UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Despite having a successful 30-year career in administrative and operations management, Berlaunder Barnes said that not having a college degree weighed on her. 

“I've always kind of felt ashamed of not having my degree, so I always worked extra hard, put in the extra time, and took on the extra challenges,” said Barnes, 53. 

When planning her education, Barnes knew that she needed to start with small, attainable goals. When looking for where to start working toward her goals, Barnes said Penn State World Campus checked all her boxes for program, reputation, and cost. 

In fall 2017, Barnes graduated with an associate degree in business administration. The following semester, she re-enrolled to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership

“I wanted to enhance the skills and knowledge I already had,” said Barnes. “I also feel that no matter what I'm doing in my life, it’s important to be a good leader and a good follower.” 

Barnes said that under normal circumstances, balancing her career and education was doable and often enjoyable but took lots of organization and dedication. But in her last few semesters, Barnes had to persevere through several personal tragedies and self-doubt. 

During the spring 2020 semester, Barnes’s ex–life partner and one of her uncles, who had been one of her greatest supporters in going back to school, both passed away unexpectedly.  

The following semester, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Barnes’s adult daughter underwent a minor operation. Several days after the initial surgery, Barnes’s daughter began to experience excessive bleeding and had to undergo emergency surgery and blood transfusions to save her life. 

Barnes said that the emotional trauma of these events made her question whether she could make it through the semester to graduate. 

“I reached out to my adviser and to my professors and told them, ‘I really need to do this, but I don't know that I can,’” said Barnes, who expected to drop out at the time. 

Instead, with the support of her World Campus academic adviser, Andrew Call, and various faculty members, and encouragement from her daughters, Barnes was able to complete the semester and graduated in fall 2020. 

"I am in awe of Berlaunder’s gumption and sheer determination to not only see her goals through to the end, but her absolute conviction to take wave after wave of tragedy and turn it into motivation,” said Call. “I greatly admire Berlaunder for her tenacity, but also her humble nature in being willing to ask for help when she needed it most — it takes great strength to do that. Berlaunder exemplifies what it means to be a Penn Stater.” 

Barnes said her drive to persevere through the hardships came not only from wanting to finish her degree for herself, but because she realized that those around her are impacted by her success. 

“I just had to do it,” said Barnes. “I said to myself, ‘For my Uncle Joe, I need to finish this. For my daughters and grandchildren, I need to finish this. For myself, I need to finish this. I need to do it.’” 

Barnes said she hopes telling her story reminds other students who are struggling that they are not alone and that there is support for them. 

“Sometimes when we're going through difficult times, we tend to sit back and feel like we don't deserve this, and we can't do it or we’re just not worth it, but we are,” said Barnes. 

“Everybody deserves to be happy and to succeed.”