Student Aid and Spring: It’s All About Planning Ahead

December 4th, 2014 by

Spring semester is just around the corner, and now is a critical time to be proactive in managing your student aid. In the world of aid, spring is about planning ahead: for the next semester, the next academic year, and life after you graduate. Here are three actions you can take in the coming months to put yourself in the best position for what comes next:

1. Allocate some of your spring aid for the summer

Many students plan to attend the summer semester only to find that they have already used all of their aid for the year. The academic year at Penn State begins with the fall semester and ends with the summer semester. Students who attend in the fall and spring are automatically awarded half of the year’s loans in the fall and half in the spring; this means you will have nothing left to borrow for the summer unless you utilize your fall and/or spring semester refund(s) for summer semester charges.

The best way to set aside some of your spring aid is to decrease your loans on eLion by clicking “Financial,” and then “Loan Decrease.” The funds that you do not use will be available upon request in the summer, which will help you to stay on your academic plan.

2. Minimize your debt

You may also want to consider decreasing your loan amounts so that you add as little as possible to the debt you will have to pay back after you graduate. If you attended in the fall semester and received a refund, consider whether you can take a smaller amount this semester. This has the added benefit of slowing your approach to your lifetime borrowing limit.

Ideally, you should only borrow (at most) the amount that is left on your bill after any grants and scholarships are applied. Though you are allowed to receive a refund to pay for non-billable expenses such as books, housing, and food, student aid is not meant to be a source of income.

3. Apply for next year’s aid

The 2015–16 FAFSA will be available on the FAFSA website in January 2015. Since you will need your 2014 taxes to submit the FAFSA, the first step is to file your taxes as early as possible. Continuing students should then submit the FAFSA by April 15, 2015, to ensure that they are considered for the maximum number of aid sources.

Spring is also the time to apply for World Campus scholarships and most outside scholarships for the upcoming academic year. The World Campus scholarship application will be available in the first week of January and will close February 28. If you will be looking for outside scholarships, you can prepare now by searching for opportunities and noting early deadlines.

Questions?

If you would like to speak with an aid counselor about your individual situation, please contact the Office of Student Aid for World Campus and Continuing Education at 814-867-4244 or studentaid@outreach.psu.edu.

How To Reach Your Goals Using Mindfulness

November 21st, 2014 by
Photo by Michael Bolognesi via Flickr.

Photo by Michael Bolognesi via Flickr.

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” 
—Thomas Jefferson

If you are struggling with reaching your personal goals, you may want to read more about how mindfulness can play a huge part in helping you set and achieve goals.

Mindfulness is a state of awareness and attention of present events and experience. It is also the openness and acceptance of the present events and experiences in your life right now.

Here’s some research showing how mindfulness can improve your ability to achieve goals. A study published in the International Journal of Well-being found that mindfulness affected personal goals, gave people a greater degree of independence, and increased their well-being. Compared to people who rarely practice mindfulness, those who practice it frequently report feeling less stressed, anxious, depressed, or impulsive. They also report being more positive and optimistic in life.

Beyond this study, I’ve found mindfulness to help me be present, happy, and relaxed, which in turn helps me be productive. And I believe it can also help you.

Why Living Mindfully Helps with Productivity

Being present can actually help you think about and work toward what you need to achieve now. For example, being present will enable you to get the resources you need now in order to build what you eventually would like to achieve in the future. If you are constantly in a “past tense” mindset, this may alter how you handle “present” situations, and you could miss an opportunity. This could mean an email, a phone conversation, or even an Instagram photo that could lead to success. If you are passionate about a specific goal, start putting energy toward it, no matter what it is.

When we think about our current thoughts and feelings, we are fully in our bodies and our minds. For example, when practicing yoga, we are present with each move we make — and when we are out of our body, we may be in an unpleasant experience, or an ongoing one — such as a bad day at work. We tend to “avoid” things that make us less present and less happy — thereby avoiding the present moment. Attending life in the present moment helps us to experience the presence of everything around us and directly connects us to ourselves where we can focus on what we need to do right now.

Accomplish Tasks by Living Life With Purpose & Acceptance

A full 40% of Americans feel that they live life without purpose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And without purpose, you may feel ungrounded, similar to a ship without an anchor. You are carried in whatever direction the wind blows, without taking full control of your life and the decisions you make in your life.

