World Campus graduate overcomes three decades of challenges to get degree

December 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three decades, 17 surgeries and one close-to-death experience since he first started taking college classes, Penn State student Ryan DeGrendel has earned a college degree. 

“It’s been 29 years I’ve been chasing this degree,” DeGrendel, of Slidell, Louisiana, said. “It’s been a long journey.”

DeGrendel, 45, first enrolled in college classes while he was still in high school and playing junior hockey in Detroit. After graduation he headed to Ohio State University, where he was a walk-on defenseman on the varsity team.

Four games into the season, “I got injured pretty badly,” DeGrendel said. He had five surgeries that year for a ruptured disc, and his hockey career was over. “It sidetracked me from my life," he added.

DeGrendel will graduate summa cum laude through Penn State World Campus on Dec. 19 with a bachelor of science degree in security and risk analysis, a minor in information sciences and technology, and a focus in political science. He is considering jobs with the government in cybersecurity and hopes eventually to run his own company creating apps, his passion. 

DeGrendel is currently working on an app he created to make voting easier and safer. He was inspired by his grandfather, who was among the American troops who stormed the beaches at Normandy in World War II, he said. 

“The one thing he was big on was, ‘I don’t care who you vote for, but make sure that you vote,’” DeGrendel said.  

DeGrendel originally planned to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at Ohio State. But his injury forced him to leave school, he said. Instead, he moved in with a friend in Detroit and got a part-time job at Best Buy. A year and a half later, he was named general manager. Over the next few years, he was promoted to district and regional management jobs, supervising more than 70 stores around the country. 

The long hours and rigors of travel took a toll on DeGrendel, who was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. More painful surgeries followed, and he reached the point where he could no longer work. At one point, he said, he became addicted to the painkillers he had been prescribed during decades of surgeries. 

Finishing college motivated him to battle back to health, he said: “I wanted to finish my degree, so I climbed out of this.”  

DeGrendel said he also wanted to show his children, ages 2 and 9, the importance of an education.

“I figured if they saw me struggling to complete my degree, they would be able to see firsthand how important a degree is," he said.

While his wife works, DeGrendel balances the demands of caring for children with his World Campus schoolwork. When he was working on assignments, he would ask his son, “Why am I working?” 

“Because you didn’t get your degree right after high school,” his son would respond. 

“That’s right,” DeGrendel would say. “And that is why you’re going to college right after high school.” 

DeGrendel started Penn State World Campus courses in 2018, choosing Penn State because of its high rankings and the information and cybersecurity option in the security and risk analysis degree.

In September 2019, he said, he had a freak heart attack, the result of a torn flap in his heart from earlier injuries. At the hospital, DeGrendel seized and coded. It took medical personnel an hour and 41 minutes to revive him, during which time his heart started and stopped nine times.

“It wasn’t a near-death experience,” he said. “It was a death-death experience.” 

Doctors put DeGrendel in a medically induced coma for two days. When he regained consciousness, one of the first things he told his doctors was that he was determined to play guitar onstage at a scheduled gig two weeks later — and he did. It was not long before he started skating again — roller blading, because ice rinks are few and far between in Louisiana. DeGrendel currently skates eight to 12 miles four-to-five times a week and feels better than he did when he was taking painkillers, he said. 

When his heart stopped, DeGrendel was taking four World Campus courses. He refused to let the medical emergency slow him down.

“I asked my teachers to give me a month to catch up, and I did,” he said. “I caught up, and I got a 4.0 that semester. I don’t call that a setback — I call that a victory!”

DeGrendel has high praise for his instructors, his adviser, and especially his classmates at Penn State World Campus.

“The quality of people that I’ve met while attending World Campus is out of this world,” he said. “That’s been the best part — the quality of the people, the maturity level, and the wealth of experience and diversity.”

DeGrendel said he discovered that he’s a better leader than follower, ending up a group leader in every class he took. The group work itself was “amazing — probably the best part about World Campus,” he said.

“The book learning — I’m going to learn that stuff anyway,” he said. “But to find out how other people see that same material — that is invaluable.”

Visit the Penn State World Campus for more information about learning online.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 17, 2020