Penn State World Campus marks 20th anniversary

Mike Dawson
June 28, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In January 2017, Coral Gutierrez returned to college after 20 years to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing. She recently had started a new job at a children’s hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, and had a busy family life, including having three kids in college and one about to graduate from high school.

Despite her schedule, Gutierrez decided to finish her degree online through Penn State World Campus. It allowed her the flexibility to live her life and to finish her course work when it was convenient for her. Gutierrez completed the degree over the course of the year and graduated in December.

“I’d been waiting so long to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I wanted to continue my education, but I wanted to do it on my terms.”

Gutierrez is one of thousands of people who have gotten their degrees online over the past 20 years through Penn State.

Penn State World Campus launched in 1998 with 41 students enrolled in five academic programs. It now counts more than 150 degree and certificate programs, and more than 14,000 students. It has helped learners from across the world — more than 130 countries — advance their careers and fulfill their personal journeys.

When it began, World Campus continued the University’s legacy as a pioneer in distance education. In the 1890s, it offered agricultural courses through the mail to farmers. As the country’s mass communication methods evolved, the University used these tools to reach more learners, offering courses over the radio, on TV and through satellite feeds and the internet. Students today can access their coursework on smartphones and mobile devices.

When the first courses launched in the spring semester of 1998, dial-up connections to the internet were the norm. The faculty had to figure out how to teach online.

“We had to invent it ourselves,” said Al Turgeon, who taught the turfgrass science course that was one of the first courses offered online. “We knew that with web-based technology, we could essentially do a web version of a PowerPoint slide set, but we had to figure out what’s the role of an instructor.”

Turgeon said he and his fellow faculty from the College of Agricultural Sciences discovered that facilitating group discussions helped engage online learners.

“It was a wonderful learning experience,” said Turgeon, who retired as a professor emeritus in 2011.

From the initial 41 students, enrollments grew rapidly, and so did the number of degrees and certificates offered. Within the first decade of World Campus’ existence, more than a dozen bachelor’s and associate degrees and 10 master’s degrees were launched.

Adult education was one of the first master’s programs to be offered online in 1999. Nickie Askov, a professor from the College of Education, helped developed the program and said it was a “perfect fit” for working adults who were unlikely to leave their jobs to earn a master’s degree.

Askov, who retired in 2005, said she remembers logging into the course’s website several times a day during that first semester to check for questions from students.

She also remembered something a student said: “He said ordinarily he would have sat in the back and not said anything, but here, he had to participate and had to work with his group. He said he got more out of learning online than in a classroom.”

To date, more than 17,500 graduates have received a total of 18,101 degrees online through Penn State World Campus.

One alumnus is Jonathan Dambrot, who graduated in 2005 with an MBA. He is the CEO of a New Jersey-based risk management and cybersecurity firm he co-founded during his studies.

Dambrot’s classmates had diverse business backgrounds and were from all over the world, which he said helped prepare him for how he does business at his company.

“Having the ability to communicate in a virtual space and work with people around the globe is super important and itself is a skill,” he said. “It teaches you how to build a community and work together in groups. It really does work the way that the world works today.”

Josh Hunter, who expects to graduate later this year, already has a bachelor’s degree in finance and works in that field, but he enrolled in Penn State World Campus to change careers. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in energy and sustainability policy and is interested in a career in renewable energy or environmental policy. 

The trigger was when he became a father: “What better time to try to do something to make a little bit of a difference,” he said.

Going to school online meant that Hunter didn’t have to sacrifice so much time with his children. He completes his lessons in the evenings and takes quizzes after his two daughters are in bed. And each Monday, once his course’s assignments are published for the new week, he creates a schedule that will help him manage his time and keep control of his life.

“I get to play and watch them grow and have fun, so it’s nice because I did feel like I was missing out on that,” he said.

Gutierrez, the nurse who completed her nursing degree in 2017, went on to enroll in a graduate certificate program through World Campus to further enhance her skills. She originally chose Penn State because she knew her diploma would represent a world-class education, she said.

“I needed to be challenged,” she said. “At Penn State, there was no skating by.”

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about the programs offered online.

  • World Campus logo

    1998: First courses go online
    1999: First master’s degree developed for Penn State World Campus in adult education
    2002: First bachelor’s degree, letters, arts and sciences
    2016: First doctoral degree program, doctor of nursing practice

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 28, 2018