Acceptance — of all things in your life right now as it is — means to experience the present moment, even if it’s something we dislike or have not chosen. It means accepting your life experiences and history. This acceptance enables you to change what you do in your life now. Choices make us feel powerful, research shows, which is important to humans. Choice also gives us a sense of more control of our lives, which adds to our sense of purpose.

Stress: The Ultimate Goal Breaker

Stress can affect our brain in negative ways — especially our pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for our highest cognitive abilities such as behavior, planning, decision making, problem-solving abilities, and concentration. Even the littlest bit of stress can completely alter the way you think. Prolonged stress can affect the brain cells (known as dendrites) that help us to form cohesive thoughts.

Stress can come from negative thoughts. Negative thoughts can destroy any idea, goal, or inspirational thought we have and completely halt us from taking action. For example, a part of our brain that uses the fear response to dangerous situations, such as a lion chasing us, is also used when we are stressed and are thinking negative thoughts. This part of our brain is called the amygdala. Our mind becomes completely narrow and focused on the negative thought and the emotion behind it.

How can we think of anything else when our brain is focused on a lion? We fail to look up at the sky and admire the sunset, a person who is there to help, or an opportunity that may arise, which we overlook. It’s all in your mindset — being open to your surroundings or getting stuck in a negative spiral (creating a limited number of options that you see).

Negative thoughts can do the opposite of a positive thought and completely distract us from the present moment. This is because we are automatically living in the past when we have a negative thought. You can practice mindfulness more easily when you are in touch with positive thoughts — ones that are bright and full of color — instead of unnecessary thoughts.

Now…What Do You Want To Accomplish?

Knowing what you want to achieve is the first step to success. This is similar to the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself,” which comes from the Delphic Maxims, said to be given by Greek god Apollo. (I am studying Greek mythology this semester!) Examining one’s own thoughts and actions puts a person outside his or her body as an observer. You are, essentially, the observer of yourself. For example, you are looking at yourself “from within.” This is beautifully stated by the philosopher Lao Tzu, who said, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

If you judge your abilities before you have experienced mindfulness and presence, you are not giving yourself a chance.

I will end with the origin of the light bulb. It took Edison thousands of errors before he used the right amount of concentrations and materials to produce the light bulb. It may take some error before succeeding. Although, as we can see, the rewards are truly abundant! Perseverance in the face of obstacles and hardship will help you reach your goals. Negative thoughts will appear in your mind from time to time — it happens to the best of us. But if you are determined to live in the present moment, it will become easier and easier. I can say so — I’ve been practicing it for years.

What are some goals you would like to achieve, using mindfulness?

Novel Idea: What Reading Does For the Mind

November 5th, 2014 by

Do you have friends or family members who cannot put a book down, no matter what? Well, all I have to say is: Good. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this year that close to a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. This number has tripled since 1978. And all I have to say to that is: Well, should you be reading? Yes.

A novel can do a lot for you; it can relieve stress, increase brain power, help you improve emotional intelligence, and maybe even help you sleep better.

Reduce Stress After 6 Minutes of Turning Pages

Reading is one of the most effective ways to combat stress. Reading can reduce stress levels by 68%, according to Dr. David Lewis of the University of Sussex. It doesn’t necessarily matter what book you are reading, as long as you immerse yourself in it. This is because you are escaping reality for a little bit and going into the author’s reality. You enter an altered state of consciousness.

Boost Your Brain

You can become more positive by reading a good-spirited novel. Why? Well, as research suggests, reading a book can greatly benefit the cognitive processes in your brain. The Journal of Neurology reported that mentally stimulating activities such as reading help to slow memory loss as you get older, and people who read are capable of processing things 48% faster than those who did not read or were not involved with activities that promoted mental stimulation.

Get More Sleep

I am sure we have all experienced the “head to book” feeling and trying to stop ourselves from falling asleep. It is better to read with dim light at night, since it signals the brain that we are approaching sleep. The Mayo Clinic suggests creating a low-light environment and reading a book to help transition yourself to sleep. Dim lighting helps balance the circadian rhythms or our “internal clocks” that promote proper sleep and wake cycles.

Understand and Improve Emotions

In a study published in Plos One, researchers found that reading fiction helps us to be more aware of people’s feelings, thereby increasing empathy. This means you can gain more of the ability to understand and “feel” what others may be “feeling.”

