UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Despite a successful career on Wall Street and a rewarding switch to the entertainment industry, actor and producer Lawrence Smith always felt like something was missing in his life: a college degree.
At Penn State World Campus, Smith said he can fill that missing piece and, just as importantly, show his children the value of pursuing an education at any stage in life.
“People may be surprised when they see photos of me in a cap and gown, but they don’t know how much this means to me,” said Smith, who’s pursuing an associate degree in letters, arts and sciences. “I made this commitment to accomplish something I wasn’t able to before.”
Smith’s first dream was to work in the entertainment industry, but when he graduated from high school in 1987 and began college, he felt lost and directionless. After several years of aimlessly attending various universities, he dropped out.
Soon after, Smith was introduced to the world of Wall Street and began a 20-year career creating and selling stock-trading technology.
Because he never finished college, Smith said he encountered roadblocks throughout his career and had to spend extra time teaching himself all the skills his colleagues had learned in college so he could keep up.
Even though Smith navigated Wall Street, he said his reliance on self-teaching was not an example he wanted to set for his children and that he had to hide his dissatisfaction in his career.
“I never dreamed I would work on Wall Street,” said Smith, 50. “But I had responsibilities, a wife, two kids, cars payments, a mortgage. Once I started on that career path, I couldn’t take the risk to jump into entertainment.
“I felt like my creativity was locked in a cage for 20 years, but I always hoped a door would eventually open and lead me into the entertainment industry.”
That door opened in 2010 when Smith was hired to be a consultant on a major Wall Street–themed movie, making a dream come true.
Smith’s real-world experience and drive to be in the entertainment industry gained him the respect of directors and producers, eventually earning him acting roles in their movies. Smith’s most notable works include “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Comedian,” and “The Irishman.”
In 2014, Smith decided to combine his financial background and his creative side and co-founded a production company called Mad Riot Entertainment with producer Mark Canton. Since its creation, Mad Riot Entertainment has produced several award-winning and critically acclaimed films. Smith has also become a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America.
Even after finally achieving his acting and producing dream, Smith said he still felt unfulfilled.
“I felt like a part of me was missing, a part that wasn’t satisfied by my career’s success,” said Smith. “I realized that part was earning a college degree.”
Smith said he knew he wanted to earn his degree from a respected online institution and researched his options extensively before applying to Penn State World Campus in 2018.
“When I got accepted, I felt like I was 18 again,” said Smith. “I hung the acceptance letter on my wall and left an empty space next to it for my diploma.”
He was also on track to accomplish another goal: setting a good example to his two teenage sons.
“I don't sugarcoat how difficult it was for me to navigate through this world without a degree,” said Smith. “The world is a more challenging place when you don’t have an education, and I want my kids to know that.”
By balancing his career with taking six credits a semester, Smith plans to graduate in December. He said that this time around, taking college classes relevant to his interests has been an enjoyable experience, and well worth the time commitment.
“When I got accepted, I weighed everything in my life on a scale and knew that I had to make a choice,” said Smith. “I had to rearrange my nights and weekends, but I chose working toward my degree — I chose World Campus.”