Adult learner fulfills lifelong goal, shares experiences through online program

Christine Stallard and Haley Sankey
Christine Stallard, right, stands next to Haley Sankey, instructor in energy and sustainability policy (ESP) in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, prior to the spring 2017 commencement ceremonies Credit: Christine Stallard

For nearly four decades, Christine Stallard has dreamed about getting a bachelor’s degree. Now, in her 60s, Stallard finally fulfilled that dream. In May 2017, she graduated from the online energy sustainability and policy program, offered through Penn State World Campus and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The program not only allowed her to fulfill her dream, but it also allowed her to share her wealth of knowledge about the electricity industry with classmates.

Stallard grew up in Meadville in western Pennsylvania, the daughter of parents who, she said, instilled strong family and personal values.

“They taught you to be a kind person, to do what was right, and to work hard,” she said.

With that in mind, she started working when she was 16 and stayed in the workforce rather than attend college. While on vacation in Barbados in the Caribbean Sea, she met Gary Pelter, who had graduated from Penn State in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and was a Peace Corps volunteer. The two clicked, she said, and stayed in touch. Gary eventually got a job as an extension faculty member at Washington State University and asked Christine to move out with him and get married, which she did in 1980.

A few years later, while working with Grant County Public Utility District (PUD), Stallard discovered she had a passion for the hydroelectric power industry.

“Hydropower is a clean, renewable resource that is always available, so it’s incredibly dependable,” she said.

Her passion has kept her in the industry for 32 years, but for a majority of that time, Stallard felt that something was missing from her life — a bachelor’s degree.

“I love learning, and often regretted my decision to enter the workforce without pursuing a degree at Penn State when I had the opportunity,” she said. “Ultimately, I think a degree prepares you for, and enhances, your work or career, regardless of when you obtain it.”

She had explored a few educational options, such as taking a Penn State landscape architecture correspondence course in 1988, which was taught via postal mail. She also enrolled in Big Bend Community College in Washington in 1985 and received an associate degree in arts and sciences, with honors, in 1993.

But it was her husband’s status as a Penn State alum that would ultimately steer her toward her goal of fulfilling her dream.

“I was looking through my husband’s alumni magazine [the Penn Stater] one day, and I came across a World Campus ad for the energy and sustainability policy [ESP] program,” she said. “I said, ‘you know what? I’m going to finish my degree through Penn State, and this is how I’m going to do it.'”

She applied, was admitted, and enrolled in her first ESP course in 2012. The program was a natural fit for her, given her career background. Since 2008, Stallard has been the public affairs director and marketing and member services manager with Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative, which provides electricity to rural areas of the southern Oregon coast. Her passion for hydropower also pushed her to serve on the National Hydropower Association board of directors for multiple years, and to educate legislators in both Washington, D.C., and Washington state about issues related to hydropower.

“The ESP program tied very closely to my career experience, and I was able to share my perspectives on the challenges facing the utility industry, and how many perspectives the industry has to take into account when making large-scale decisions,” she said.

Decisions related to river-fueled hydropower, for example, can impact river transportation, fishing, irrigation, and recreation, among other activities, she said.

Stallard delved into some of these complex, yet critical, issues related to hydropower in some of her ESP courses. She completed a capstone project on the 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada that is up for renewal in the next decade, interviewing key personnel in the region to get a variety of perspectives.

She also developed close ties with some of her classmates and instructors, including a classmate in Colorado who drove to Stallard’s home in Oregon so the two could go to a concert together.

Overall, she said, the program was highly relevant today in its focus.

“It’s an important program due to the fact that we are dealing with climate change issues in our society,” she said. “It’s a great program to get people to think about our energy supply and different ways to prepare ourselves for our future.”

Stallard knew she had to walk at commencement because of how much she valued getting a bachelor’s degree. She flew across the U.S. for the ceremony, making sure to leave time to meet in person with some of her instructors and visit some of the hot spots on the University Park campus, like the Berkey Creamery.

“Graduation was bittersweet,” she said. “I’m going to miss the intellectual part of it, and I’m going to miss the students and the instructors. But the degree gives me a connection to Penn State, which was my dream school. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.”