Besides the pure excitement that comes with using your imagination while reading fiction, reading nonfiction has its benefits, too. Learning means expanding the mind, which means creating new neural pathways. Also, self-help books have been linked with reducing depression. The more we learn and remember, the easier it will be to ace exams and remember content under pressure. In addition, studies have shown that if you read aloud, you are able to retain information easier than reading silently. You may choose to incorporate both at different times for different levels of stimulation.

What are you waiting for? Pull out a book and start reading!

If you’re looking for suggestions, I recommend the The New York Times’ Best Sellers list.

Know What You’re Paying in Student Loan Fees

October 30th, 2014 by

If you borrow Federal Direct Stafford or PLUS Loans on the way to your degree, a portion of the loans will be taken off the top as an “origination fee.”  Using federal loans means you’ll be paying these fees — so it’s good to know the basics of how they work and how recent changes affect your costs.

What Is an Origination Fee?

Origination fees are collected by the federal government to help pay for the administration of the Federal Direct Student Loan Program. Each semester, origination fees will be removed from the total loan amount (gross amount) that you borrow. As a result, the amount of loan money that reaches your bill (the net amount) will be less than the amount that you actually borrow and pay back over time.

Current Fees

On October 1, 2014, the fees increased slightly as result of the continuing effects of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the law that caused budget cuts known as “the sequester.” The law effectively maintains a cut to student loan funding, in part by adjusting loan fees. The increased fees apply to new loans disbursed on or after October 1, 2014, through September 30, 2015.

The chart below shows the old Direct Loan origination fee rates, the new rates, and some examples of how those rates translate into dollars.

Direct Loan Fees

Loan Type

Impacted Loans

Loan Fee Percent

Fee Example

Stafford (Subsidized and Unsubsidized)

First disbursed on or after
December 1, 2013, and
before October 1, 2014

1.072

$58.96 on a
$5,500 loan

First disbursed on or after
October 1, 2014 and before
October 1, 2015

1.073

$59.01 on a
$5,500 loan

PLUS (Parent and Grad/Prof Student)

First disbursed on or after
December 1, 2013, and
before October 1, 2014

4.288

$428.80 on a
$10,000 loan

First disbursed on or after
October 1, 2014, and
before October 1, 2015

4.292

$429.20 on a
$10,000 loan

For more information, see the Office of Student Aid website.

The Big Picture

Origination fees can add up over time, especially if you borrow large amounts. For example, if you were to borrow $37,000 in Stafford Loans at the current origination fee rate, you would pay $397.01 in fees over the course of your degree.

The fees have increased for the past four years and may increase again next year.

Monitoring Your Loan Fees

If you are a Penn State student and would like to learn how much you have paid and will pay for origination fees, you can take the following steps:

  1. View your cumulative debt in eLion by selecting Financial > Loan Debt Summary. High debt means that you have paid more in fees and will pay more in interest.
  2. Check how much you are paying in origination fees this semester. View the gross amount of your loans in eLion by selecting Financial > Student Aid Summary > Academic Year > Continue > View Aid. Then compare this to the net amounts on your semester bill by selecting Financial > Bursar Tuition Bills > This Semester > View/Pay Bill or View Previous Bills.

If you’re not a Penn State student, contact your college’s office of student aid to learn how you can monitor your fees.

How to Minimize Your Loan Fees

The only way to decrease the amount you pay in Direct Loan origination fees is to borrow less. If you’re a Penn State student, you can decrease your loans to the minimum you need by visiting eLion and selecting Financial > Loan Decrease. If you’re a student at a different university, contact your student aid office for assistance with decreasing loans. And if you are concerned about these fees or other aspects of student aid policy and want to enact change, you can always contact your local congressional representatives.

Questions?

If you would like to speak with an aid counselor about your individual situation, please contact us at 814-867-4244 or studentaid@outreach.psu.edu.

Advice on Conquering the Personal Statement

October 20th, 2014 by
Rebecca Marcum, admissions counselor and graduate student

Rebecca Marcum, admissions counselor and graduate student

By Rebecca Marcum, Penn State World Campus admissions counselor and graduate student

Writing a personal statement is a very important part of the graduate program application process, but it can be the most intimidating part as well.

Trust me — I know.

I’ve been there, too.

