UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Stephanie Files enrolled at Penn State Mont Alto in 1996, she knew she was smart enough to succeed but lacked direction. When she had to leave Mont Alto in 1998, just one course short of graduating, she said, her confidence was shaken and she thought it was the end of her academic career.
Little did she know she would later enroll in an art course through Penn State World Campus that would transform her Penn State journey and rebuild her academic confidence.
“People tell you that you can write your own path in college, but I didn't really understand it until I saw how an online art class could reflect itself into my life as a stay-at-home mom,” said Files. “Somewhere along the line, I found my own voice.”
After two years at Mont Alto, Files married her husband, Russell, who was in training to join the United States Army Band. The couple knew they would soon be moving to Virginia for his first duty assignment, meaning that Files wouldn’t be able to finish the bachelor’s degree she was originally pursuing.
Determined to graduate before moving, Files enrolled in 24 credit hours to earn an associate degree instead, but the course load was overwhelming. She left with a sense of failure, just three credits shy of completing an associate in arts degree.
Over the next several years, Files was a stay-at-home mother to her three sons. She said she hadn’t been bothered by the fact that she never completed her degree until her husband decided to pursue his master’s degree in 2007.
When explaining to her children what different degrees were and why their father was going back to school, Files said, she dreaded the inevitable question: “Mom, what degree do you have?”
After telling her family that she was only one course short of a degree, they encouraged her to finish her Penn State degree online through World Campus.
“I was still in that mental framework of being a failure and not succeeding,” said Files. “But I called the Penn State admissions office anyway and they told me that I could pick up right where I left off.”
Files enrolled in the spring 2008 semester. Even though she only needed to take one course, Files said she was skeptical of her own abilities and decided to take two courses in the hopes that she’d at least pass one.
One course was a studio art class with associate professor Anna Divinsky, and it ended up completely changing Files’ mindset.
“I couldn't imagine how I was going to take a studio art course without a physical classroom, but what I discovered was freedom,” she said.
Files said that because no one else saw her work until after it was finished, she never worried about what other students thought and therefore wasn’t afraid to experiment creatively. She also said that she made it her mission to incorporate her sons — who were 8, 7, and 4 at the time — into her art.
“I jokingly told my family and friends that I couldn’t wait until I put my kids to bed, put my pajamas on, and take my classes,” said Files.
That semester, Files graduated with an Associate in Arts in Letters, Arts, and Sciences and renewed confidence. But that wasn’t the end of her Penn State journey.
Files’ husband had previously decided that he wouldn’t begin his master’s degree until she had completed her associate degree. At his own graduation ceremony in 2012, Files said, he looked at her and said, “Your turn again.”
With a sense of purpose and confidence in her ability to succeed, Files excitedly returned to World Campus. She graduated with a bachelor's in advertising/public relations in 2018, finishing what she’d started 22 years earlier.
Files’ journey also showed her children — ages 18, 17, and 14 at the time — the importance of an education.
“My children were getting to the ages where I wanted them to see that it didn't matter that I waited, I still was able finish my degree,” said Files. “I wanted them to understand that setting goals is important but finishing them is more important.”
Files’ positive online learning experience also left an impression on her son Josh, who recently completed his freshman year through World Campus.
“I started thinking about my mother’s experience with World Campus and I realized how much she enjoyed the flexibility and the quality of the courses,” said Josh Files, who didn’t yet feel ready for an in-person experience. “She never had an issue with World Campus, and I realized that same experience could be the solution for myself.”
Josh Files is still deciding which major to pursue, but until then, he’s enjoying his time at World Campus. He said his classes have been rigorous and he’s excited to take on the challenge.
“My time thus far at Penn State World Campus has been truly excellent and makes me eager for the future.”