Penn State Abington: 'Gateway to the rest of my life'

On Friday, Dec. 18, in the Athletic Building on the wooded campus of Penn State Abington, 173 graduates will receive their college degrees. Whether receiving an associate or bachelor’s degree, hard work, perseverance and an "I-can-do-it" attitude were certainly involved in the quest. In no group is this more evident than with adult learners, as many have overcome mountainous obstacles to walk in that coveted cap and gown. Of the 173 Abington graduates, over 30 are adult learners. Georgia Christogianni and Lester Johnson are two such Abington graduates with inspiring stories to tell.

Georgia Christogianni, 25, immigrated to the United States from Greece in 1998 during her freshman year of high school. Not speaking a word of English when she arrived in this country, Christogianni managed to graduate on time and headed to college at Penn State Lehigh Valley in the fall of 2002. During the fall semester of her second year, as she was driving from campus, Christogianni was hit by an 18-wheel truck, leaving her seriously injured. With much love and support from her large Greek family over the next three years (she describes them as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" minus the Windex) Christogianni managed to overcome her injuries and enrolled in classes at Penn State Abington in 2007 after her family moved to Montgomery County.

"After the accident," said Christogianni, "I became too weak. I let it take me under. I had to look into who I know I am and what I love doing and get to it … no matter what it took."

With her new-found focus on studies and family, Christogianni has made the dean's list every semester since arriving at Penn State Abington and will be graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in psychological and social sciences. She was involved in many clubs and activities on campus and attributes this involvement -- along with many hours of hard work -- to much of her success.

"Penn State Abington is the gateway to the rest of my life," Christogianni said. "Not a gateway that you struggle to get through but a gateway that's got all these pieces that help you through and opens up all these doors for you. It has been an amazing experience."

Christogianni plans to continue her education in either graduate or medical school, studying child psychology. "Nothing can stop me," said Christogianni, "I just have to stay focused."

Lester Johnson, 30, also will be walking in his blue cap and gown on Friday. His wife, Keisha (class of 2000) -- whom he met at Penn State Abington -- will be sitting in the audience with their two young sons -- "future Penn State Abingtoners", according to Johnson. It may have taken Johnson 12 years to get to the stage, but he and his family couldn't be more proud.

Johnson, a 1997 graduate of the Philadelphia public school system, was in for a "culture shock" when he started at Penn State Abington.

"When I arrived here … this area was a big change. The whole college experience was totally different; the syllabus, holding yourself accountable for your work. It was an adjustment. Also, I was working and making pretty good money."

Through the years the lure of the greenback was strong and Johnson's grades suffered due to too many hours of work and not enough hours of study. Johnson lost his eligibility for aid because of his poor grades. With encouragement from Keisha, and a desire to maintain his campus friendships, Johnson heard his "wake up call."

"My plan was to get back to academic eligibility -- study properly, and get my grades up."

He was doing just that when, near the end of that semester, Johnson was diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy, or heart muscle disease, and he was placed on a heart transplant list. In and out of the hospital for several months Johnson narrowly avoided a transplant -- a break he attributes to God and the fine doctors of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Thankful for another opportunity at life, Johnson took college head-on and set out to graduate. He started out slowly during the 2008 summer sessions and then in the fall, with a 19-credit course load, Johnson made the dean's list. He will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and has accepted a position as credit manager from Wells Fargo Financial Services.

According to Steven Pyser, lecturer of political science and one of Johnson's favorite teachers, Johnson is an exceptional student.

"Lester is an outstanding graduate of Penn State Abington. I've enjoyed working and learning with him in our political science and labor and employment relations classes. He has a dedication to excellence and his enthusiasm for learning is contagious. Lester has the unique ability to see connections of course content across multiple disciplines. He identifies lifelong learning applications for course experiences. He has stepped forward, on his own, to guide students that are new to the hybrid learning environment and freely shares his contact information with them. I know he'll achieve great success in his life and career."

"I wouldn't have made it here without the support and the encouragement of my wife and children, and the inspiration and influences of my parents, siblings, professors, and my very close friends," Johnson said.

Johnson's words of advice for fellow students, even adult students, are: "Join an organization. That's a way to network. This campus taught me to expand my horizons. Don't stay within one cluster; engage in other cultures and learn about other people."

Congratulations to all graduates.