Terri Smith, Class of 2020
Associate of Science in Human Development and Family Studies
Certified Clinical Research Coordinator with the Neuroscience Institute at the Penn State College of Medicine
As a single mom with twins entering college, Terri Smith was worried about how she would pay for her children’s education. When she learned that full-time Penn State staff can receive a 75 percent tuition discount for their immediate family members, it made sense for her to leave her nursing job in New Jersey and take on a role as a clinical research coordinator at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Once she settled into her new role, Smith decided to continue her own education as well.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but when I chatted with the admissions team, they helped me decide on HDFS,” said Smith. “It was a nice complement to my nursing background because my experience working with patients would benefit clinical research.”
Prior to joining Penn State, Smith was a home care nurse working primarily with pediatric patients.
“I always found the family dynamics interesting,” she said. “In medicine, you’re never just working with a patient — you're working with a family. It’s always a group effort. Even though I had pediatric nursing experience and knew about infant and child development, learning more of the social science aspect through HDFS has been helpful in my work with kids and their parents. Now when I visit or interview a pediatric patient, I introduce myself to the child first to make sure that they feel that they are the priority. I don't want to talk to the parents as if the child isn't there.”
Working full time while earning a degree was not easy, but Smith’s work experience helped inform her career goals and the focus of her education.
“While I was working on my associate degree, a young man that I had taken care of for several years, passed away sooner than we expected. I had lost other pediatric patients before, but this one was different because I was more involved in his anticipated passing. It opened up some interesting conversations with his mom. He was her only child and he was 22. So, for years, he was her primary focus. I’m interested in how parents make that transition in their day-to-day life. Now, I’m working with some members in Hershey on the hummingbird program, which is a pediatric palliative care group,” Smith said.
The link between medical and social care is inextricable. Having now worked in several facets of the helping professions, Smith’s professional journey has bridged them both.
“When I first joined the Hershey campus, I worked on clinical trials for FDA approval on new drugs,” she said. “When I started doing research at Penn State York under Dr. Molloy, she introduced me to qualitative interviewing and coding. That skill landed me my second position at Hershey, in the humanities department. I’m still doing research, but as a certified clinical research coordinator with the Neuroscience Institute at the Penn State College of Medicine, which is more where I’d like to take my own research down the road. Volunteering as a student opened that door career-wise.”
Establishing a rapport with instructors can go a long way when students are ready to transition from school to the workforce. In Smith’s case, individualized attention, research collaborations, and conference opportunities all contributed to her experience in the HDFS program at Penn State York.
“Most people don’t know that Penn State has one of the top HDFS programs in the country,” said Smith. “We are an HDFS gem. The HDFS department at the York campus is relatively small, so all the professors knew who I was. I traveled to conferences, and I worked on research with Dr. Molloy and Dr. Majeske. Even outside the classroom, it’s so personalized. Dr. Molloy has been great about helping me in my research and she’s not even my adviser. They’re all willing to help, even if they’re not your adviser.”
On the personal side, Smith had a unique experience as an adult learner.
“It was fun being in college at the same time as my children. My twin daughters and I all graduated in 2020. The experience helped me understand what they were trying to juggle, and because they were working their way through college at the same time, they could appreciate how hard it was for me, too. We would edit each other’s papers and complain about exams; it was a cool experience that not every family gets to have.”
Smith is poised to earn her bachelor’s degree in HDFS from Penn State York in spring of 2024. She has already applied to master’s programs in public health, with the ultimate goal of helping parents who have lost a child find resources to help them with that transition.
Jamie Russell, Class of 2006
Associate of Science in Human Development and Family Studies
Class of 2012
Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Studies
Family Engagement Coordinator, York County Human Services
“Some of the most supporting professional relationships I’ve had have stemmed from my work at Penn State York. They’re good connections.”
Jamie Russell thought that she’d be a preschool teacher forever, but when she began her associate of science degree in human development and family studies (HDFS) at Penn State York, she discovered a new career path for her future.
“I started out at a child care center in East York,” Russell said. “When I finished my associate’s degree, I moved to working with higher-risk youth. That was a good introduction to social work because it was a balance between working with the children — teaching preschool and doing developmental activities — while working alongside the parents who would come in the classroom and volunteer some of their time. We also linked them to resources in the community. Wanting to do more with the children and their families is what made that shift.”
After completing her associate degree and discovering her interest in social work, Russell returned to Penn State York to earn a bachelor’s degree in HDFS, which she completed in 2012. She then went on to earn a dual master’s degree in social work and emergency management from Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
“Having professional references from Penn State York professors helped me get into the graduate program at Millersville,” she said. “I interned with my current employer during my time as an undergraduate. My Penn State York professors were vital for me to make the transition to my current role.”
Russell currently works at York County Human Services, which encompasses children/youth services, mental health intellectual and developmental disabilities (MHIDD), early intervention, drug and alcohol management, and other service units.
“In my office, I often get pulled in to do family engagement meetings. When our clients are hitting a tough patch and we need to engage family to pull in that natural support system, that’s when I get drawn into things. For example, if there’s a neglect or abuse situation in a child or youth case, we try to pull the family together to identify family care rather than place the child in foster care,” Russell said.
In addition to having gained experience through her internship, Russell continues to apply her knowledge from the HDFS program in her daily work.
“The developmental theories in the HDFS program were key in my understanding of different walks of life,” said Russell. “Many of the social issues we see are often rooted in early childhood and interruptions in development, so you can see how that early track — whether it goes smooth or rough — can really impact things later in life. So those theories are where I see my roots in terms of my professional work. I think it’s grounding to understand those developmental processes and the things that can interfere. Those are really good guides for addressing the needs of individuals.”
Russell emphasized the importance of maintaining an open mind when studying HDFS.
“Remain teachable,” she said. “You’re going to learn so much about the way children and families develop and how different walks of life and systems impact young children and families. Remaining teachable is huge. Being open minded to somebody else’s experience is typically key to being supportive of children and families.”
Russell’s experience as an adult learner also helped her find surprising benefits to studying part time while working full time.
“It’s never too late to start school,” said Russell. “Being an adult learner is hard, it’s different, you do tend to be the oldest person in the class. I did full-time work and part-time school, but one of the benefits of doing that was I retained so much information. Working in the field, applying the skills that I was learning while I was learning them helped me retain more than I ever would have trying to get through the degree full time. So even though it feels longer, there are huge benefits to being an adult learner and the level of support at Penn State York is a beautiful thing. With the smaller class sizes, I never had an issue getting a professor to meet with me or talk with me, even if it had to be outside of their office hours. The level of support is still there.”
There’s also no standard timeline for completing a degree, according to Russell.
“It took me ten years to complete my bachelor’s degree. I took a year in between my associate’s and my bachelor’s because of a work transition, but it’s more than doable. It’s work, but the other benefit of being an adult learner is when you’re doing what you love, it’s easy. And as an adult, you have that figured out a little more. HDFS gave me so many experiences and is a very versatile degree. So if you want to do early childhood or social work or criminal justice or any of the other helping professions, that base for lifespan development and family theory is so helpful to all of that other work. It opens some doors.”