Schuylkill Speaks: Michele Atkinson's decades-long journey to bachelor's degree

May 07, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series profiling exceptional members of Penn State Schuylkill’s spring 2021 graduating class. For more stories like Atkinson’s, visit schuylkill.psu.edu/2021-graduates.

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Michele Atkinson’s Penn State story is anything but traditional.

A single mom with a full-time job and two college-aged daughters, Atkinson’s plate of responsibility overflowed long before she began work to complete her bachelor’s degree in business at Penn State Schuylkill.

In fact, her Penn State Schuylkill experience started back in 2003 when a supervisor — Steve Armson — encouraged her to enroll in an introductory sociology class he taught on campus. Atkinson recalled, “I enjoyed being back in school, but I was raising two small children as a single parent. It was just not the right time.”

Inspired by that class, Atkinson returned to Penn State Schuylkill two years later, when her oldest daughter was just 7 years old, and completed an associate’s degree in business administration in December 2008.

“At that point in my life, I was just happy to finally have a degree,” said Atkinson. “Looking back, I really don’t know how I managed it. My daughters, Kylie and Kelsey, were young and required a lot of attention. However, I scheduled classes around weekly visitation with their father, and my mother also watched them one evening a week. I did my schoolwork after they went to bed and on the weekends.”

Despite the challenges, Atkinson persisted, and in 2018, she enrolled at Penn State Schuylkill once again, this time in pursuit of her bachelor’s degree.

“I thought it would be easier pursuing my bachelor’s degree since my daughters were older, but it was not as easy as I thought it would be to balance work, family and my studies,” Atkinson recalls. “Many times I wondered if it was worth it — but now I can say without a doubt that it was definitely worth it. I’m so excited to be graduating with my Penn State degree!”

Atkinson’s tenacious spirit and academic aptitude made her stand out in her classes, too. Gina Whalen, assistant teaching professor of business and business division coordinator, said, “Michele is a perfect example of how a person can successfully maintain many important identities — such as mom, partner, employee, and student — simultaneously. Adult learners like Michele not only need perseverance, but they also need support. The fact that her employer provided tuition reimbursement and enabled her the time to take classes contributed to her ability to return for her bachelor’s degree. As a human resources professional, Michele focused her experiential learning project on a process improvement that would enhance workforce development efforts. This demonstrates her commitment to applying new knowledge to assist her company's efforts.”

We recently caught up with Atkinson to learn more about her unique story — including how she and her daughter Kelsey, also a current business major at Penn State Schuylkill, ended up unexpectedly enrolled in the same class last fall.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did your college journey begin?

Atkinson: I was born and raised in Berks County and graduated from Holy Name High School. After high school, I attended another college for one year, but decided not to return. I then took a few general education classes at a community college while working both full-time and part-time jobs back in the late ‘80s. I moved to Schuylkill County in July 1991 and became a licensed nail technician in 1992, “retiring” in 1998 when my oldest daughter, Kylie, was born.

I earned my associate’s degree from Penn State Schuylkill in 2008 when my kids were still very young, and finally, in late 2017, I made the commitment to re-enroll on campus to complete my bachelor’s degree and started taking classes the spring semester of 2018.  

Q: You said you also work full time. Can you share more about your career?

Atkinson: I am proud to be celebrating 15 years of service with Hydro in Cressona, Pennsylvania, this year. The first seven years I worked as a sales service representative. In 2013, I accepted a position in human resources and was recently promoted to senior human resources generalist in January 2021.

Q: What was it like to attend college at the same time as your daughter? Can you tell us about the class you took together? 

Atkinson: Kelsey is a fellow business major and is set to graduate from Penn State Schuylkill in December 2021. We helped each other along the way. I provided perspective from my business experience, and she helped me learn how to navigate Canvas, Connect, and pretty much anything that challenged me technically. 

Last semester we were in a “Negotiating Skills for Business” class together, and we didn’t plan it at all. I just happened to find out the week before classes started. I attended the class via Zoom while working, and she attended via Zoom from home. Every week we presented examples of how we used certain negotiating skills, then had to respond to other students and sometimes each other. We spent many nights sitting together at the kitchen counter on our laptops completing our assignments. I used to joke with her and say that we should transfer to University Park to finish our degrees.

Q: What extracurricular activities were you involved in, and how did they impact your time on campus? 

Atkinson: I participated in extracurricular activities related to my job. My position in human resources offered me the opportunity to be involved in recruiting activities, supporting local schools and local nonprofit agencies through the Schuylkill United Way. I am always running from one thing to another, so I did not spend much time on campus other than attending classes.

Q: Outside of academics, what was the most valuable lesson you learned?

Atkinson: No time is a good time. I can say this about many decisions I have made throughout my life. I always had an excuse not to finish my bachelor’s degree. First it was lack of money, then it was lack of time, then it was “I’m too old.” I have learned that we all experience struggles throughout our lives. Everyone has a story. I continue to be inspired by so many individuals in my life and surround myself with people who improve me as a person.

Q: Do you have a favorite Penn State Schuylkill memory?  

Atkinson: I enjoyed all my classes online and on campus. I also enjoyed seeing students who graduated from high school with both of my daughters, and connecting with faculty members through business.

Q: What will you miss most about your time at Penn State Schuylkill? 

Atkinson: The students and faculty. Everyone is so helpful. I always felt comfortable asking questions.

Q: As you near graduation, what advice would you give to an incoming adult student about pursuing their undergraduate degree? 

Atkinson: You are never too old, and it does not matter how long it takes to finish your degree. It took me 35 years. My goal was to graduate before both my daughters graduated, but I would never have imagined that we could all graduate college in the same year. Kylie graduates with her BSN [bachelor of science in nursing] from another university just one week after me, and Kelsey is on pace to graduate from Penn State Schuylkill in December. It’s an exciting year!

Q: Where do you see yourself next year? In five years? 

Atkinson: I am just taking it one day at a time. I feel so blessed to have had the support of my fiancé, family, friends and employer along this journey.

Last Updated May 07, 2021