Overcoming homelessness and hardships to earn a Penn State degree

Jessica Hallman
September 09, 2021

(Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of iConnect, the biannual magazine of the College of Information Sciences and Technology).

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joel Seidel's transition from high school to Penn State was one filled with uncertainty. On his 18th birthday, Seidel became emancipated from his parents and, in turn, homeless. With seven months to go until his high school graduation, Seidel worked part time to pay for his car insurance and slept in the basement of a friend of a friend until he could earn his diploma.

Despite his hardships, Seidel had his sights set on Penn State. And now, thanks to his own determination and the support of scholarships, Seidel is a successful graduate of the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

Pursuing a college degree was something Seidel had always wanted, but that pursuit went against his parents’ strongly held religious beliefs -- thus, one of his reasons for separating from them. So, in the fall of 2016, with his last $10 spent filling his gas tank and no idea how he was going to pay for his education, he arrived at University Park. And he never looked back.

“I spent too much time worrying about how I was going to pay for this, because leaving wasn’t really an option,” said Seidel. “I didn’t have anywhere to go back to.”

When Seidel first came to Penn State, one of his former high school teachers recognized his potential and, along with her family, helped to support Seidel as he started his academic career. Additionally, in his second year, he received a Penn State Trustee Scholarship, and in his final year was the recipient of the David Rusenko Entrepreneur in Residence Scholarship -- an award up to $10,000 given to an IST student who has entrepreneurial experience or involvement.

Seidel’s involvement more than qualified him for that award. The summer after high school, his team earned a national award in software development at the Technology Student Association National Conference. At Penn State, he was on one of five student teams selected to participate in Invent Penn State’s Summer Founders Program in 2019; was part of the winning team for the 2019 HackPSU; and worked as a software developer and project lead at the Penn State Nittany AI Alliance, where he also helped launch the Nittany AI Advance student program. He participated in the IdeaMakers Challenge during Penn State Startup Week and the Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference.

While Seidel has a natural entrepreneurial spirit, he says that his success in the pitch competitions stemmed from his need to win prize money to pay for his second-semester tuition. He and two other first-year students shared their idea for a medical supply chain platform in the Smeal Supply Chain Pitch Competition. They won second place.

“My teammates and I didn’t know anything about supply chain, but we learned quickly when they said there was a $1,000 prize,” said Seidel. “The idea that took hold was really formed out of necessity.”

In his last year at Penn State, thanks to financial support he received from the scholarship funded by IST alumnus David Rusenko, 2007, Seidel was able to focus solely on his academics and entrepreneurial endeavors.

“I’m so thankful to ... scholarship donors for giving me the opportunity not only to be able to be here and survive, but to be able to thrive. I showed up at Penn State with nothing, and I’ve gotten to do so many things because of their generosity.”

-- Joel Seidel, 2020 

“I’m so thankful to David and the other scholarship donors for giving me the opportunity not only to be able to be here and survive, but to be able to thrive,” he said. “I showed up at Penn State with nothing, and I’ve gotten to do so many things because of their generosity.”

Seidel graduated in May with a degree in information sciences and technology and began his career as a consultant at Accenture. He plans to carry forward a few startup ideas and finds a parallel between his entrepreneurial spirit and the hardships he faced when he first came to Penn State.

“I’ve learned that whatever it is, just go for it. In the end, what’s the worst that could happen? It fails? Well, that’s fine, you just try again,” he said. “As long as you’re putting yourself in the best position to succeed, things will work themselves out.”

Support for scholarships will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

Last Updated September 10, 2021