Before applying to Penn State World Campus’s higher education master’s degree program (where I’m slowly but surely making progress toward my M.Ed.), I took a year to write my personal statement.

I won’t shower you with details, but that year was littered with personal upheavals and professional transitions. I wrote in fits and bursts, often stopping and walking away for weeks or months at a time. I had to re-think my priorities, my goals, and my future.

With all of these changes occurring, I found many reasons to procrastinate. “I’m just going to wait until things quiet down,” I kept telling myself, breathing a sigh of relief that I had managed to push the personal statement off a little further.

But then the morning came when I realized that I couldn’t let myself keep making excuses. In the months and months that I had been working on my personal statement, it had somehow mutated into this big, hulking monster, constantly looming in the back of my mind. It was time to sit down and confront the beast – all 2 double-spaced pages of it.

I am now here to tell you that it is possible to face the personal statement and emerge victorious! Here are a few tips that I discovered can help to ease the stress of writing a personal statement; I now also use these tips when I speak with prospective World Campus graduate students in my position as an admissions counselor:

Take a deep breath

Remember that personal statements center on you: your academic, professional, and personal background and aspirations. Think about your career goals and be prepared to explain not only why you wish to enter or advance in this field of work, but also what you hope to contribute to the field. With these thoughts in mind, ask yourself these questions and let them guide your writing: Why are you applying to this program? What will you bring to this program? Where do you want this program to take you? These questions might seem daunting, but don’t be afraid! After all, who’s a bigger expert on you than you are?

Be clear, relevant, concise, and precise

Make sure you answer all the questions the prompt asks in succinct, to-the-point language. Most statements of purpose limit you to 1 to 2 typed pages or 500 words. This doesn’t allow much room for lengthy reflections about your educational philosophy, nor does it give you time to discuss your love of French cooking or how you were the captain of your college’s ultimate Frisbee team. Each word you write must be essential and serve to aid your argument and give your statement a feeling of cohesion. Lastly – and most importantly — make sure you proofread everything!

Don’t forget to be yourself

You are your biggest advocate, so don’t sell yourself short by trying to be someone you’re not. Your personality, your experiences, and your thoughts (yes, including your doubts!) make you a unique person and an intriguing applicant. Being succinct doesn’t mean erasing your personality from the statement.

Ask for help

Have a question about the prompt or about the program? Don’t be afraid to contact the academic department to ask for clarification. Doing this will show the program that you have put time and thought into what you are preparing to say, and that you are interested and invested enough to do some additional digging.

Find a second opinion

Ask someone you trust and respect to read over your statement, once you have a working rough draft. Not only will this person catch any typos or grammatical errors you might have made, he or she will also give you a new perspective. Are you really answering the program’s questions to the best of your ability? Is your statement well written and well argued, or is there room for improvement?

Just remember that, in the end, this is your statement; don’t let it become someone else’s words written in your name!

Proofread once more…or twice more…or…

Just as you wouldn’t want to submit a cover letter or résumé to your dream job only to discover you misspelled the hiring manager’s name, you shouldn’t submit a personal statement that contains careless mistakes. This is a time to slow down, turn on spellcheck, pull out your dictionary and thesaurus, uncap your red pen, call in a second pair of eyes (if you haven’t already). Be prepared to look over your essay multiple times with a critical eye and a fine-toothed comb before you hit “Submit”!

In the end, don’t forget that each program is different and so each statement of purpose is different as well. And if you transform the personal statement into a fearsome, loathsome beast (like I did), remember this: you are more scared of it than it is of you. If you follow the tips above, however, you should be well equipped to face the personal statement – and win!

Happy writing!

Now it’s your turn. What comments or questions do you have? And for those of you who have successfully written your own statements of purpose, what other tips can you provide to eager grad-students-to-be?

4 Ways We’re Making Online Courses Accessible to Students with Disabilities

October 16th, 2014 by

By Sonya Woods, Accessibility Consultant with Penn State World Campus

At Penn State World Campus, we want all our students to have a great learning experience. Part of our focus with course design is keeping in mind students with disabilities, whether they are vision-impaired, hearing-impaired, or have cognitive disabilities such as ADHD. And designing to improve accessibility for those students actually improves usability for all students in online courses. Here are four approaches we use to ensure our online courses are accessible.

1. We Conduct Accessibility Testing

screenshot of JAWS heading list

JAWS users “scan” the a page by pulling up a Heading List, like this one.

