UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rachel Azzaam used to pass an ad for Penn State World Campus every day when she worked at Philadelphia International Airport, but because of her unconventional education, she never thought she’d be able to attend.

Four years later, Azzaam’s future is taking off as she prepares to graduate with a Penn State degree in the fall 2020 semester.

“It's an amazing and validating feeling to be this close to graduating,” said Azzaam. “I always knew that I was smart enough to earn a degree — I just didn't have the opportunity.”

Azzaam’s past is full of nontraditional learning experiences, which she said initially kept her from applying to Penn State World Campus. Azzaam, 30, was home-schooled and received her GED in 2010. She immediately enrolled in a community college and spent the next decade taking classes in business administration.

Even though she loved learning, Azzaam said she couldn't balance commuting to school, working a full-time job, and raising her growing family, so she began looking into other options.

“I’d walk by the World Campus ad all the time at work,” said Azzaam. “But I never thought that I would be able to attend Penn State since I had an untraditional background.”

Despite her hesitation, she looked into the application requirements and was granted an application fee waiver. Azzaam took the waiver as a sign that applying was the right decision.

Two weeks later, she was accepted.

“It felt like a door had been opened for me, and I felt like it was possible,” said Azzaam. “All the obstacles that I had to endure for the past 10 years and held me back for 10 years are finally no longer an issue.”

Despite the fondness she has for her home-school experience, Azzaam said that World Campus has renewed her confidence in her academic abilities and given her a sense of community.

“There’s so much school pride,” said Azzaam, whose sister-in-law spoke highly of her own experience at Penn State. “I wanted a school that's familiar — when I say I got my degree from Penn State, everybody knows what I’m talking about.”

Azzaam said that no longer having to choose between her education, work, and raising her family is the best part of online learning. Connecting with other students who are also balancing their personal lives and education reminds her that she’s not alone.

During her time at Penn State World Campus, Azzaam was granted the Joseph Daley Jr. Trustee Scholarship, which she said was a great help to her and her family.

Once she graduates with a bachelor's in strategic communications, Azzaam said she plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an entrepreneur by running an online consulting firm for client retention in small businesses.

“When I heard that Penn State was ranked as No. 2 for producing CEOs, that was very appealing,” said Azzaam, referring to a 2018 LinkedIn report.

She also said that the communications, psychology, and economics courses she’s taken as electives have taught her other skills that will help her as a blossoming entrepreneur.

“Every class concept has built on one another and applying the information to the real world has been very easy,” said Azzaam. “I now understand how people feel so confident starting a business.”

Azzaam said that when she was first accepted, she framed her acceptance letter as a reminder of the beginning of her journey. Now, she can’t wait to replace her framed acceptance letter with her diploma.

“For the past 10 years, I've always put ‘degree expected,’” said Azzaam. “Now I can finally say that I'm almost done, and it feels really good.”