UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Maria Hanna will graduate on Saturday knowing the lessons she first learned as she and her family fled war-torn El Salvador helped set the foundation for every challenge she faced in life.
“My parents made a decision to walk away from their life, their home and their country, all in a 24-hour period to ensure a future for their children,” said Hanna, whose family in 1979 escaped to Guatemala before entering the United States in Texas and eventually settling in Allentown. “Their courage and their tenets of hard work, tenacity, honesty, fairness and of giving back shaped my perspective on life and my approach to challenges.”
Those values helped drive Hanna, who was just 9 years old when she, her parents and younger brother and sister left their home at the onset of El Salvador’s civil war, to an important milestone as she earns an MBA through the Penn State World Campus iMBA program.
Hanna, who now resides in Connecticut and is the CEO of Survival Systems USA, Inc., which specializes in safety and survival education, said the flexibility of the online program and her relationship with Penn State made the decision to return to her alma mater easy.
“I did my undergrad at Penn State and really enjoyed the learning experience,” said Hanna, who earned her bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering. “My work schedule is such that I’m usually traveling, and I don’t have a steady enough schedule to do a traditional school. I kept seeing Penn State World Campus, so I went to check it out and thought that this might work.”
Hanna graduated from Penn State in 1992 and planned a return to school after a short hiatus, but she and her husband, who served in the U.S. Navy, moved about 10 times before settling in Connecticut. Hanna joined her current company in 1999 as a part-time diver and quickly climbed the organization’s ranks. She became an instructor, a business manager, executive director and president before becoming CEO in 2008.
Hanna, who is on campus finishing the program’s final residency week with her cohort, says the iMBA program has given her the skills to create a succession plan for her company while reinforcing lessons she learned throughout her career.
“When I transitioned to business manager I was asked to do financials and thought 'How hard it could it be?’” said Hanna. “Now my questions are different. I'm looking for information I wouldn't have known to ask for before. I'm able to give a better breadth of answers based on what I’ve learned.”
Throughout her life and career, she has used her father’s simple mantra as one of her guiding principles.
“The biggest thing my father always said was ‘Try it.’ That’s the attitude he and my mother took when we left El Salvador,” said Hanna. “He didn’t know if it would work and he was scared. In business you might have people who are scared to make a decision but you have to make a decision and try it and see what happens.”