UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jennifer Tomak’s hobby became her passion, and because of Penn State, she’s hoping to turn her passion into her career.
An entrepreneur, Tomak plans to open a fitness center to help others in the same way that a healthy lifestyle transformed her. She graduated on Saturday with a master’s degree in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship she completed online through Penn State World Campus, a degree she sought to teach her to manage a business.
“This program has culminated all of this for me and has given me the spark that was needed to pursue my dreams,” said Tomak, of Dayton, Ohio. “I'm really excited to use this degree to actually help me with my passion.”
Tomak is among the hundreds of Penn State World Campus students who graduated this past weekend during the University’s summer commencement. In all, 943 students completed their studies — 548 graduate students and 395 undergraduates.
Tomak was one of the first students to complete the master’s degree in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, which opened in January 2018 and is offered through the Smeal College of Business. Tomak praised her courses and professors, saying the degree program helped her create a business plan and an investor pitch.
Tomak would not have pictured herself as an entrepreneur years ago: After high school, she enlisted in the Air Force and then worked for the U.S. government. She said the stressors of her job affected her health, and she started exercising as a hobby. It became her passion.
“I feel as though we are never finished learning, and we just sometimes have to re-invent ourselves and just go after what we feel in our hearts,” she said.
World Campus graduate Saveem Afraz is just as passionate about her career.
Afraz, of Houston, spent last week at the University Park campus attending an intensive course to complete her degree — a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis offered through the College of Education.
Afraz works at an autism clinic, and the master’s degree is a requirement to be a board-certified behavior analyst, the next step in her career.
“I’m going to be able to advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves at a much higher degree than I could have ever before, and I have Penn State to thank for that,” Afraz said.
Another grad, Jennifer Medarac, of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, echoed the value of the degree. She works with children with autism at a private school and applied what she learned to her job.
“At work every day, there have been situations that came up in our classroom where I said, ‘We just learned about this last night. We can apply that to what we’re doing,’” Medarac said.
The summer graduation saw the first graduates from several other newly opened World Campus programs: the master’s in nutritional sciences, bachelor’s degree in digital journalism and multimedia, and the associate degree in criminal justice.
Marissa Wickham, of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, completed the master’s in nutritional sciences program, which opened in the summer of 2017 and is offered through the College of Health and Human Development.
A dietitian who now works in IT at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, she said she needed the degree to remain competitive, as her field will require a graduate education by 2024.
Wickham works as a clinical informaticist and educator, a position in which she helps doctors understand and use electronic medical records. She said she has used what she learned from her degree in her current position, with an eye on how to shape the field of dietetics. For example, she credits her program with honing her critical thinking, which she relies on when using evidence-based research to include in the charts that physicians use in their daily practice.
“I think the role of a dietitian is being expanded into other roles,” she said. “If I can help evolve that field, I’m all for it.”
Tomak, the aspiring entrepreneur, was able to attend graduation with her family watching. But that moment isn’t the biggest for her yet.
“I think my largest victory, when everything is said and done, is actually putting all the information that I've learned from this course of study and opening our fitness center and changing lives,” she said. “My future looks really bright. I'm really excited.”