We test all the course elements with a screen reader called JAWS (Job Access with Speech). A screen reader is software that enables a computer to read the text on a webpage aloud. JAWS screen reader is favored by people who are blind and is therefore an excellent tool for accessibility testing. If our content works with JAWS, that’s a good sign it will work well for all students, because the design principles that make web content work for screen reader users are good practice for all types of learners.

For example, screen reader users navigate by page headings, so we “chunk” our content with headings and subheadings. This not only makes the page navigable for those who can’t see, but it makes it scannable for sighted students and more searchable for everyone.

2. We Follow Best Practices with Accessibility

Designing courses accessibly from the beginning means that all our students, whether they need accommodations or not, have a better experience; if accommodations are needed, very little extra work goes into providing those, allowing us to make the content accessible quickly.

Anytime a course includes a video, we proactively include transcripts, which are accessible for screen reader users, work at low bandwidths, are printable, and are preferred by some students who would rather read the content than watch a video. Providing the content in multiple formats accommodates students with disabilities, students on various devices and platforms, and students with varying learning preferences. Everyone benefits!

We also offer multiple formats for complex information. Diagrams or charts may have a text description, or the information may also be represented by a table, or a series of lists — whatever communicates the concepts most effectively.

For example, during the summer semester we had a visually impaired student in one of our higher education courses. Part of the course content included a presentation with charts, like this:

Example of a chart from a Penn State World Campus course

Example of a chart from a Penn State World Campus course

To make this information accessible, we also displayed it as a table. The table is accessible to assistive technology, whereas the chart is not.

Table as an alternate format to the chart.

Table as an alternate format to the chart.

We not only practice these approaches, but we teach other design staff throughout Penn State about them. My teammate Nikki and I do trainings and presentations for course authors and designers to educate them about accessible course design and universal design principles. Our goal is to help people create learning experiences that work for the widest number of students possible to lessen the need for accommodations.

3. We Research and Use the Best Methods Available

STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and math) pose some accessibility challenges. A couple years ago, it was common practice to display math content as images in lesson pages. That was a simple way to preserve the complex formatting. These images by themselves were not accessible (because screen readers can’t interpret graphics) and providing accurate alternative text descriptions was challenging as well.

Recently a special code for math content was developed by the W3C Math Working Group called MathML that allows us to display math content in a screen-reader-friendly way. As an added benefit, it’s easily translatable into a number of languages, including Braille. We identified the best way to use MathML with our course creation system and now we use it for all our math content.

One recent success we saw was from a blind student who used JAWS screen reader to complete one of our online math courses. Because we had the content converted into MATHML, he was able to take the course and hear the math content read correctly with JAWS.

4. We Provide Accommodations for Learners with Disabilities

While we do as much as we can to make our course content work for everyone, there is still a need for disability accommodations for some students. When a student with a vision, hearing, or other sensory impairment enrolls in one of our courses, we are notified by Anita Colyer Graham, manager of access at Penn State World Campus, who is notified the Office for Disability Services or Terry Watson, who works directly with students who have disabilities.

When we receive this information, we review the course, looking at course content, materials, and the technologies to identify any potential barriers for the student, and work with the design teams to complete any necessary remediation work. This work can include adding text descriptions to complex images, or providing the information in a more accessible format, such as converting a Word document to an HTML webpage.

For example, staff from Penn State’s Office for Disabilities Services and the University Libraries make sure course textbooks and readings are provided in an accessible format. Sometimes that means using different software, such as Kurzweil 3000, which magnifies textbooks:

screenshot of Kurzweil 3000 screen reader software

This is an example of the magnification and highlighting available with the Kurzweil 3000 screen reader – software provided by Penn State to students who need it.

The Future of Accessibility

Technology is always evolving, so our course creation process keeps improving to provide all of our students with better and better learning experiences. While there will always be some need for students with disabilities to receive accommodations, I am hopeful that technology vendors, instructors, and instructional designers will embrace the values in universal design to create products that will work for the widest number of people possible, lessening the need for special accommodations.

