How a mother and her son found success by earning their degrees online

Stacey Gustavson and her son Alex Torres had their own reasons for going back to college as online learners.

Years ago, Gustavson missed out on a promotion at work because she did not have a master’s degree. She was told she could not even apply for the job, and she was determined to get the credential to make sure that did not happen again.

Her son went to college after graduating high school but started to feel burned out after switching majors and trying to find his footing. Then the COVID-19 pandemic jolted his world, and he decided he needed a break from school. He knew he would go back, though.

The mother and son both found Penn State World Campus, and today, they both have Penn State diplomas they earned by studying online.

“Earning the degree opened me up to a whole new level of job opportunities,” Gustavson said. “More importantly, I think it gave me the confidence and it gave me the skills and the knowledge to grow, to expand, and to explore new opportunities.”

Gustavson began her studies first and graduated with a Master of Education in Higher Education in 2017. When Torres was exploring going back to school to finish his bachelor’s degree, she encouraged him to consider Penn State World Campus because of the success she had.

He did, and he graduated in 2023 with a Bachelor of Arts in International Politics.

“I loved my experience with World Campus,” Torres said. “The flexibility, the adaptability, as well as just having all the resources available through World Campus were what I needed to finish.”

A high-quality educational experience

Gustavson works in higher education as the director of college access and enrollment for Montgomery College, a community college in Montgomery County, Maryland. She has worked in IT and student affairs in higher education, and she enjoys creating policies, programs, experiences, and services for students. That is why the higher education master’s degree program appealed to her — it provided her the chance to study this topic from the administrative side.

Since Gustavson graduated, she has received several promotions, including the one to her current role that oversees admissions, enrollment, and recruitment.

As she looks back on her Penn State online experience, she remembers that what she was learning was immediately applicable to what she was doing in her job.

“What I learned in class, I used at work,” Gustavson said. “And what I was doing at work allowed me to build on topics in my classes. I think what was really, really critical to my success was that what I was learning in class was so relevant to my day-to-day job.”

Gustavson also praised the quality of her professors, who are on the faculty of the Penn State College of Education at the University Park campus.

The inspiration to go back to school

Torres grew up seeing his mother balance their family and her job while she worked toward her master’s degree. She did her course work when she had the time — in the evenings, on the weekends, even at his swim meets.

“Seeing my mom earn her degree from Penn State while still being able to take care of the family, it really inspired me,” Torres said. “It showed me that even with everything happening in life, she still pursued what she wanted. She sought it out, and she accomplished her goal.”

When Torres started through Penn State World Campus, he was working full-time and taking courses part-time. As he continued, he thought about the flexibility of the course loads and decided to work part-time, so he could take more courses to graduate more quickly.

A key to his success was, he said, “just putting myself in places to learn,” such as the library and coffee shops, and removing himself from places that were too comfortable.

When he graduated in December 2023, his family made the trip to the University Park campus, where was able to attend commencement with his fellow Penn State students.

“The students that have the nontraditional journey show so much grit and so much resilience,” Gustavson said. “I couldn’t be more excited and prouder of him because I watched his growth and his journey.”

A Penn State education online

Going back to school online is an option for many adult learners seeking to advance their careers through a master’s degree or to finish the bachelor’s degree they started.

Penn State World Campus offers a Penn State education online, with a comprehensive selection of more than 200 degree and certificate programs in business, technology, engineering, health care, liberal arts, and more.