Penn College transfer student stays the course

Published 06.26.2019

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The email contained a stark message for the transfer student. After a year of subpar grades, Pennsylvania College of Technology had to place her on academic probation.

Jacqueline M. Westervelt repeatedly scanned the message, hoping that the words would change. They didn’t.

Her dream of earning an information technology degree – already delayed for two years – was in jeopardy. Self-doubt, fueled by past struggles in school, flooded her mind. Tears flowed as she thought that the people who told her she wasn’t college material were right.

Turns out, they were wrong.

With determination, and some help from campus resources such as the Academic Success Center and Disability Services at Penn College, Jacqueline M. Westervelt, of Rutherford, New Jersey, earned an associate degree in information technology: technical support emphasis in May and expects to graduate in August with a bachelor’s degree in applied management.The Rutherford, New Jersey, resident wiped her tears and went for a run to clear her mind. When she returned to her laptop, the email no longer generated self-pity. It served as powerful motivation.

“That email changed my life. You get the message that you’re failing, you have to get back up and you need to push yourself,” Westervelt said. “Look how far I’ve come!”

Two years later, Westervelt is a college graduate. She earned an associate degree in information technology: technical support emphasis in May from Penn College and is scheduled to graduate in August with a bachelor’s degree in applied management.

“I am so happy where I am now. If it wasn’t for Penn College and the people at Penn College, I don’t think I would be where I’m at today.”

As a high school basketball player and aspiring IT student, Westervelt fell in love with Penn College while visiting campus during her junior year. Strong family ties prompted her to choose a college close to home instead. She got to play basketball, but her major didn’t reflect her passion.

Westervelt said the school didn’t feature a strong IT program, so she settled for majoring in health and fitness and considered becoming a physical education teacher. After two years, her grades reflected her disinterest. Westervelt’s 91-year-old grandmother sensed her struggle and offered sage advice.

“She said, ‘I want you to do something you love,’ Westervelt recalled. ‘You have such a big passion for IT. I know you can do amazing in that world. You need to go and pursue that.’”

The granddaughter listened and soon transferred to study information technology at Penn College.

“Since I was 7, I wanted to work with computers,” Westervelt said. “It might be frustrating, but at the end of the day, it’s interesting to learn how to fix computers. I like to program and be creative. Penn College has such a big IT department.”

Her reluctance to leave her family and attend college four hours from home dissipated after arriving on campus.

“I didn’t know anybody, so I had to make friends. They were so easy to make,” Westervelt said. “At Penn College, everybody was so welcoming, and they became like family.”

Westervelt integrated herself within the college community, playing for the women’s basketball team and joining Campus Crusade for Christ. Unfortunately, success in the classroom didn’t come as easily.

“School was never my thing,” she said. “I never put my mind to it. I just wanted to play basketball.”

Westervelt blamed laziness and a tendency to believe others’ low expectations of her academic abilities for her school struggles. Diagnosed with hearing loss as a 5-year-old, Westervelt said wearing hearing aids served as a visual cue for many to doubt her potential throughout her teen years.

“They figured I was in the disability program and wouldn’t be able to make it. I wouldn’t do anything with my life. It hurt me a lot to know that,” she said.

The academic probation email reminded her of that perception and pain. Instead of crumbling, she found the courage to change.

“You always have to have a fail in life,” Westervelt said. “I got that message that I was failing and realized I needed to push myself. To get to where I wanted to be, I had to push constantly and earn it myself.”

With some help from campus resources.

She began using the college’s Academic Success Center for tutoring, mostly for math, her longtime nemesis, and accepted accommodations from Disability Services for test taking.

“Often, students feel that they want to try college without accommodations,” said Dawn M. Dickey, assistant director of Disability Services. “It is my hope with the guidance of our staff that students realize that accommodations simply level the playing field and allow them to demonstrate their true knowledge and abilities. Jackie did just that, and when she realized the benefits, she went full speed ahead. It impressed me with how quickly she recognized the benefit and went with it.”

Westervelt also became a fixture in her professors’ offices, seeking greater understanding of class material.

“Jackie worked like a dog to get things done,” said Stephen R. Cheskiewicz, assistant professor of computer information. “It was always a pleasure seeing her apply concepts. It was almost like watching a light bulb go on over her head. She was consistently positive and optimistic, methodically working through concepts. I truly wish that all my students had her drive, determination and joy of learning.”

She exhibited such traits despite losing a treasured outlet – basketball. A concussion and nerve damage from a car accident took her off the court for her last two years at the college. Like the academic probation email, the moment invited self-pity. Instead, Westervelt used the extra time to devote to her studies and work toward her ultimate goal.

The result? She made the Dean’s List for the Fall 2018 semester en route to her associate degree and soon-to-be awarded baccalaureate degree.

“I was so overwhelmed to realize that I actually could do it,” she said. “It was just putting my mind to it. I put my mind to it every day. My friends pushed me. My parents pushed me. Coming to Penn College, I can definitely say I changed to become a better individual and a better student.”

As she finishes her applied management degree online this summer, Westervelt is applying for a variety of IT support positions near home. She hopes to work in the field for a couple of years before obtaining her teaching certification. The erstwhile struggling student wants to return to the classroom to teach computer science.

When that day comes, she’ll be able to impart a lesson more powerful than any computer program, thanks to her newly discovered life credo: “Never give up.”

For information on Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.