Student travels from Vietnam to receive master of education degree

Like most students, Jennifer Howell can’t wait to stride across the Bryce Jordan Center stage on May 11, proudly wearing her cap and gown.

For Howell, however, the anticipation involves more than the culmination of her long educational journey. It includes a journey that will take her halfway around the world for her first visit to University Park.

Howell, who lives in Vietnam, will receive her master of education degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in children’s literature.

“I am thrilled to be making a whirlwind six-day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to State College for our commencement. My husband arranged the trip as a surprise, including a layover in Chicago so that I can pick up my mother and bring her along to help me celebrate,” she said. “I am excited to meet fellow students and professors, so we can finally say ‘hello’ face to face.”

Howell graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor of science degree in secondary English education and a minor in history. She taught middle school English and history in the U.S. for 13 years, and then moved abroad for her husband’s job. She and her family have lived in Hong Kong, Manilla, Philippines and — for the past six years — in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Because her children were so young when the couple started moving around the world, Howell decided to put her teaching career on hold and spend her time volunteering at her children’s schools.

Once her children were in school full time and Howell had more free time, she decided to fulfill a lifelong ambition of writing young adult literature and took a writing class.

“Because our life is nomadic, often without much notice, finding a reputable master’s program that could move with us was tricky,” Howell said. “When I was looking online for classes, I found Penn State World Campus and the master’s degree in children’s literature, and I felt I had received a gift. I had no idea I could take classes remotely from such a well-respected university in the U.S., and the degree was perfect for me.”

“I loved the program from the start,” Howell continued. “The online learning model was a new process for me, but I found a perfect routine of studying while my kids were at school and having time for quiet work so that I could really appreciate it. There were a two courses in particular that influenced my experience and gave me a clearer focus for how my life living abroad might weave together with my study of children’s literature,” she said.

The first course was Scott Metzger’s C&I 550, in which she studied contemporary curriculum.

“I discovered a new perspective on international schools and their place in the world market system. As an international school parent, I was fascinated by the unique systemic practices of the international school community, and it was exciting to study my children’s school, a British international school in Vietnam, from a scholarly perspective,” Howell said.

The second class, LL ED 563, was taught by Elisa Hopkins.

“I connected with the culture and history of children’s stories in a different way than I ever had before. Studying well-known folk tales and questioning mainstream society’s influence on what we know to be authentic in traditional children’s literature made me wonder about how my own children were experiencing the relationship of culture and story. How was living outside of America influencing my children’s literary experiences?” she said.

That prompted her research on third culture kids, children like hers who have spent a significant amount of their developmental years outside of their passport culture. Specifically, how can certain literary involvements help children make the most of their experiences while living overseas and help them with the challenges they face as global nomads.

“I explored this question in my master’s paper and sought to find the connections for third culture kids through particular titles in young adult literature,” she said. “I feel as if my master’s paper is the beginning of an exciting new adventure for me.”

Hopkins said time and distance didn’t lessen Howell’s contributions to class.

“Jennifer’s enthusiasm for being in class always came through, and I think her long-distance contributions really helped to bring us together as a community,” Hopkins said.

“It was wonderful to see her bring her long-term interest in young adult literature and experiences of third culture kids to her research and writing for her master’s paper,” said Hopkins. “In my journey as a faculty member, Jennifer has made my work a joy.”

Last Updated May 12, 2014