Mindfulness Can Increase Your Concentration and Lower Stress

October 7th, 2014 by
mindfulness-pose-in-park

Photo by RelaxingMusic via Flickr

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
—Dalai Lama 

Mindfulness can help students focus and reduce stress, and help create new neuronal pathways in the brain. As an advocate of meditation, I use mindfulness because it is relaxing and the benefits are extremely rewarding. Read below to discover the history of mindfulness and how you can practice it today.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness originated in Buddhism, and the 2,500-year-old tradition is part of a much wider set of beliefs and behaviors. Some of these behaviors and beliefs are referred to as a psychological process or as a skill developed over time. Mindfulness has been studied at Penn State for years and it has been turning heads outside of the University with programs and workshops. Meditation is a large portion of the practice, if not the only practice.

What does mindfulness entail? Well, if you are constantly aware of your surroundings, you are practicing mindfulness to some degree. Awareness may be one of the most important aspects of mindfulness. This may be because awareness uses your brain in ways that require order and logical thought. Emotions, such as anger, can be extreme only when you sink back into your thoughts, or if you go forward, such as thinking about the future. Awareness helps one to be fully immersed in any moment.

Let’s see how this can help with our brain, emotions, and stress.

Mindfulness is being aware of each moment that passes, while being fully present of our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and surrounding environment. Meditation is used as a mindfulness technique to help us achieve this optimal state of awareness, which can help you improve concentration and reduce stress.

Mindfulness also incorporates acceptance into everyday situations. This means that we do not judge our thoughts or feelings — we allow them fully. For example, instead of thinking that our emotions or thoughts need to be put into a category of right or wrong, practicing mindfulness allows us to accept how we feel in any given moment and allow ourselves a sense of freedom. We also are tuned into the present, so we aren’t focusing on the past, or imagining the future. As I mentioned earlier, this can help with stabilizing our emotions, such as intense anger, fear, or sadness.

Mindfulness Creates New Connections in the Brain

Mindfulness helps us achieve growth of new neural networks in the brain. By growing neural networks, you are essentially rewiring your brain to find better and new ways to handle tasks and cope with stress and emotions. You are also helping yourself increase your focus.

Practicing mindfulness has been shown in research to increase gray matter in the brain. Gray matter holds most of the actual brain cells compared the other structures of the brain. An increase in density may mean an increase in connectivity between the cells, and an increase in two areas known as the pons and raphe nucleus can improve our overall psychological well-being.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

A recent study on mindfulness meditation showed that participants had less psychological stress from anxiety, depression, and pain. To me, this makes sense, because while we experience anxiety, we tend to give our thoughts too much power. Our thoughts run our lives, and if they are negative, that becomes overwhelming.

Increase Your Focus in 8 Weeks

A study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital was the first to report changes in density in the gray matter of the brain. In as few as 8 weeks, participants had increased density in the areas of the brain responsible for:

  • learning and memory processes
  • emotional salience (top priority given to certain healthy emotions)
  • the ability to take on different perspectives
  • emotional regulation

These areas of the brain are known as the posterior cingulate, the temporo-parietal lobe, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum.

As research continues, increases in gray matter density in different brain structures show promise for positive brain changes.

These changes can help improve your focus and enable you to remember what you read more thoroughly. To a higher degree, practicing mindfulness may help you to take more control of what you think about, enabling more space for learning new things, remembering what you have just read, and increasing long-term memory.

New to Meditation?

Of the participants in the study referenced earlier, they were all new to meditation. That means that anyone can start feeling the benefits in several weeks.

At first, you might think your practice is actually making you more distracted. That’s because you’re increasing your awareness of everything, particularly distractions. As you learn to concentrate and focus on your breath, you will notice more thoughts because you are aware of them. So it may seem as if a thousand things come to you during this time. But this means your attention is actually working better — you will notice brain wandering and how easily you can get distracted from just sitting and staring at the wall.

Imagine driving to work. It’s a pretty familiar route, and you know what to expect every day. You see the same trees, signs, roads, and highways. This is how the brain works. The more you think about something, the more it becomes ingrained into your brain, the more you know no other way. The more you are used to racing, uncontrolled thoughts, the more aware you will need to be in order to stop them.

