UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When Mary Thomas left Penn State Behrend in the early 1980s, she said, her intention always was to go back and finish her degree, but life kept getting in the way. Now, 37 years later, Thomas is completing that goal and is set to graduate this summer.

“I’ve met so many other students with stories like mine,” said Thomas, 55. “I always tell them, if I can finish my degree after 37 years, you can do it, too.”

Thomas returned to Penn State in 2017 and began learning online through Penn State World Campus. She will graduate on Saturday, August 15, with a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership during the University’s virtual commencement exercises.

Thomas’ academic career started earlier, at Penn State Shenango in spring of 1983. After transferring to the Behrend campus in fall of 1984, she didn’t know what degree to pursue and struggled to pay her tuition.

After her first semester at Behrend, Thomas said, something within her spurred her to leave Penn State and join the Air Force. That decision led Thomas into a 22-year career during which she also earn two associate degrees, in dental lab technology and military training. In June 2006, Thomas retired as an E7 Master Sergeant; a year later her husband, John, retired as an E6 Tech Sergeant. 

Mary Thomas is pictured in her Air Force uniform.

The couple then moved from Texas to Oklahoma with their two children, and Thomas went on to earn her third associate degree and fulfill a lifelong dream by attending culinary school. Thomas and her husband also spent two years living in Saudi Arabia for his career.

After moving to Massachusetts in 2012, Thomas worked as a chef for six years. During that time, Thomas’ husband went back to school to finish his own bachelor’s degree. 

Thomas said that witnessing her husband’s return to higher education reminded her of the promise she’d made to herself to one day complete her degree. 

“I knew I needed to go back and finish what I started,” said Thomas. “And I knew I only wanted to go back to Penn State.”

Because Thomas was still working as a full-time chef, she knew the only way she could finish her degree was online, through World Campus.

Thomas said World Campus’ staff made the enrollment process easy. She was able to get funding through her Post 9/11 GI Bill® and transfer some of the credits she’d earned from her associate degrees.

In fall 2017, she was back as a Penn State student, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.

Thomas said that her second attempt at earning her bachelor’s degree has been a completely different experience than her first. 

“From the beginning, when I contacted admissions and asked how I could get back in after 30-some years, until this final semester, I’ve been encouraged by staff members, advisers, professors, and even some classmates along the way,” said Thomas. 

“My time at Penn State World Campus has been fantastic, and I like knowing that if I need to use my degree, I will have earned it.”

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