UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jamie D. Elder will be finishing his second degree through Penn State World Campus this May, but a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership will be just the most recent in his long list of accomplishments.
Elder started three businesses, worked in state government, served in the U.S. Army, and earned an associate degree in business administration from Penn State World Campus — all before the age of 40.
“Jamie has a great career but wants to improve himself so that he can succeed even further,” said Brian Redmond, teaching professor of organizational leadership. “He saw an OLEAD degree as an opportunity to do so, and he’s become a true representation of the program. He started in OLEAD 100, worked his way through two Prior Learning Assessment portfolios, and has continued to improve in all of his classes. He is going to go far in this world, and the OLEAD program is glad to be part of his journey to further success.”
Elder, who is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, describes his career as cross-sector. After working in government, philanthropy, and business, he was looking for a degree that reflected his experience and could help him with his long-term goals.
Looking back, Elder said, he was not a great student in high school, and as his career progressed, he was not initially interested in attending college at all.
“My dad worked in manufacturing for 40 years, and my mom was a teacher’s aide in my elementary school,” Elder said. “Neither one of them was college-educated, and my sisters didn’t go to college right away either. They pretty much gave us four options out of my neighborhood: go to college, get a job, join the military, or go to jail. I didn’t want to go to jail, and at 17, I didn’t know my job prospects, so I chose the military.”
He served two years active duty, then returned home after his father passed away to serve in the National Guard and then the Reserves. Elder was just 21 when he started his first business, a 1-800-GOT-JUNK? franchise. He managed the daily operations, including team training, sales, marketing, media relations, and other administrative duties.
Elder said he took a few college classes at other universities during this time, but completing a degree wasn’t his main focus.
“At that point, I was an entrepreneur and following the entrepreneurial mindset of 'you can be Mark Zuckerberg, you don’t need to go to college. You can just start a business and become a billionaire,'" he said. "I was a business owner and I was successful, so why go to college?”
It would be a few more years before Elder would revisit the idea of completing a college degree. In 2012, he was appointed to former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration as the director of urban development for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.
Elder explained that his boss, former Secretary of Children and Families Eloise Anderson, pushed him to consider going back to school.
“I saw no value in getting a degree for the sake of having one,” he said. “But my then-significant other, who’s now a physician, and Secretary Anderson kept working on me, for probably two years.”
He continued, “They were both basically saying whether or not you want to stay in state government, you should probably go ahead and get your degree. As a Black man, you’re going to have a lot of barriers in life and you want to reduce the excuses someone can give for saying no to you. Not having a college degree is one big reason they can say no.”
With Anderson's support, Elder participated in a three-week educational program at Harvard Kennedy School for senior executives in local and state governments.
“That was the first time I’d ever been on an Ivy League campus, and I was really intimidated. So intimidated that I walked off campus on my first day — all the way to Fenway Park and back,” he said.
Things improved quickly, however, and once he settled in, Elder realized he had no problem holding his own.
“It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, and it gave me the confidence to understand that I could excel in school," he said.
During this time, Elder was accepted to Penn State World Campus.
“What appealed to me about World Campus was that I could do a two-year degree first," he said, "and then if I wanted to continue, I could go get a four-year degree.”
After completing his associate degree in business administration, Elder found himself looking for a four-year program that would fit with his goals of returning to business ownership. He did not know much about organizational leadership before starting the program, but the psychology of leadership was one element that appealed to him.
When he was laid off in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Elder’s plans changed again.
He said, “After that, I sat back and gave a lot of thought to what I would do if I could go anywhere and do anything. I knew I wanted to go back into business ownership, but I didn’t just want to own the business for the sake of making money. I want to do impact investing and give back to communities.”
Elder’s next venture will be a Chicago-based firm called i2j Group LLC, focused on acquisition entrepreneurship. The firm will acquire small businesses in various industries, grow them, and then reinvest their profits back into the surrounding communities.
As he prepares for graduation in May, Elder’s best advice for other nontraditional students is to pursue scholarships, and for veterans, take advantage of opportunities to use prior learning credits from military service. Brushing up on writing and basic mathematics skills is a good idea, too, and summer courses will speed up the process of earning a degree.
He added, “Taking classes is like committing to a part-time job. That sounds intimidating, but it’s like anything else — once you get into it, you find ways to get into good habits and schedule out your time, and you’ll get it done.”