Penn State alumnus takes holistic approach to college admissions

A person stands with the Nittany Lion, both hold up their index fingers

James McCarty, who received both his bachelor and master degrees from Penn State and works in college admissions, said he has benefited significantly from his longstanding association with the University.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — James McCarty, who received both his bachelor and master degrees from Penn State and now works in higher education administration, said he has benefited significantly, both personally and professionally, from his longstanding association with the University.

“I loved everything about my experience at Penn State from beginning to end,” said McCarty, who received a bachelor degree in applied psychology from Penn State Berks in 2013 and a master degree in higher education from Penn State World Campus in 2016.

A Reading native, he now lives in nearby Lancaster and works remotely for Johns Hopkins University as the associate director of admissions for the School of Education.

McCarty, who was recently elected to the Penn State World Campus Alumni Society Board, said he has found his undergraduate degree, which focused on interpersonal communication and emotional intelligence, to be helpful in his career in higher education admissions.

“My focus is always on what is right for the student,” he said. “Sometimes you’re counseling students into a program, other times out of a program and onto another opportunity that better fits their needs. I definitely appreciated the skills I developed in my undergraduate program because I have used them throughout my career and still use them in my current role.”

McCarty’s original plan was to become a mental health counselor but he quickly discovered that wasn’t the best career fit for him. After turning to his mentor at Penn State Berks for advice, Teri (Sabatelli) Murray, he was recruited into an admissions counselor role on the campus and was eventually promoted to assistant director of transfer admissions, where he stayed until taking the position at Johns Hopkins University in 2022. He enrolled in the World Campus master’s program in higher education as it was starting in 2014 and completed the program within two years. He said the education he received through World Campus has been instrumental in his professional development.

“I was so appreciative that I could take a topic that we discussed in one of my courses and put it into action right away,” he said. “To have the in-class theoretical backing and understand how it’s applied by being a working professional in higher education. ... The academics at Penn State are second to none. My experience was phenomenal in every way. I give Dr. Karen Paulson a huge amount of gratitude because she really fostered a sense of community within that cohort. There was a really strong sense of community which I appreciate. Those connections have continued even after graduation.”

It is commonly thought that the primary role of an admissions professional in higher education to act as a conduit between the university and prospective students, McCarty said. He has a slightly different take — in addition to that role, he said it is also his responsibility to guide students throughout their academic careers.

“A lot of times in college admissions, we’re looked at as gatekeepers when we’re really shepherds,” McCarty said. “Let’s foster a connection so you know you’re never going through this alone."

At Penn State Berks, he taught a leadership class for first-year students. It turned out that one of the students in the counseling program at Johns Hopkins, in a “wild turn of events,” had taken his class at Penn State.

“To watch her walk across the stage twice, at Penn State and Hopkins, that was a sensational experience,” he said. “I love being there to help these students through the entirety of their journey. My job doesn’t end at admissions. If I can build a good relationship with students but stay connected, it builds a more connected community for the university.”

As a first-generation college student himself, McCarty is empathetic toward incoming students that may not have the privilege of parental guidance that they need to navigate the higher education landscape.

“Knowing what a student that you’ve worked with had to overcome — it just makes it more rewarding to see them shine and know how they accomplished that goal,” he said.

McCarty said he is dedicated to giving back to his alma mater and will have more opportunities to do so now that he has been elected to the Penn State World Campus Alumni Society Board. The board is focused on giving back and improving World Campus student experiences.

“I’m excited to get started and see how I can give back,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to stay connected and give back to Penn State in a plethora of different capacities.”