Penn State student Natalie Haggard: My personal journey to graduation

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington student Natalie Haggard, who will graduate this December from the University, reflects on her personal journey to graduation. In her own words:

I would struggle, I would flounder, I would fail. I would rise from the ashes, I would thrive, I would succeed. Now as I approach my graduation, I look back on everything that happened. My personal journey to graduation has been long and tough, but still, I don’t regret a thing.

June 9, 2011: It’s so hot. Surrounded by my classmates under the boiling sun, I’m waiting to walk across our graduation stage. My mind is racing, my heart is hammering. This is the start to the rest of my life. I’m going to go to college, I’ll graduate with my veterinary degree in no more than four years. I’m going to study hard, get great grades, have good friends, and enjoy my college experience. How hard can it be, right?

In August, 2011, I was a freshman at Penn State University at beautiful University Park. I was  constantly told that I should be so proud, I was so lucky, so many people wanted to be there. And yet, I felt small and lost.

"I can’t believe I forgot that assignment." Again. I’m in such a constant state of panic that I can never seem to remember what assignment is due on any given day. I never had this problem in high school, it really shouldn’t be that difficult. And yet here I am, I’m failing several classes and close to failing in my others. How did I get here? Why can’t I get my head on straight?

As the days passed, I found myself too overwhelmed with everything to focus on anything academic. A professor that taught my pre-vet freshman seminar told us that most of us would not successfully complete the degree. This did nothing to ease my academic anxiety.

"It didn’t take long into my first semester to realize that this situation wasn’t right for me, and I slowly developed deep-seated academic anxiety."

— Natalie Haggard, Penn State class of 2017

Had I been more in tune with my emotions at this time, I would have recognized how uncomfortable I felt; this was beyond “new school jitters.” It didn’t take long into my first semester to realize that this situation wasn’t right for me, and I slowly developed deep-seated academic anxiety. This panic would follow me for years, disrupting my relationships with my family, significant others, and friends.

Over Thanksgiving break, I refused to tell my parents of my struggles as I thought I could recover after break. Surprise, surprise, nothing changed. Flash forward to winter break. I caved. In tears, I told my parents about how miserable I was at school. My parents tried so hard to give me a reason to continue, but despite their efforts, I became depressed and my 2012 spring semester was even worse than the fall.

Two weeks before finals, I called my dad and told him that I had withdrawn from school and needed him to come get me in the next 24 hours. Needless to say, he was not happy. I was devastated at my failure.

Over the next 9 months, I would question myself, higher education, and life itself as I worked job after job wherever I could find work. Some of these jobs were truly odd, but I was relentless in my efforts to pay off the bills that came with my new adult responsibilities.

After months of working at grocery stores, fast food chains, and a plethora of odd jobs just to make ends meet, I finally decided I had enough. This was not going to be my life. I was going to go to school, get my degree, and live a comfortable life. The best way to do this was to finish my college degree and use the resources provided by Penn State to help me develop a career.

Abington my graduation story

Natalie Haggard, Corporate Communication Class of 2017, and Bryan Polk, senior lecturer in Religious Studies and English.

Image: Jim Hopf

Returning to college

In the Fall of 2013, I had the courage to return to school. Only this time I would be joining a different campus. Enter Penn State Abington.

The cold reality of this was the laborious journey of bringing up my GPA after a dismal first year coupled with my crippling anxiety in academic settings. It was in my first semester that I truly realized the hardships that I would have to overcome, but there would be amazing people who would help me.

Bryan Polk’s Mysticism course. I thought it would be a great way to ease my way back into school but severely underestimated my mental hold ups. My first exam was blue book format, and after 50 minutes I handed it in — blank. Professor Polk was visibly shocked to see the blank pages. He stopped me as I was walking out the door and asked me what was going on. His genuine concern made it difficult for me to maintain my composure.

Rather than express disappointment or lecture me, Professor Polk gently told me to give the exam another shot. He had me take home the exam and instructed me to spend 30 minutes on it and then set it aside.

"I can remember how it felt to have a professor treat me with such compassion without even knowing my story. This experience has stayed with me."

— Natalie Haggard

I can’t remember exactly what score I got on that exam, but I can remember how it felt to have a professor treat me with such compassion without even knowing my story. This experience has stayed with me for the remainder of my college career, and I’m sure I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

It took me a few semesters to really get back on track academically and re-enroll as a full-time student. By that point, I had entirely lost interest in my original major, pre-vet sciences. I took an anatomy class that I nearly failed despite the encouraging energy from my professor, Shelly Grinar-Boyd. Even after I decided that science was not my forte, she remained positive and always offered optimism whenever we spoke. To this day, I always refer to her as my “cool lady” professor. Any who have met her will understand exactly what I mean.

Finding my path and my passion

Despite surviving anatomy, I knew I wasn’t interested in the sciences anymore, but I didn’t yet know where my interests were. I started taking various classes, dipping my toes in the academic pond. One semester of indecision later, I settled on corporate communication. At the time, I didn’t know what all was involved in this degree, but I thought it sounded interesting so I went with it. I had some reservations at first because I had always been a “science” person but after several communication, writing and public relations courses, I was in love.

I was assigned to my corporate communication adviser, Dr. Lisa Chewning. As she got to know me, through her wisdom and advice she was able to steer me toward classes that strengthened my weaknesses and piqued my interests. I took several classes where she was my professor, often going out of her way to help me with internship assignments.

Since finding my path and my passion, I had started to relax and before I knew it, I loved going to my classes, and I cherished the assignments that helped me build my resume.

The time came for me to check off another requirement on my graduation journey: An internship. The goal for an internship is to give you experience, but more importantly, clarity about your career, and I can definitely say that mine did.

Enter Karen Carli, associate coordinator of career development. Karen met with me on multiple occasions to go over resume changes, possible internships, and interview tips. She even sent me an Excel sheet with pages on pages of color-coded internship availabilities. 

I ultimately chose the internship I was offered in University Relations, the marketing department at Penn State Abington. It has been all I hoped for and more. In my first semester I learned how to take quality professional photos, shoot videos, use HTML formatting to enhance our website, improve my social media content creation and communication, and network with some very important people.

"I was assigned to my corporate communication adviser. ... Through her wisdom and advice she was able to steer me toward classes that strengthened my weaknesses and piqued my interests."

I will miss my time with University Relations. This internship has allowed me to have a firm picture of what I want my future to look like and what kind of work I hope to do.

Six years ago, when this all began, I would have never envisioned myself where I am now. I would have laughed at anyone who told me that my heart would lead me to a communication degree.

I will miss Penn State Abington and all it has given me. I came to this school filled with fear and a disdain for higher education. I will remember this time fondly as the period that helped me find my strength again. The professors, faculty, and staff that guided me will always have a place in my heart as the people who believed in me when I wasn’t sure I deserved it.

It was thanks to professors like Bryan Polk, Shelly Grinar-Boyd, Lisa Chewning and many more, that I am where I am today. I also am profoundly thankful to faculty and staff like Karen Carli and everyone in University Relations who have helped me immensely in my journey to my career. Although my story is my own, many students face challenges and detours to their degree. Hopefully, they can find comfort in my story and continue on in their own journeys.

All in all, thank you, Penn State Abington.

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Last Updated December 11, 2017