Staff members balance roles of parent, employee and student

Five staff members in the College of Education are redefining what it means to be a triple threat

Stephanie Hopkins, Greg Mason and Samantha Roan are not only co-workers, they also are graduate students in the Department of Education Policy Studies. Credit: Jessica Buterbaugh / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It's not easy balancing the roles of parent, spouse and employee. Add being a student to the mix and the demands become even more challenging. But for five College of Education staff members, it is a challenge they face head-on.

Stephanie Hopkins, Greg Mason, Bonnie Richardson, Samantha Roan and Amanda Smith all are full-time employees and part-time students at Penn State, each working toward their own educational goals while juggling the demands of work and family.

"It's really important to me that my children see that it's never too late to follow your dreams," Richardson said. "It's never too late to get an education."

When she graduated high school in 1996, Richardson's dream was to travel to California to attend the University of California at Los Angeles and study theater. But her family didn't see that as a legitimate career choice, and they weren't about to send their teenage daughter 2,500 miles away from home.

"I ended up staying in central Pennsylvania and went to Penn State Altoona and majored in psychology," said Richardson, who is an administrative assistant in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. After one semester, she transferred to South Hills School of Business and Technology, where she completed a program in travel business and tourism.

Bonnie Richardson, an administrative assistant for the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, is completing coursework toward a bachelor's degree in letters, arts and sciences. Her dream, she said, is to write children's books. Credit: Jessica Buterbaugh / Penn StateCreative Commons

"My heart just wasn't in it," she said of her decision to leave Penn State Altoona.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Richardson is halfway through her bachelor's degree in letters, arts and sciences, where she is concentrating on writing and the arts, and minoring in marketing.

"I love being creative," she said. "I love writing and the arts, and I have a dream of writing children's books."

Richardson, like her fellow student-colleagues, has a spouse and children at home. And if there is one thing they all stress, it's that family always comes first.

"My kids and I do our homework together," Richardson said. "When I took a children's literacy class, I had to read children's books as part of my homework, so I would read them to my kids and it became part of our family time."

But integrating family time and school time is not always possible, especially for those with young children.

"I have a 2-year-old son and he takes up a lot of my time," Roan said, explaining that she is a "nights and weekend student." The same is true for Hopkins, whose toddler daughter and husband are her primary focus in life.

"It's not easy when you have a little one running around," Hopkins said. "She is growing so fast and learning so much at this age, and I want to be present for these special memories. I want her to grow up like I did and understand the value and importance of education, but I want to make sure she doesn't always see me on my computer."

Hopkins and Roan, both of whom are enrolled in the master's of higher education program offered through Penn State World Campus and who work together in the college's Advising and Certification Center, said they get about two hours a night to do schoolwork after their children go to bed, and the remaining work is done on the weekends.

"I was a first-generation student when I enrolled at Penn State Scranton in 2004, and now I am the first in my family who will receive a master's degree," Hopkins said. "That really means something to me. My parents always stressed the importance of a college education but they never had the opportunity to go to college. For me, it's about more than just getting the degree."

Roan, who is an alumna of the rehabilitation and human services program, said that earning a graduate degree was always on her to-do list.

"I simply wasn't done learning," she said, explaining that her education and career have led her down an unexpected road.

"Working in the rehabilitation and human services field, you get burned out fast," Roan said, explaining that prior to joining Penn State, she worked with elderly patients in nursing homes. "I re-evaluated what I wanted to do, and when a position with the College of Education became available, I applied and was hired."

That position was as an administrative assistant in the Advising and Certification Center. Since then she has risen in the ranks and is now the undergraduate records coordinator for the college. Her hope, she said, is to become an academic adviser and continue to help students during their time at Penn State.

Hopkins, who serves as an academic adviser for the college, and Roan both agree that it is the flexibility of their online graduate program and the support of their colleagues that makes completing the program possible.

"Being in the College of Education, it's just natural for people to support you in getting an advanced degree," Hopkins said. "With our supervisor working on his Ph.D., he is very supportive and understanding."

Their supervisor is Greg Mason, director of the Advising and Certification Center, who currently is completing his dissertation work for the higher education doctoral program. Mason started the program in 2013 and three children ago.

"I am a father of four, the oldest of whom is 7 and the youngest just turned 1," he said. "I am also a husband. Balancing the family demands with work and school has taken some real discipline, and has meant that I spend some early mornings in my office working on my Ph.D. work. Work does not get done at home — my house is crazy!"

But, he added, that is a positive thing.

"When I walk through the door at the end of the day, my wife and kids deserve and get my full attention," he said.

But it's not always easy. Being a parent, a spouse, an employee and a student can be very difficult.

"For me, the biggest challenge has been trying to figure out a way to balance it all — work, school and family," said Amanda Smith, who is completing the educational leadership doctoral program and raising a family. "And, I'm not great at it. I don't know if there's a secret to it. You just have to figure out what works best for you and do it."

A former science teacher, she has always seen herself continuing her education. "It just made sense for me," she said. "I love my job and the work I do, and I realized that in order to do my job better, I needed more education."

Smith is the STEM outreach and engagement liaison for the Center for Science and the Schools and served as the Pennsylvania STEM ambassador in 2018, a position that requires her to advocate for STEM education in Pennsylvania schools.

"My long-term goal is to open Penn State's doors to more schools, especially rural schools in this area," said Smith. "We are a large research university sitting in the middle of Pennsylvania, and there's a lot more I feel we can do to be helping these small schools. I believe my degree in educational leadership will help me to do that."

Her colleagues agree. Because her research interests align so closely with her job duties, Smith is able to implement much of what she is learning into her work.

"I'm very fortunate because there is so much overlap between my job duties and my degree program," she said. "If they weren't so closely related, a Ph.D. wouldn't be a possibility for me. I just wouldn't have the time."

The reality is that nothing is 50/50, she said.

"There is never a perfect balance between all the responsibilities and obligations, but I love my family and I love my job and I love learning," Smith said. "I've just been fortunate to have the support from my family and colleagues to be able to have all three of these things."

Last Updated May 23, 2019