WYOMISSING, Pa. — When Kelly Whalen was applying to colleges, Penn State Berks was at the top of her list. In fact, it was the only college on her list. On May 7, she will join the ‘lion’s pride’ when she walks across the stage as student marshal to receive her diploma from Penn State Berks.
She states that she has wanted to be a teacher since she was in kindergarten, so earning her degree in elementary and early childhood education, with a minor in special education, will be a “dream come true.”
Whalen, of Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, explains that her two older brothers and sister-in-law graduated from Penn State and she went to Penn State football games growing up so she always wanted to attend the University. When looking at campuses, she states, “Berks really caught my eye because it is so beautiful and I liked the small class sizes. Once I started taking classes and meeting my professors, I knew this is where I wanted to stay and that I would have a lot of great support.”
She graduated in only three years, thanks to hard work and preparation. Whalen was part of her high school’s dual-enrollment program, so she began her college career with two courses and six credits under her belt. Then she participated in the Penn State Berks Pathway to Success: Summer Start (PaSSS) program, which gave her the opportunity to take two courses during the summer before her first semester, with scholarship support.
“It was incredible,” she said about the PaSSS program. “Not only was it financially beneficial but it gave me a head start. I met a lot of friends and the professor in my class was very welcoming and set the stage for what professors are like at Berks.”
During her second year at Berks, she was inducted into the Cohen-Hammel Fellows Program, a comprehensive scholarship program for outstanding students that provides leadership training and many other opportunities. She will be graduating with the first cohort of fellows.
One such opportunity that the Cohen-Hammel Fellows Program provided was to parlay her research, rooted in school inequalities, into a fundraising campaign. Whalen organized an online fundraiser — during the pandemic — to purchase school supplies for 16th and Haak Elementary School, a school identified in her research as adversely affected by inequalities. The fundraiser brought in $2,600, which was used to purchase supplies and deliver them before the school year began in fall 2021.
Whalen said that her time at Penn State Berks has broadened her perspective.
“Before coming to Berks, I was unaware of the depth of school inequalities; I never learned about them in high school,” she said. “It fueled my passion for the changes I want to see and how I help my students. I want to have an impact on the education system from a larger perspective one day.”
She recently completed her student teaching at Glenside Elementary School, working with fourth-grade students. Both Glenside and 16th and Haak are part of the Reading School District.
“It has been awesome forming connections with the students, helping them realize their potential, and seeing them grow over the course of a year,” said Whalen. “It was also great to apply everything I learned at Penn State Berks in the classroom.”
During her time at Penn State Berks, Whalen served as president of the Penn State Berks Chapter of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. She also was a Penn State Educational Partnership tutor at Reading High School, an orientation leader, and a member of the Step Team and the Christian Student Fellowship.
When asked how the college has prepared her for her future, she states, “The faculty played a huge role in preparing me for my future career because they were always willing to go above and beyond to provide the support I needed as a college student. The professors were always willing to go the extra mile. I feel blessed to have been in the education major because my professors really know how to educate.”
Whalen added that there were a lot of opportunities to work in small groups, to collaborate, and to hear different perspectives. There were also opportunities to engage in leadership within small groups.
“The leadership opportunities were really helpful and now I can see myself in the future moving into a leadership role in education,” she said.
Most of all, she states, “All the learning experiences at Penn State Berks have transformed me, and that’s why the title of my commencement speech is 'Transformative Learning.'”
The Penn State Berks spring commencement ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 7, at Santander Arena in Reading.
About the Elementary and Early Childhood Education Degree Program
The Penn State Berks baccalaureate degree in elementary and early childhood education prepares students to teach all content areas in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. Students completing the degree will have met the requirements for the Instructional I certification from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.