numbers and learning about the effects of public policy on business. Later, she worked as a consultant for the association, initially commuting between Washington and Harrisburg, spending time with her parents and extended family during the weekends. Then she relocated permanently when her mother became seriously ill.

It was the winter of 1984 when the Ketchen siblings bought the new coat as a Christmas gift for their mother. But the coat would never be worn by Jacqueline Corbin; she died that December, with the unwrapped gifts still under the tree.

So, Ketchen vowed to bestow another gift: She promised that she would look after the Corbin siblings. Ever since that December season, she finds herself guided by her parents’ example of sacrifice and love.

As a new member of the Pitt Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, Ketchen intends to help students launch their careers from the Pitt campus, just as her parents supported her own aspirations. She wants to recruit talented students, especially those who could use help in addressing the costs of a university education.

“With a lot of kids, their parents simply may not have the tools to address tuition costs because they didn’t go to college,” she says.

Ketchen (A&S ’81) wants to help students realize that scholarships and other forms of financial aid are available, that college tuition is an investment, and that “there are people who are willing to help them reach their lifelong goals.”

For nearly two decades, Ketchen has worked as a senior government affairs representative for what is now Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield. In her current role, she interacts with government policymakers on issues that concern the health and well-being of all Pennsylvanians.

Today, she and her husband, Carlton Ketchen—a fellow Pitt alumnus—live about 15 minutes from her hometown of Steelton, where she and her siblings remain close. She still remembers how excited her mother was about her daughter’s future that first day on the Pittsburgh campus. She knows the value of that kind of support and advocacy. She’s looking forward to another season of giving.

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