Going back to school — 20 years later

Nina Trach
November 19, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jennifer McShane did not take a traditional path to college graduation. Her path required 25 years from start to finish.

After leaving Penn State in 1997 to get married and start a family, McShane returned to school two decades later — earning her degree through the World Campus this year.

McShane — a communications business analyst at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and now a summer 2018 graduate from the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications — feels that the unplanned break in her education set her up to achieve both her personal and professional goals.

“I can honestly say that I have never felt more where I was supposed to be in life than I do right now at 43 years old,” McShane said.

Starting at Penn State in 1993, McShane originally intended to become a veterinarian, changed her major to speech pathology, and finally settled on journalism with a photography minor. Feeling somewhat scattered, McShane said she realized she was still unsure of what she wanted to be at such a young age. And then, though she had finally found a major that incorporated her lifetime love for writing, a different kind of love changed McShane’s path.

She left Penn State without a degree in 1997 and returned home to southwest Philadelphia to marry her longtime crush, Christopher McShane. The two have been married now for 22 years, and live with their family in North Wilmington, Delaware.

McShane family

Jennifer McShane with her husband, Christopher, and sons, Christopher and Braeden.

IMAGE: Photo Provided

In her time away from Penn State, McShane worked in a variety of positions but could never separate herself from writing. She said that even when she was hired for jobs that required no writing, she would still eventually find herself in a storytelling and writing role.

Raising her two sons, Christopher, now age 8, and Braeden, age 6, along with continuing to learn communication and leadership skills in her various jobs, made the time off valuable for McShane. “All that time in between, I don’t have one single regret,” she said. “It molded me.”

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia approached McShane in 2016, looking to create a new role for her, handling communications for its Information Services Department. McShane was thrilled about the opportunity and agreed on one condition — that she would finish her degree.

“It took so much for me at 41 at the time to make that phone call to say 'I’m going to go back to school,'” McShane said. “It was a very scary step, I had to really talk myself into saying, ‘Hey I can do this, I can do this for my family, I can be a mom, I can be a working woman, I can step up to the plate and do this for my family.’”

She came back to school more focused after the push from the Children's Hospital and with reassurance from Penn State that it would be as if she had never left. She found a fit with a degree in strategic communications from the World Campus.

Though she hadn’t always seen herself working in healthcare communications, McShane said her role with the Children's Hospital is exactly where she is supposed to be. With her son Braeden having been born severely premature at just 31 weeks, and her sister, Jessica Holland, surviving acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 19, McShane’s life has been greatly influenced by the work of healthcare professionals, making her role in the industry feel both meaningful and fulfilling.

“These doctors and researchers commit their entire lives to help other people and find cures,” McShane said. “If I can assist them in any way, even if it’s just writing and getting a message out — that to me is beyond rewarding.”

In her current role, McShane sees the impact of her Penn State degree and the skills that she would not have learned had she finished her studies on a traditional timeline. Classes focusing on surveys, law and crafting messages using modern methods and technology have all been critical in her success relaying messages for an enterprise of over 16,000 people.

With her discipline and commitment, McShane has inspired her family, including her sister, who has returned to school to pursue a career as a child life specialist. McShane also is proud of the hard working and persevering example she has been able to set for her sons, who she said are already Nittany Lions in training.

For McShane, the completed degree represents another step in a lifelong relationship with Penn State that started when she was 7 years old, when her father brought her home a sweatshirt after a trip to Happy Valley.

“'We Are’ is a Penn State thing,” said McShane. “You learn it, you live it, and it stays in your heart. The PSU code of honor, an insane amount of self-discipline and a great support system all contribute to my continuing success. ‘We Are’ truly put me on the path to get me where I am.”

Last Updated November 26, 2018