UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bound for a study-abroad experience in Ireland, Meg Wieger, 34, checked a few things off her to-do list.
Bags packed? Check. Ticket purchased? Check. Coverage for her management position at a Fort Worth oil and gas company? Check. Arrange for her active-duty Marine husband stationed in New York to return home to Texas to watch their infant son so she could hit the skies en route to earning her degree? Check.
The weight of all of this might dissuade some, but not Wieger, a Penn State World Campus student majoring in energy and sustainability policy (ESP), who recently completed the study abroad component of the major through a 10-day trip learning about Ireland’s rich culture.
For adult learners, the study-abroad component can pose unique challenges. For Wieger, who works full time while “solo momming” since 2015 while her husband serves, it’s no exception. But adult learners — many with full-time jobs, families or both — have found ways to successfully juggle the tasks to make studying abroad a reality.
“It was a little cumbersome to make sure that everything worked out,” said Wieger. “And everyone got where they needed to be, and we made it work. My husband knew how badly I wanted to go.”
Life has always been a little nontraditional for Wieger. As a teen, she finished high school early to pursue her dream of becoming a country music singer after she signed a recording contract. But, her shot at stardom fizzled out, and she continued life on the road for about a decade, managing bands and earning an associate degree in business online along the way.
Around 2008, she found a job she enjoyed in the energy industry, but her passion was in renewable energy and geography, particularly geographic information systems, or GIS. She began exploring options that both suited her interests and lifestyle.
“I wanted something that would allow me to stay here and keep my job, but I also loved the fact that it’s Penn State,” said Wieger, who’s from the south but has ties to Pennsylvania. “It’s where my family is from. It’s what my family loves. And when I’m done with my degree I can cross the stage and receive my degree with all the other students.”
Why study abroad?
Haley Sankey, instructor in ESP in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, said the study abroad requirement for the online major is built around the idea that both energy and sustainability are global issues that require a global perspective.
“Understanding that energy supply-and-demand effects are global and far reaching outside of political borders is important,” said Sankey. “It’s also important to understand how other cultures work and function, which is going to continuously be more important for our students seeking success in the workplace.”
Sankey said studying abroad poses a range of challenges for adult online learners, whose average age is around 34. Two most cited challenges are costs and time commitment. That’s why Penn State strives to offer affordable short-term trips through Penn State Brandywine and elsewhere. Costs for other opportunities, such as trips offered through the Global Renewable Energy Education Network (GREEN) program, can be partially offset by scholarships through the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The most popular trips are condensed and focused on topics related to the major, and students can earn credit for the experience by completing writing assignments once they return home.
“We try to make sure there are study abroad options available that are one to two weeks in length; for our students, getting away for that amount of time is definitely more accomplishable than leaving for an entire semester,” said Sankey.
‘The only way’
After several attempts to return to college, Kelli Volkomer, 34, who will graduate in December with degree in ESP, hit her stride with the World Campus program.
She was raising two kids when she weighed the logistics of studying abroad.
“I was really excited, but then the reality set in,” said Volkomer. “How do I manage to go away for any extended amount of time? When you think ‘study abroad,’ you think that you have to go for a semester, which would be fantastic but not realistic.”
But she soon found options that made it possible.
She spent almost two weeks in Switzerland in 2015, getting special tours and gaining personal connections with people implementing renewable technologies in a nation that gets about 60 percent of its power from hydroelectricity and has invested in geothermal and other renewable energies. That was invaluable experience for Volkomer, who sees herself having similar interactions when she soon joins the field.
Volkomer said trips to a biogas farm, geothermal buildings and hydroelectric facilities offered a chance to see in action many of the renewable components she’s learning about in her studies.
Now, more than a decade after leaving college, Volkomer is achieving what she couldn’t do then.
“Distance learning is the only way I would have been able to continue with my degree,” said Volkomer. “There’s complete flexibility.”
Without online learning, Wieger said she still would have been able to work toward her goal of beginning a career with a regulatory agency or green energy company or to begin pursuing a master’s in GIS, which she plans to do after she graduates. But she would have had to wait a little longer. Her husband is nearing retirement and will soon be able to help with parenting duties.
Now, she enjoys learning within arm’s reach of her son.
“We still can have family dinners every night, and then I sit on the couch or the kitchen table and work on my assignments or do some reading,” said Wieger. “But, if my kiddo gets sick I’m still right there. I’ll just have to stay up later that night or work on it on a different day. It just allows me to have flexibility.”
She misses not having a residential college experience, but she knows her life experiences have made her a better student now than she would have been then. Now, when she learns course concepts, the “hands-on learner” is quickly searching for times she’s seen the concept in practice.
“You have a different perspective on things,” said Wieger. “You realize what’s important. It’s not so much about the college experience. It’s about ‘how can I use this in my day-to-day.’”
Volkomer doesn’t need to look very far to find the motivation for becoming the first member of her family to graduate college or for dedicating herself to sustainable living. Her motivations are just a bedroom away.
“I think that when I had my kids it really gave me that ‘look-outside-of-myself’ inspiration,” said Volkomer. “Before you have kids, you are your biggest concern. When you have kids, your focus changes. This is the world that I’m leaving for them, and I want to make it better. What can I do to make it better?”
Volkomer said she left college decades ago because she didn’t have the dedication and the insight into her future.
“It took me a long time to figure out that I wanted to be in ESP,” she said. “Therefore, I have a whole lot more drive to do it. After high school, I just didn’t have any drive, and I didn’t see the answer to why or what could it do for me. I am more invested in it now that I’m doing this for a reason.”
Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about the bachelor’s degree in energy sustainability and policy.