Elyssa Vondra’s experience sounds strikingly similar to that of many other Penn State students: the University made a strong first impression, she changed her major a few times, and she balanced academic responsibilities while working to pay her tuition.
In many ways she had the quintessential Penn State experience — and she’s capping it as a student marshal, representing the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications during summer commencement exercises.
Still, Vondra’s experience was different.
She accomplished all that as a Penn State World Campus student. The Wisconsin native has never set foot on campus, or in Pennsylvania.
“When I was about to start college, I decided I wanted to go to school online. I searched and Penn State came up first,” Vondra said. “I did a lot of research about the program and University as well. That confirmed my decision.”
Throughout high school, Vondra envisioned a career as a neurosurgeon, but by the time she enrolled at Penn State, her initial intended major was law, which morphed to political science and, ultimately, journalism. She earned her bachelor’s degree in digital media and journalism — becoming the first Penn State World Campus student to serve as a student marshal for the Bellisario College of Communications.
Like many students who succeed at Penn State, persistence paid off for the native of Platteville, Wisconsin. She put that approach to use after her freshman year as she sought experience to complement what she was learning in her courses.
“I called my local paper and asked them for a job, and they said they didn’t have any. So I called the next day and asked about an internship, and the editor didn’t give me a verdict right away as far as when I could maybe start,” Vondra said. “I just kept asking and calling, and eventually I think they got tired of hearing from me and offered an internship. A few months later, they offered me a job.”
A Dean’s List student, Vondra earned numerous academic awards, including the President’s Sparks Award and the President’s Freshman Award. As a recipient of a U.S. Senate Youth Program scholarship, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet former President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Vondra started learning remotely in her home state and later moved to Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, Avi Sukhwal, as he pursued his doctorate. She worked as a news producer, reporter, and editor throughout her undergraduate career. She and her husband will celebrate their second anniversary in November.
“For me, it was a neat experience. An online option worked really well, and it allowed me to work at the same time,” she said. “It was a good option for someone who needs a little more flexibility. The biggest challenge was probably time management, balancing going to school, working, and life. There were times when I was thinking my career was going well and I thought about stopping school and just focusing on work, but my husband and family encouraged me to finish.”
Vondra, who was raised by her grandparents in a kinship foster arrangement, found out about her status as student marshal a few weeks ago on an especially stressful Monday.
“It made my day, my whole summer really, and made it all seem worthwhile,” she said.
Vondra’s mix of academic and professional experience also served as an internship, of sorts. At one point in South Carolina, she worked overnight shifts for a local network television affiliate. It amounted to a learn-as-you-go process — she had no technical experience in broadcast production but had been encouraged to give the position a try. She discovered she really liked what she had been doing: writing.
So the experience helped focus her career path, and her Penn State courses helped her grow and improve.
This week, degree in hand, she will become editor of the newspaper where she works, the Tri-County Press.