Graduation Student Speaker: Stephanie Reynolds

Stephanie Reynolds was one of the student speakers at the Penn State World Campus Graduation Celebration for spring semester. Here are the remarks she shared: 

Hello and good evening. Twenty three years ago, I started on the journey of higher education. I was 17 years old, and I had a plan with a capital P. I was going to go to the college my father attended no matter that it cost $21,000 a year. I was going to get my Bachelor’s degree in nursing, go to work in a hospital and then specialize. That was just the way it was going to be!

And then life happened. My first semester was a disaster. On my own for the first time, I went totally hog-wild with parties, staying up into the wee hours, and doing everything but studying. My GPA took a hit that it never really recovered from. Some of my fellow nursing students were finding that even the hospital where they did their clinical rotations would not hire them after graduation due to gaps in curriculum. I felt I was in a major that was failing me, and I was running out of money fast.

The one good thing that came out of my time there was that I met my husband in a psychology class my second semester. We hit it off right away despite our very obvious age difference. During our last semester, we found out I was pregnant with our son. Neither of us had money to continue school and we didn’t want to accumulate more debt in loans, while also raising a baby so we left school, got married, and set out on our own.

Things weren’t easy. We made a deal that when one of us got a job, the other would stay home with the baby. That has been our way for the past 20 years. Through thick and thin, we have been together as a family. We have even survived homelessness when neither of us had a job, and the rent came due one too many times without a way to pay it.  We managed to come out of it at the end a bit beleaguered but still together as a family.

Since then, life has slowly gotten better. I got one job, and then a better job, and then a better one each time. After working in healthcare for quite a while, I realized it was not going the way I wanted so when a friend told me about public service, I took the clerical test and have been with the Commonwealth for 11 years.

When I took that job, I was introduced to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest trade union of public employees in the United States. I knew about unions from my father’s involvement with United Steelworkers, but this was the first time that I could join one. I found that my lack of a degree which had held me back in so many areas, was not a problem in the union. They had trainings that taught me about labor history and unionism.

As I grew in my career, my involvement with my union also grew. The leadership and educational conferences I attended allowed me to take a variety of roles with increasing responsibility in my local chapter. I was promoted to supervisor, became a steward of the clerical supervisors from all the county offices and was given the opportunity to become a Local Union Training Instructor where I teach officers and stewards of union locals. I also became very involved with the Coalition of Labor Union Women on both the national level and as Secretary of the local chapter.

With all this going on, there was still something missing, something nagging me. I loved to learn and would take every opportunity I could, at any job that offered it, to advance my learning. After a while, I topped out and there was nothing left for me to learn at my level.

In 2010, I was attending a union convention in Pittsburgh – the PA AFL-CIO convention for those who may be familiar with it – when a friend of mine introduced me to a woman at the convention. Her name was Amy Dietz, and she was there to promote the Labor and Employment Relations program at Penn State.

The three of us went to dinner, and we had the conversation that changed everything for me. I was lamenting the lack of a challenge in my career, and Amy started a series of rapid-fire questions that I came to know as the “Amy interview.” She asked about my work and why I hadn’t tried to get a promotion; she asked about school and why I didn’t have a degree; she asked about everything. Every time I gave an answer, hearing it out loud made it sound like an excuse, and Amy had a response for each. I said I was not yet ready for a promotion, and she said, if not now, when? I said I had no time for school, and she gave me a Penn State World Campus brochure, her business card, and her spiel about the 100% online labor and employment relations degree. I left that dinner with a feeling of empowerment I had never felt before.

It only took me a few months to get the promotion after that dinner, but it took me about four years to get my finances together and apply to World Campus. What kept me going for these four years was the support of my family, my friends, my union, and above all, Amy cheering me on. Even though Amy passed away this past March, I know she will be cheering me on as I cross that stage.

Now that I’ve followed through on the goals Amy motivated me to pursue, I would like to provide some lessons or words of wisdom to you, but I feel that all of you in this room already know what I am going to say. The reason we as World Campus students got to this point is because we all know how to sacrifice. We sacrifice giving attention to our families because we must get that paper done on time. We sacrifice our sleep when we work all day and study at night. We sacrifice our studying, so we can spend time with loved ones. We sacrifice to better ourselves, our families, and our work, and achieve the dream of getting that Penn State degree.

Tomorrow, when you and I hear our names and walk across that stage, hold your heads up high. All that sacrifice to get here is over, and we step into the future together because…