How to Meditate

There are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation: breathing techniques, visualizations, and more. You can find some in my article I wrote earlier this year — Why Mental Breaks Are Important — and here are a few more:

  1. 60 Seconds — Take 60 seconds to focus on only your breathing, nothing else. Do this several times a day. Over time, you can gradually extend this duration or simply double it every day. Don’t think you’ve failed if you begin thinking and not focusing on your breath. It takes years of practice to be able to have one minute of alert, clear attention.
  2. Conscious Observation — Pick an object and devote all your attention and awareness to it. Don’t study it or analyze it — just observe it for what it is. It can be a pen, a cup, a Penn State T-Shirt, or a dot on the wall. It’s essential to practice this, as it gives you an alert, “awake” feeling, and puts you in the present moment. Notice how you don’t really think of the past or future during this exercise.
  3. Slowly Count to 10 — Count to 10 in your mind and catch yourself to see if you are thinking of anything you need to do, a thought from the past, a story you’ve created, or simply forgetting to count completely. If you catch yourself thinking, start over. You can start out doing this a few times until you feel comfortable meditating.
  4. Eat Slowly — Buddhists and Zen masters truly sink into the present moment by eating slowly. It is a concept they have been teaching for a very long time. Mindful eating can slow down your meal and help you to really appreciate the food you have in front of you. Pay close attention to the taste, smell, what the food looks like. You can repeat affirmations in your head like “I am grateful to be eating this wonderful meal.”

Do you have any more useful mindfulness strategies to share? Post them in the comments below.

4 Steps to Planning Undergraduate Courses at Penn State World Campus

September 29th, 2014 by
headshot of Kate Elias

Kate Elias

by Kate Elias, advising program coordinator, Penn State World Campus

Course planning can be exciting and daunting, but with planning and research, you will be able to confidently choose courses that meet your degree’s requirements and your personal interests. Follow these steps and advice for success from our Penn State World Campus undergraduate academic advising team.

1. Confirm your earliest date to register and research your courses thoroughly

You will want to schedule at your earliest possible registration date to ensure maximum availability of courses. To confirm dates for spring registration, you will want to confirm your earliest registration date in September, and for summer and fall, you will want to confirm your dates in late January. Run a degree audit to determine what courses are needed to fulfill degree requirements necessary to earn your degree and to confirm the earliest date you can register. (Instructions for obtaining your degree audit along with tips about how to understand it are located in the My Degree or Certificate section of the Lion Lounge.)

After you know what courses you have left to complete, research your options. Some degree requirements offer you a list of courses, while others are broader. You will have the opportunity to choose a course that best supports your interests and goals. If you have not completed your first semester at Penn State, your academic adviser will be able to provide you with a copy of your degree audit.

Next, search for your course on the Schedule of Courses and take note of schedule numbers for your desired courses. You may find it helpful to narrow your search by using the “Additional Search Criteria” feature.

As you research your options, click on Course Details to learn more about the course in the World Campus Course Catalog. Here, you can read descriptions that provide an overview of the course and information regarding examination and proctoring details, additional remarks, and course materials. In some cases, there is a link to a sample syllabus, where you will have a chance to learn even more about a course’s content.

2. Plan ahead and watch for course prerequisites

As you progress in your degree, you will discover that much of your upper-level course work will require prerequisites. Because some courses are not available every semester, you will want to plan two to three semesters at a time and know the prerequisites for your future courses. You will find each course’s prerequisites on the Schedule of Courses.

Always check your schedule in eLion after adding courses to make sure they are actually on your schedule. Some courses are controlled, which means they are not open to all students. If it does not add and there are available seats, check with your adviser to see if you need permission to add the course.

screenshot of where prerequisites appear within the Schedule of Courses

The highlighted portion shows where you would find prerequisites in the Schedule of Courses.

3. Create a manageable and balanced course schedule

Online course work requires a significant time commitment, so be sure to consider:

  • World Campus students report spending between 8 and 12 hours per week on assignments, readings, and other learning activities for each 3-credit course.
  • Some subjects may come more easily to you, whereas some may be more challenging and take more time. Be sure to balance these as much as possible.
  • If you are working to fulfill both general education and major requirements, consider creating a schedule with both types of courses.

4. Work with your academic adviser

Your academic adviser will work with you to understand your prior academic experience and future goals, and will have specialized knowledge about your degree program. Your adviser will also be able to confirm that your course selections are appropriate, so never hesitate to reach out with questions or to seek advice about course planning.

If you have other tips, we’d love to hear them! Post them below in the comments, or email us at advising@outreach.psu.edu.

