From GEDs to Penn State degrees

Two Penn State World Campus students overcame difficult childhoods to graduate

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Serena Carlson and Kevin Doupe both dropped out of high school at 17. But on Saturday, they will graduate with degrees from Penn State.

“I had a very traumatic childhood,” said Carlson, 39, who lives near Seattle. “I never thought a university was in my future – ever.”

Carlson and Doupe both turned their lives around, and they will share their personal journeys with their fellow adult learners at a special event Friday for Penn State World Campus graduates. More than 100 students and their families are expected to attend the World Campus Graduation Celebration.

The event will be streamed on Facebook Live at 6:30 p.m. for those who cannot attend in person.

Carlson said her father was an alcoholic, her parents divorced when she was a teenager and she left to live on her own. She was always a good student, but college wasn’t possible.

It wasn’t until 2014 that she changed her future. She got her GED and enrolled in a class at a local community college. An A- while juggling a full-time job and raising three children spurred her on to complete an associate’s degree. And with a strong GPA, she applied to Penn State for her bachelor’s degree.

In 2016, Carlson began her studies online in health policy and administration, determined to maximize her experience. She traveled to Costa Rica and Sweden to compare the countries’ health systems with the U.S. system, and she participated on a student panel at a conference for online instructors at the University Park campus.

“Never in a million years did I expect to be part of such a world-class university,” she said.

Eventually, Carlson would like to complete her doctorate.

Doupe also had a difficult childhood. He ran away from home at 15 and dropped out of school at 17. He married and divorced by his mid-20s, and he found himself as a single dad of two teenagers. However, the key to overcoming these challenges was to not let his past define him, he said, likening it to driving a car.

“You need to have a rear-view mirror because you need to know where you've been,” said Doupe, 42, who lives in Towanda, Pennsylvania. “But you can't drive while looking in that direction. Life is happening in front of you, and that is more important than what's behind you. It's also the only thing you have some level of control over."

Doupe has taken control: He will graduate with a master’s degree in human resources and employment relations and a 3.9 grade-point average. At work, he is a human resources manager for a national home-improvement chain.

He also was appointed to serve two years on the World Campus’ student advisory board, a group that advocates for students. He said the rewarding experience gave him the chance to visit University Park twice and offer feedback on behalf of his fellow students.

Doupe and Carlson, too, will return to campus with their families for graduation, for good reason.

“Nothing makes me prouder than knowing that my kids are proud of me,” Carlson said.

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about learning online.

Last Updated August 22, 2018