It's never too late: Adult learner turned academic adviser wins national award

Corinne Coulson
October 23, 2018

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. — Ruth Herstek made her way to Penn State New Kensington in 2002 as a part-time staff member in the Continuing Education office. A couple of years later, she moved to a full-time position at the campus and decided to also focus on getting a Penn State degree.

Now, sixteen years after starting her Penn State journey, Herstek serves as an assistant coordinator of academic and student success at the New Kensington campus and recently accepted a national award in Phoenix from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA).

“It means all those evenings at home staring out the window thinking, ‘How am I ever going to finish these papers when I have a family and work,’” said Herstek as she looked at the new, framed certificate on her desk. “It means all that time was worth it because I’m getting to do something I really love and knowing someone appreciates what I’m doing.”

Herstek was one of just 11 recipients of NACADA’s 2018 Outstanding New Advisor Certificate of Merit award for those with academic advising as their primary role. The organization boasts more than 10,000 advising professionals in its membership.

“Ruth has done an amazing job here, and in a very short time, she’s created many programs,” said Sean Bridgen, associate director for academic advising at the campus. “She’s a natural working with students and is constantly reading and trying to understand more about advising, much more than people normally do, and tries to apply what she’s learning and create programs.”

Herstek, who completed her undergraduate degree in organizational leadership from Penn State over a period of seven and a half years, has always been willing to bring her experience as an adult learner to her work.

“Being that I was an adult student on the campus, I felt like I was a connection for a lot of the adult students who were here,” she said.

While acting as this support system, she was driven to earn her master’s degree in adult education through Penn State’s World Campus in hopes of one day becoming an academic adviser.

“I’m really glad I can be in a position now where I can directly help students. I feel like it’s helping me pay back because the campus has really given me so much in education and opportunity.”

— Ruth Herstek, assistant coordinator for academic and student success at Penn State New Kensington

Her hopes were realized less than three years ago when she became a full-time academic adviser in the campus Academic and Career Success Center. She assists adult learners, as well as traditional-aged students at Penn State.

“She’s forged very good relationships with the adult students, and I know that they appreciate having someone who has shared that lived experience,” said Bridgen. “They find her not only as an academic supporter, but almost as a personal support person as well.”

Ruth Herstek and Sean Bridgen walking outside

Ruth Herstek, left, walks with Sean Bridgen, associate director for academic advising, at Penn State New Kensington. Bridgen helped nominate Herstek, assistant coordinator for academic and student success, for the 2018 Outstanding New Advisor award from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA).

IMAGE: Rebecca Dietrich

Amy Pink, a current senior psychology student and adult learner at Penn State New Kensington, credits Herstek for helping ease her transition to the University, and provided a letter of support for the NACADA award nomination process.

“Ruth helped me to understand the complexities of college, which was invaluable to me, and she still helps me to understand the world of academia,” said Pink, who has dreamed of earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology for more than 25 years. “Ruth continues to assist me by being a trusted adviser who I believe in. Most importantly, her moral support is of the greatest assistance to me.”

Pink added, “She helps me to continue to believe in my dreams. Ruth has always been there to alleviate my anxiety, and she provides a ray of light and sustains my hope.”

Assisting adult learners and creating programs such as the Adult Learners Community on campus is a commitment Herstek understood and has readily accepted.

“They come to the University with different experiences and context,” said Herstek. “Traditional-aged students go through a developmental process, but adult learners aren’t going through that same process. They’re going through a transformation, and I understand that transformation and can appreciate it because I know what they’re going through. It’s really important that they’re supported so that they feel valued.”

Bridgen believes Herstek’s work exhibits the true value of academic advising, which does not just relate to scheduling classes for students.

“A lot of it has to do with meaning-making, which is making meaning of what they’re [students] learning and doing inside and outside of the classroom,” explained Bridgen.

As she continues her role as an academic adviser, Herstek can’t help but share her pride in the University and campus that have both shaped her as a person and professional.

“I’m really proud of it,” she said. “I’m really glad I can be in a position now where I can directly help students. I feel like it’s helping me pay back because the campus has really given me so much in education and opportunity.”

Last Updated October 24, 2018