Amidst Legos and rocket attacks, IST student earns online master’s degree

Amidst raising 10 children as well as serving a military deployment in Afghanistan, Jim Terwilliger obtained a master’s degree in cybersecurity from Penn State’s World Campus. It might have taken considerable dedication and a great deal of flexibility but, Terwilliger said, “I’m glad I did it, and I would do it again.”

Terwilliger chose to pursue a master’s degree to further his career opportunities, spurred on by his lifelong passion for learning. “I knew the job market was very competitive,” Terwilliger said, “and I wanted every advantage that I could get.”

For nearly half of the time Terwilliger was completing his degree, he was serving on active duty in Afghanistan. “I would get up at 4:30 a.m. to watch lectures,” he said. And when asked about the wartime environment, “Rocket attacks? Yes. Every so often during a meeting, sirens went off.” Terwilliger explained. “‘Are you kidding me?’ the other students said. And I’d say no, I have to go. I’ll catch you later.”

Terwilliger lives with his wife of 28 years and their children just outside of Cleveland. Together, Terwilliger and his wife are parents to a brood of 10 children ranging from 1 to 27 years old. “My wife took care all 10 kids by herself when I was away.” he said. “She is exceptionally wonderful and understanding.”

Terwilliger makes a point to note, “I could not have done it without my family. It was a big sacrifice on their part, too. There were hours and hours every week when I couldn’t play Legos with the little kids because I’ve got this paper due, or this lab or I’ve got to get online. For the older kids, it’s a little easier to understand; they get it, they see the end and the goal. But the 4- and 6-year-olds … they don’t understand that I’m at home, but I’m also at school.”

Terwilliger decided to study online with Penn State’s World Campus after conducting research on distant learning programs in information security. Penn State, Terwilliger said, “had no competition.”

The World Campus experience is different than studying with typical 20-year-old students who “all have the same experiences,” Terwilliger said. “Almost all of the students I interacted with had interesting, unique life experiences.” Terwilliger maintained that, due to the age and life experiences of his classmates, his learning environment was richer and more fulfilling, although it did not take place in a traditional classroom.

“Online education is different than sitting in the classroom,” Terwilliger said. “It’s probably not for everyone. You have to be very disciplined, otherwise you find yourself trying to beat the deadlines on Sunday nights.”

His IST professors, Terwilliger said, made learning interesting. “Gerry Santoro sticks out. Every week he did a video at a different location on campus. His course presentation would be slides, but the photos in background were personal photos. We got to know him. It kept the experience interesting, and it kept us connected.”

As a World Campus student, Terwilliger discovered that some of his classmates also faced challenges that may have proved insurmountable to obtaining a degree in an in-residence setting. “Real-life events occur,” Terwilliger said. “Hurricane Sandy, natural disasters, war. The University — the professors and the staff — set everyone up for success. The work isn’t easy, but if you want to do it, you can do it. Everyone works with you.”

Structured around live lectures, interaction with professors and other students and teamwork, the IST World Campus experience provides alternative learners with the opportunity to pursue their education, while maintaining full-time jobs and demanding family lives.

Currently, Terwilliger works as the manager of information security and compliance at TimkenSteel in Ohio. “I could speak for a lot of employers: they value the education I’ve gotten from Penn State,” Terwilliger said. “I had a really wonderful experience, studying with World Campus.”

Last Updated August 21, 2014