SIA student takes nontraditional path to grad school

Jennifer Leedy
Jennifer Leedy Credit: Provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Jennifer Leedy balances two distinct roles at Penn State—a student in the School of International Affairs (SIA), with a double concentration in human rights and international public policy, and a full-time staff member as an assistant in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research, where she works 40 hours per week.

The first woman in her family to get her undergraduate degree and attend graduate school, Leedy’s path to graduate school is more nontraditional than others’. While many graduate students start their programs shortly after completing their undergraduate degree, she took time to enter the workforce and gain job experience. After completing her undergraduate degree in English with a focus in technical editing at Penn State in December 2008, she was offered an assistant manager position at the Waffle Shop on College Avenue in State College. After two years in that position, she became the store manager until 2018. Over her career of nearly nine years, she developed business acumen regarding scheduling, management, and interpersonal skills.

Leedy started to apply for jobs at Penn State and accepted a position in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research, located in Old Main. She is approaching five years in her current role, where she completes calendaring tasks and other forms of support for her boss, Dr. Phillip Savage, interim associate vice president for research. She also helps with postdoctoral affairs, expense reporting, project management, assistance to Penn State Global on international collaborations, and workshop and event organization.

During her time working at Penn State, Leedy knew she wanted to go back to school. Factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning pushed her timeline because she wished to have an in-person learning experience. In spring 2021, she resumed research on different graduate programs available at the University. When a mentor from Penn State Global introduced her to the Penn State School of International Affairs, she felt like she had found the program for her.

“SIA had a lot of different disciplines that I could explore under its umbrella. With my interest in human rights and inequality issues, I was able to explore law, policy, sustainability, climate change, and development in specific areas. I felt like this Master of International Affairs (MIA) program captured everything I was looking for,” said Leedy.

With interests in international work and learning about different cultures all over the world, Leedy has a particular attraction to languages. Currently for her MIA degree, she is continuing to study German after taking three years of the language as an undergraduate. In her free time, she learns new languages with her husband for fun. In high school, she studied Spanish and can also read Middle English from her undergraduate studies. As an added bonus, she is conversational in Korean, Norwegian, and Japanese. “I know a small amount of Mandarin and Hebrew, and I’ve glanced at Russian and Romanian.”

When asked about her favorite aspects of SIA, she said, “I like variety. I don’t like any two days being the same. At SIA, I’m exposed to many different subject materials, assignments, and the professors are all very engaging. They get me thinking about new ideas each day. Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming, but it’s also very exciting.” She explained that both her professors and her classmates provide unique perspectives on issues that she may not have considered before—or provide a different viewpoint on an issue.

Jennifer Leedy at The Ford Foundation
Jennifer Leedy at The Ford Foundation on the SIA Career Exposure Trip in New York. Credit: Provided

“Jenn’s hard work in getting her degree while working full time is a testament to her commitment to furthering her education and the opportunities available at Penn State. She highlights the myriad interests that one can pursue in our program and its flexibility. It’s great for others to see that returning to school is always an option,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ransom, SIA interim director and associate professor.

While the SIA program is typically two years for full-time students, Leedy is taking three to balance her degree with her job, with an expected graduation date in spring 2025. She coordinated with her academic adviser to create a personalized academic plan. “Three years may be too fast for some folks, and it may be too slow for others. Talk to academic advisers and professors to figure out a plan that is best for you.” She added, “If you need to revise the plan, then you can revisit it and work it out.”

Leedy notes that finding the balance between her education and her job requires her to be strict with time management. She said, “I usually work eight hours a day, sometimes more. I use my free time to get ahead in classes, whether it’s reading or starting the next assignment.”

She relies on her strong organizational skills to stay disciplined and her communication skills so her team and her professors know if she has an upcoming conflict in her schedule.

When most Penn State staff are taking their lunch hour, Leedy will head to the Katz Building for class, which lasts for typically 75 minutes. She comes in early or stays late at her job to make up the 15-minute difference. “Everybody has been flexible and patient,” she said of her work supervisors and professors.

Leedy talked about an experience the previous year where she had to take a one-week work trip to D.C. and Baltimore. She explained the commitment to her professors before the semester started and was able to catch up on class by watching the lecture recordings. In a situation where she needed to study for an exam, she took vacation time off from work so she could have extra study time.

After she completes her degree, Leedy’s future career considerations revolve around two questions: ‘What does the work look like and where am I needed?’ Her goal is not attached to working in a specific job or place. Instead, it is centered around the people she will be working with and how the work will empower others. She added, “I want to be able to help somebody or create opportunities for those around me.”

Leedy also wishes to encourage those who are considering going back to school. “I’m hoping people learn to believe in themselves. It’s important to be positive and supportive. If I can do it, you can do it. You know your life better than anyone else. Self-improvement and self-evaluation are important aspects of life, in general. I think it’s important to acknowledge that life gets messy, and sometimes that inhibits you from access to education; but just because that happens in your early 20s, doesn’t mean you can’t revisit that as you get older. It takes time, patience, and perseverance.

“When you find the program that speaks to you, you’ll just know. For me, when I found SIA and read up on it, I said ‘This is it. I just knew. I knew this is the program I want to get into.’ It’s definitely challenging; but if it’s something you want to do for yourself, then you should go for it,” Leedy advised.