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A Cal U student sitting in class.A Cal U student sitting in class.

Cal U is rapidly becoming Mayor U.

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Posted on January 25, 2010

As the new year began, two undergraduate students started their first terms as mayors of nearby towns.

Ryan Belski, 21, a junior sport management major, is the new mayor of Rices Landing, a town with about 400 residents in Greene County. At 22, senior criminal justice major Courtney Geller is the youngest person to take office as mayor in Deemston, a borough of about 800 in Washington County.

They are following in the footsteps of two other young mayors: Casey Durdines '07 is beginning his second term as the mayor of California Borough, and Robert Prah ‘06, the University's director of veterans affairs, served as mayor of Smithton from 2006 to 2009.

"I wish Mayors Belski and Geller the best in their first terms and would love the opportunity to meet with them and compare notes or provide advice, if needed," said Durdines.

"It's great to see youth, and especially Cal U students, taking an active role in their local government. This is truly a credit to the excellent education and mentoring provided by the faculty and staff at California University."

Diehard fan

Belski said he decided to run for mayor at the urging of his friend, incumbent mayor Brad Kline. Dr. Roy Yarbrough, chairman of the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, also encouraged his political ambitions.

"He's always been supportive of everything and always told me to go for whatever my dreams are," Belski said.

"I am a diehard Vulcan football fan and have loved going to Cal U," added Belski, who takes EMT classes at night and hopes to build a career in resort management. "I really enjoy the atmosphere Dr. Armenti has created on campus."

As he confronts challenges such as road maintenance, gas drilling and revitalizing old or dilapidated buildings, Belski believes in getting involved with his community. In addition to serving as mayor of Rices Landing, he is a volunteer firefighter, a first responder and a volunteer at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.

"Getting more people involved is the biggest challenge, and something we lack here," he said. "The people show an interest, but there's only a certain group of individuals who help."

Belski believes his door-to-door campaigning last fall helped him get a feel for his community.

"Nothing can happen overnight, but I believe I have an idea of what the people want," he said. "We need to attract people here. We have to see what is possible and make it happen."

Yarbrough said Belski possesses the combination of personal and professional skills that can make a real difference.

"I believe Ryan's scholastic achievement, commitment to excellence and proven work ethic have merited serious attention and admiration," he said. "Ryan comfortably interacts with people and can express himself in a very lucid manner.  He is someone who welcomes challenges.

"Also," Yarbrough joked, "he's a good person to know if I get a speeding ticket in Rices Landing."

‘Definitely my year'

Geller said she has wanted to be Deemston's mayor for five or six years. She got her name on the ballot last spring and ran uncontested after 24-year incumbent Kathy Harasty chose not to seek re-election.

A longtime volunteer at the Beth-Center Senior Center, Geller said 2010 is bound to be a special year. In addition to serving as mayor, she expects to graduate in May and get married in June.

"This is definitely my year," she said, laughing.

Among her mentors at Cal U, Geller singled out Dr. John Cencich, former chairman of the Criminal Justice Department and current dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research.

"Dr. Cencich has been amazing in helping me with classes and really all areas of life," said Geller. "All of the classes in criminal justice have been very interesting because all the professors have extensive experience in the field, which has made learning from them so valuable."

Random drug testing of borough employees is among her duties, Geller said, and the borough council also wants her to start a town website. Last fall she took a web design and layout course from Cal U faculty member Stephen Whitehead.

"The criminal justice courses fit well into a lot of the things I have to do, and I will most definitely seek advice from Professor Whitehead for the website," she said. "It's a good thing I went to Cal U and took his class."

Geller, who homes to become a juvenile probation officer, said Deemston politics runs in the family: Her father is a council member, and her mother is the judge of local elections.

Geller plans on carving her own niche.

"Everyone's been so supportive, and residents seem happy to have a young mayor who can stay for awhile and really help the community," she said. "I love living in Deemston."

Although he is not one of her constituents, Cencich is a fan.

"Courtney was a great student, and I always knew she would be successful," he said. "She is bright and sees the big picture. On top of that, she has a wonderful sense of humor. Courtney makes us all proud at Cal U."