Ashley Molek, a current student in the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts’ School of Labor and Employment Relations, has been selected as the third annual Amy Dietz Student Advocacy Award recipient. She is pursuing her Master of Professional Studies in Human Resources and Employment Relations with an emphasis in ethics and leadership online through Penn State World Campus. A caring person by nature, Molek has a strong dedication to advocacy running through her veins.
When asked what she advocates for, Molek responded, “simply being a good human being.”
The Amy Dietz Student Advocacy Award recognizes a World Campus student enrolled in any of the school’s online programs who is actively engaged in advocacy on behalf of an issue, cause, or group. Nominees must be enrolled in at least one online class at the time of their nomination and all school students are eligible for consideration, regardless of academic standing or program.
The award honors the memory of Amy Dietz, a beloved member of the school who passed away in 2018. Dietz was part of the school’s staff who then earned an undergraduate degree in labor and employment relations and a master’s degree in human resources and employment relations. She went on to become an academic adviser and faculty member. Dietz is remembered as a tremendous advocate for her students, according to Paul Clark, the former director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations who helped establish the award.
Molek was selected because of her tremendous commitment to advocacy, as demonstrated by the nonprofit corporation she founded earlier this year, A Christmas Wish in Centre County.
Her nonprofit matches Centre County families facing challenging times and/or financial hardship during the holiday season with community sponsors who are willing and able to provide Christmas gifts to children.
“A Christmas Wish works to help parents create a holiday full of joy, magic, and a sense of wonder for their children on Christmas morning,” Molek said.
Families can submit one application per child. Molek assigns each child a unique identification number for confidentiality purposes and posts the child’s custom wish list, with the parents’ permission, on the nonprofit’s Facebook page. The lists include wish items from clothing necessities to toys, as well as details like the child’s favorite color.
In an effort to empower parents and restore their pride, A Christmas Wish gives gifts directly to the parents/legal guardians along with wrapping supplies. Then, they give the gifts to their children on Christmas morning.
“This allows the parents to experience a bit of the magic themselves — a truly priceless gift to share in the season of giving,” Molek said.
With this being the first year A Christmas Wish in Centre County is officially up and running, the nonprofit has successfully matched all 222 children’s wish list applications with community sponsors.
“It has absolutely taken a village of helping hands to get here and be as successful as we have this first holiday season,” Molek said.
The reason for founding this nonprofit is deeply personal to Molek.
“My childhood was not an easy one,” Molek said. Her dad worked in a factory to provide for the family, while her mom stayed home to raise her and her two older brothers, both of whom are intellectually disabled. “We grew up very poor, so money was always tight.”
Reflecting on her childhood, she recalled receiving a lot of help from programs like food banks and clothing drives.
“That’s when I got a new winter coat or a food box from the Salvation Army to fill the cupboards,” she said.
When she was young, her parents signed them up for a service similar to A Christmas Wish around the holiday season. The volunteers involved with the program took her and her brothers to the store to pick out gifts.
“To this day, I remember walking around the aisles with a lady from the program as I picked out toys I wanted for Christmas,” Molek said. “That’s how my brothers and I received Christmas gifts as children. Growing up, Christmas was my absolute favorite holiday. I loved the magic of the season, the lights, seeing presents under the tree, and everyone coming together to have dinner. But what really stands out to me now, is, without programs that support families in need around the holidays, people truly would go without.”
Before Molek could envision what her life would be like in 2023 with a full-time job while simultaneously studying as a full-time master's student, a passion for advocating for those in need only grew stronger from childhood to adulthood.
“At the end of the day, Christmas is not about gifts, but rather family and community coming together to appreciate everything that we have,” she said. “However, I believe that those special moments still help us make memories. Children will remember the magic of the Christmas season, so to be able to help create that for folks in our community is really meaningful to me on a very personal level.”
Passion, a giving heart, and hard work led to the founding of A Christmas Wish in Centre County. Those three things align with her choice to pursue a people-focused career in human resources.
“There absolutely is a connection between my education, work experience, and A Christmas Wish,” Molek said.
In 2018, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State. After graduating, she entered the workforce full-time. However, she said, she always knew she wanted to continue her education to earn a master’s. Needing a program that provided flexibility so she could still work full-time, Molek enrolled in Penn State World Campus to pursue her Master of Professional Studies in Human Resources and Employment Relations. She is set to graduate in May 2024.
“My experience in the School of Labor and Employment Relations has been fantastic,” Molek said. “Being a student within the entire College of the Liberal Arts alone has helped me get a better understanding of the world around us and the different inequalities that exist. Having that foundation is important for having a sense of empathy.”
Dietz was an advocate for her students, due in large part to the empathy she had for them.
“It’s extremely humbling,” Molek said when asked what winning the award means to her. “Although my name is now linked to this award, there have been several people along the way that have gotten this nonprofit off the ground. I hope winning this award helps display how important this type of work is and how accessible it is. Here I am, with no real experience running a nonprofit other than the leadership skills I have from working in human resources full-time, but anyone can do it. One of the most important things for people to know, and I’m sure Amy Dietz would want people to know too, is that anyone can do this meaningful work.”
Learn more about the Master of Professional Studies in Human Resources and Employment Relations offered online through Penn State World Campus.