Online Education, Unlimited Options

September 19th, 2014 by

Some of us Penn Staters are all set for the fall semester and have already started new routines to incorporate schoolwork. One new routine I started two weeks ago is getting up at 6:00 a.m., walking my new Australian Shepherd puppy for about an hour, and playing with her as the sun rises!

Sebhia Dibra and friend standing on ledge in front of a forest

My friend and I enjoying our time in Florida

They say great achievers start their day doing something they want to do for themselves — not necessarily checking emails or opening up random apps on their phone. It could involve exercise, preparing food, or doing something you love. This sets the mood for entire day. So, if you aren’t doing this already, I recommend starting your day doing something you love – it will help you stay positive, focused and on track.

As autumn approaches, I can’t help but think of my life before my recent move and how much has changed. Earlier this year I packed up my things in Brooklyn, New York, and flew down to Florida. It was at the end of February — when New York was still cold and still snowing. For some time, I had wanted to live somewhere warm, along the Pacific or Atlantic coast. And in November of 2013, I was able to finalize this decision.

While in New York, I had been teaching on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. In February, I started saying goodbye to all the kids who made my heart melt every day. One very special 4-year-old, named Adam, was one whom I spent quality time with in the morning. Adam is a brilliant child, far ahead of his class, and always looking to learn — even at 8:00 a.m., the wee hours of the morning!

At this hour, we usually went over maps, shapes, and math. Math — his favorite subject by far — was attended to constantly. He would remember dates from a year ago, and on what day they fell on — at random. He also knew how many days were in each calendar month, could add large numbers and count beyond 100. At only 4 years old, Adam adapted well to new challenges, puzzles, and stories. His family is from Israel, and I can only think of the uncomfortable feelings involved regarding everything currently happening overseas. I am happy he is in New York, safe, and I am happy his education and his abilities continue to thrive.

This brings me to the thought of how my education at Penn State has become not only an experience, but a huge part of my life and my identity. Buddhists say that to become truly one with life, that one should not be attached to objects, things, or ideas. I’ve found that oneness in a different way, though. A part of my education and learning is through a university which enables me to travel — and learn — at the same time.

Penn State comes with me, wherever I go.

Working diligently towards a psychology degree, I am able to meet people all over and experience different types of culture. This is the most rewarding experience for a student. Upon enrollment, I had a choice of attending Penn State in Pennsylvania, or attending World Campus. My choice was World Campus — as I am naturally very motivated and disciplined, which is very important for a student pursuing an online degree.

Upon moving to Florida — specifically — Sarasota — I find myself in bliss. The weather is just how I expected it to be and more than half of my New York wardrobe lives in my closet. (Good when the wardrobe consists of sweaters, heavy pants and thick socks!)

black dog sitting on a beach

My dog, Kai, taking in a beautiful day on the beach in Florida

I meditate on the beach every night, and listen to the waves in peace. I am also making connections along the way, meeting amazing people and learning that no matter where you are — you are connected to everyone, everywhere. I find myself missing my family at times (they are from New York) but I am lucky to be able to continue dreams of education and of personal pursuits — such as work, writing, adventure, and a new puppy.

I hope you take this time to understand you are not limited as a World Campus student — but completely unlimited. Visit any country and, if you like it, stay there for a while! World Campus enables us to be able to work and have a flexible schedule.

Taking risks, such as traveling, will enable you to live life. As a true Robin Williams fan, in his respects, I end with this quote from the movie Hook in 1991, “To live. To live would be an awfully big adventure.”

Now do something extraordinary.

Scholarship Deadline Approaching: Jane Ireland Student Fund

September 8th, 2014 by

Monday, September 15, 2014, the deadline for the Jane Ireland Student Fund scholarship, is fast approaching! This scholarship is open exclusively to current undergraduate degree students attending Penn State World Campus in the spring or summer semesters who have the following:

  • a minimum of 24 credits in their World Campus program
  • a cumulative GPA of 3.2 (or higher)
  • a FAFSA on file with the Office of Student Aid demonstrating financial need

Along with the application, students must provide a personal statement, essay, and one letter of recommendation from a professional reference. Please visit the World Campus Scholarships page for details and an application.

More than 10 years ago, academic adviser Jane Ireland initiated the student fund as a way to assist students who have difficulty paying tuition. The fund has grown continuously and is supported solely by World Campus staff members, faculty, and students who want to help others pursue their Penn State education from a distance.