More than 32,000 people have earned their degrees online at Penn State since 1998, and there are another 15,000-plus taking their courses online with their own professional and personal goals they are striving to achieve.
On September 15, National Online Learning Day, Penn State is recognizing its online learners and the employees who support them. Online learning is an integral part of the University's mission of providing access to higher education, as this way of learning can reach people who are not able to study at one of the physical campuses across Pennsylvania.
Online learners typically are balancing multiple responsibilities — a job, a family, and/or military service — and that is why the flexibility of an online degree program is perfect for them. They can get their Penn State degree by completing their course work when it’s convenient for them each week.
"As an adult learner, I have a lot of extra responsibilities, and by working my class schedule and work around those, I have been able to be more successful than if I was having to attend a traditional college classroom," said Becky Foust, who is majoring in human development and family studies and expects to graduate in 2023. "I can't say enough good about how supportive everyone at Penn State World Campus has been, from my adviser to professors and my classmates. It's a very welcoming environment!"
For this to be possible, staff in academic advising, admissions, financial aid, IT, and other services work to support these online learners. Many faculty who teach on campus also teach students like Foust online.
“The success of our students is our top priority. The expertise and dedication of our staff enrich and support the educational experience of our learners," said Renata Engel, vice provost for Online Education at Penn State. “Nothing means more to us than seeing our students in their caps and gowns celebrating their graduation. We are proud and inspired by their achievements.”
Here are some students and employees who make up the vibrant online learning community at Penn State World Campus.
The students getting their bachelor's degrees to achieve their goals
Penn State World Campus provided 2021–22 Pennsylvania State Dairy Princess Mikayla Davis with the opportunity to fulfill her calling to her community and the agricultural industry while continuing her education online. Davis is enrolled full-time in the Bachelor of Science in Agribusiness Management program.
“With World Campus, I can work around my extracurricular activities, and it just makes it so much more manageable,” she said. “It’s really nice that I can do it on my own time, which is flexible enough for my work schedule and for dairy princess.”
Online learning was the only way for Kaitlin Hawayek, who is majoring in psychology, to get her degree while pursuing her dream of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic ice dancing team.
“I’ve touched on every single possible way that one could learn, and that’s given me a greater appreciation for the flexibility of learning and being able to continue your education, regardless of the circumstances,” said Hawayek, who competed for Team USA in the 2022 Winter Olympics. "I never have to worry about whether or not I'll be able to find the class that meets my schedule, and in the courses that I do choose, I've had nothing but incredible experiences with the professors being super understanding and excited to support my skating career.”
Jona Hall spent her time as an online learner creating opportunities for her peers while she was working on her degree, working full-time as a paralegal, and raising her young son.
She was part of 11 Penn State–affiliated clubs and organizations and served as the vice president of the World Campus Student Government Association, helped create a homecoming committee for World Campus students, and formed Zeta Mu Phi, a service sorority.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Digital Journalism and Media in 2021 and attended commencement with friends she met through her courses.
Master's degree students seek specialized knowledge
Abiodun Awoyemi was living in Nigeria when he enrolled in his online master's degree program with the long-term goal of improving his country's emergency preparedness. He credits his confidence and skills to the public health preparedness education he got as an online learner.
“I couldn’t have been inspired to have the boldness to push governors, health commissioners, and ministers if I didn’t have the confidence I gained from my Penn State degree,” said Awoyemi, who graduated in 2018.
For Abby Keizer, Penn State World Campus offered the flexibility to earn her Master of Education in Special Education with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis while she worked full-time.
Connecting her practical experience with lessons learned in the classroom made Keizer a better ABA technician, she said.
A graduate of the Master of Science in Nursing program, Victoria Freed educates and mentors bachelor-prepared nurses at a level-one trauma center in Connecticut and is ready to advance her career. She was an online learner while balancing her job during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right from the beginning, my instructors were very engaged in our learning,” Freed said. “It was definitely a rewarding experience, and I got the best that I could out of my education here.”
From the military to the online classroom
Class of 2020 grad Ayshia Sigler serves in the Air Force and completed her Bachelor of Science in Integrated Social Sciences through Penn State World Campus. She knew there were other online education providers, but Penn State was her No. 1 choice.
"I've been around to different bases and everyone I've spoken to about online college says there's a ton of different options," she said. "But the happiest people are always from Penn State."
Tanya Near was working in the Pentagon for the Navy when she enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Security and Risk Analysis program in 2018. As an active-duty sailor, she needed the convenience and flexibility that came with an online, asynchronous program. She said she wanted a high-quality online institution, too.
“When I was looking at getting my degree, the reputation of the University played a huge part in the decision," said Near, who turned an internship into a full-time job and works for a national media technology company in IT.
Colin Burlison, a U.S. Marine, realized he needed to earn a degree after thinking about life outside of military service. He was stationed in Ireland, so an online degree program was the best option for him as a military learner.
He chose a Bachelor of Science in Biobehavioral Health because he’s always enjoyed learning about health and fitness, and the Penn State World Campus program provided him the opportunity to take a variety of courses to see what interested him most within the field.
“I came into my current job and was like, ‘I need to get my degree,’" Burlison said. "I researched Penn State, and it was the best place to go online. There's a big alumni network, recognizable name. I was like, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
The faculty and staff who make online learning happen
The ability to serve more than 15,000 students in more than 175 degree and certificate programs requires dedicated employees. From the time when students first reach out to inquire with admissions questions to when they don their graduation cap and gown, staff and faculty are working to help them succeed.
Admissions counselors help prospective students with tasks such as the application process and other inquiries about choosing a major. Other colleagues in enrollment management services assist students with financial aid, registration, transferring credits, and other tasks to help them get situated and ready to start learning online.
While students are taking the courses, an array of staff is available to support them. Academic advisers provide support for their students, such as planning their degree path and choosing courses each semester. Student disability services counselors assist learners who need accommodations to help them be successful, and academic support specialists develop student success resources. Student Affairs staff strive to help students find success through career and mental health counseling and becoming involved in student organizations. They also promote diversity, equity, and inclusion among the student body.
A team of IT support professionals are available to troubleshoot tech issues and ensure seamless access to the virtual classroom. Behind the scenes, a team of professionals supports the instructional design and delivery as they work with Penn State faculty on course design and student engagement with learning content and their peers. The staff in program planning and management work closely with the faculty members to maintain high-quality academic offerings. And an experienced cadre of professionals spans the operational aspects of compliance, analysis, and finance.
Promoting the more than 175 degree and certificate programs and the success of these online learners is the duty of the marketing and communications teams.
Penn State World Campus is the real Penn State
Many faculty who teach online also teach in the classrooms at the University Park campus and other campuses across Pennsylvania. The academic degree programs are administered by the Penn State colleges and campuses, with the course content, labs, group discussions, and other resources specifically designed to be offered online.
For instance, Penn State's internationally ranked Smeal College of Business leads the Online MBA, the highest-enrolling program offered online. As other examples, the colleges of Education, Engineering, and the Liberal Arts offer a variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs for online learners.
When it is time to graduate, these online learners are welcome to attend the graduation ceremony of their college or campus so they can have the real Penn State experience.