New World Campus fund helps make life-changing learning experiences a reality

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State World Campus student is eager to be a better steward of the Earth’s resources because of a life-changing trip she took over spring break and the support that made it possible.

Kayland Brown went to Belize through an immersive program on sustainability and ocean conservation. She observed seaweed harvesting, studied invasive species, and talked with locals about the future of their land use.

Brown is the first student to receive an award from a new fund at World Campus, the Collective Commitment to Equity Fund. It provides funding for students to have outside-the-classroom educational experiences such as unpaid internships and travel opportunities like attending a conference or studying abroad.

“I want to be more in tune with Earth — how we affect the Earth and how it affects us,” said Brown, who is majoring in energy and sustainability policy. “The funding was a blessing that I couldn’t be more grateful for. It provided me with a cushion to be able to join the experience, immerse myself in the culture, and support local people.”

The inspiration to create opportunities for online learners

Penn State World Campus offers a Penn State education online, with a comprehensive selection of more than 200 degree and certificate programs, to more than 19,000 students. The Collective Commitment to Equity Fund through World Campus was the idea of Renata Engel, vice provost for Online Education at Penn State, to help online learners with financial need have outside-the-virtual-classroom learning experiences.

As an undergraduate engineering major at the Penn State Fayette campus and then the University Park campus more than 40 years ago, Engel worked to pay for her tuition. She couldn’t afford to relocate for an internship or to study abroad.

An engineering professor gave her the chance to conduct research, and she presented a paper at a regional conference later that year. She said the experience led to her first job, in research and development with The Lord Corp., and to her desire to get her doctorate.

“This was extraordinary to me, and I was thrilled,” Engel said. “When it came time to look for a job, I was able to talk about that research and presenting the research paper. If you don’t have these experiences to spark these kinds of conversations, it’s hard to demonstrate that depth of knowledge and stand out.”

She completed a doctorate in engineering mechanics from the University of South Florida in 1988.

“My opportunities happened because of that undergraduate research experience,” she said. “That changed everything for me. It gave me a window into the world to say, ‘I want to do research and I want to pursue a doctoral degree.’”

She and her husband, Leland, created the Collective Commitment to Equity Fund. The Engels were soon joined by another donor, engineering alumna Priscilla Guthrie, who made her own gift to advance their shared vision of creating greater equity for students to have these experiences.

Guthrie was an engineering major at a time when there were few female students in that discipline at Penn State and nationally. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1971.

She has worked in information technology and cybersecurity with the U.S. Department of Defense and in both the public sector and private industry. Her past roles include chief information officer for the Office of the Director for National Intelligence, director of the information technology and systems division of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and a vice president of automotive and aerospace for TRW Inc.

Guthrie met Engel as an alumna while leading a board for the Penn State College of Engineering. Recalling the dearth of female engineers from her time at Penn State, Guthrie saw Engel as a role model for female engineering majors that she never had.

“She is strong, capable, smart, and helpful,” Guthrie said of Engel. “Renata is my heroine and my inspiration.”

three women pose for a photo on a suspension bridge in the rain forest canopy
Kayland Brown, on the left in this group photo, is studying energy and sustainability policy online through Penn State World Campus. The major requires students to have an internship or study-abroad opportunity. Photo Credit: Kayland Brown

Experiencing learning outside of her course

Brown intended to be an engineering major at University Park, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the fall of 2020 she instead enrolled at the Abington campus closer to her home in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

She realized she preferred learning online and transferred to World Campus in 2021. She became interested in sustainability and energy, which led her to the bachelor of science in energy and sustainability policy, which is offered online by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

That major requires students to complete an internship or to study abroad. She applied for a study-abroad experience, in Belize through The GREEN Program, which provides experiential educational programs in sustainable development across the world.

Brown said the support from the Collective Commitment to Equity Fund helped her more fully immerse herself in the experience.

Brown said she found a sense of interconnected community in Belize that she never saw before. The highlight for her was helping the local seaweed farmers. They told her how their seaweed is used in products like ketchup and toothpaste and how they are dealing with invasive seaweed. They told her that the farmers can command a higher price for their seaweed on the market because of its high quality.

“It felt surreal to be in the middle of the ocean and help them do what they do,” she said.

Brown plans to graduate in the fall. She is considering graduate school or going to work for an organization like NASA or the Sierra Club.

“We need to realize we need to respect each other and respect our environment,” she said. “Being in Belize showed me how to start to do that.”

The Engels and Guthrie are excited that Brown had the opportunity for a transformative learning experience.

“We created this fund because we know opportunities outside of the classroom and the virtual classroom contribute to students’ academic and career success,” Engel said. “We hope that others are inspired to make this possible for more students.”

Gifts to the Collective Commitment to Equity Fund at Penn State World Campus advance the University’s historic land-grant mission to serve and lead. Through philanthropy, alumni and friends are helping students to join the Penn State family and prepare for lifelong success; driving research, outreach, and economic development that grow our shared strength and readiness for the future; and increasing the University’s impact for families, patients, and communities across the commonwealth and around the world. Learn more by visiting the Raise Penn State site.