Editor's note: This story is part of a series profiling exceptional members of Penn State Schuylkill’s spring 2022 graduating class. For more stories like Hollenbush's, visit schuylkill.psu.edu/2022-graduates.
SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Bethany Hollenbush had never considered a career in the natural sciences when she was growing up. A Pottsville native, Hollenbush was not particularly interested in science during her secondary school years, and no one in her family had ever attended college. After graduating high school, she went directly into the workplace as a pharmacy technician, with no plans to pursue a degree in higher education. But, a few years on the job convinced her to take a different path.
It was one particularly distressing day at work that inspired her to apply to Penn State Schuylkill.
“My motivation for returning to school was my job,” Hollenbush said. “I worked as a pharmacy technician straight out of high school, and it helped clarify what I did not want to do with my life. After one particularly rough day, I went home and applied online that night. A few months later, I was back in a classroom.”
Her original plan was to complete an undergraduate degree in biology and apply to pharmacy schools, but once enrolled, she found an aptitude for and love of fieldwork and ecology.
This past summer, Hollenbush was part of an ongoing gray catbird research project directed by Lucas Redmond, assistant professor of biology. This hands-on fieldwork helped enrich Hollenbush's academic experience and shape her future trajectory, demonstrating the impact of undergraduate research on academic success and career direction. And for Hollenbush, working with birds proved a perfect fit.
Sarah Princiotta, assistant professor of biology, has worked with Hollenbush in upper-level biology courses.
“Bethany seems to have found her career path through her research and educational experiences here at Penn State Schuylkill,” Princiotta said. “She has wholeheartedly embraced ornithology as her research topic, and in her spare time, you can find her out walking with a pair of binoculars. In my upper-level ecology course, Bethany is applying her interest in bird breeding behaviors to a synthesis project — a passion that was ignited during her time doing research with Dr. Redmond.”
As she nears graduation and considers the next step in her journey, we caught up with Hollenbush to talk about her time at Penn State Schuylkill.
Q: Can you talk about what it means to be the first person in your family to graduate from college?
Hollenbush: Being the first person in my family to graduate was intimidating. I had to do a lot of research online and ask around for help when it came to things like FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), financial aid and scholarships.
Q: What extracurricular/academic activities were you involved in, and how did they impact your time on campus?
Hollenbush: I joined TriBeta (the national biological honors society) in my sophomore year, and I was the historian my senior year. I think joining TriBeta is necessary for anyone pursuing a biology degree at Penn State Schuylkill. Besides it being a lot of fun and getting to go on trips, you have a chance to make meaningful connections with other students and professors. Getting to know my professors — like Dr. [Brenna] Traver [associate professor, biology], Dr. Princiotta and Dr. Redmond — provided so many opportunities for research and scholarships.
Q: What’s one thing you have accomplished, learned or experienced that you are most proud of? What was the biggest challenge?
Hollenbush: I had the opportunity to present my gray catbird research at a few conferences. In addition to the school poster conferences, I had posters accepted at the Northeast Natural History Conference (NENHC) and the American Ornithological Society Conference last year. Because of the pandemic, they were both virtual, but this year I am going to attend the NENHC in Albany, New York, on April 22-24. The biggest challenge for me was transitioning from working full time at the pharmacy to returning to school. While I had not been out of school for that long, it still felt strange going back.
Q: What surprised you most about your time at Penn State Schuylkill?
Hollenbush: I was surprised how small some of my classes were, especially when you get into your major coursework. I had one class where I was one of just three students; I really enjoyed the smaller classes.
Q: Do you have a favorite Penn State Schuylkill memory?
Hollenbush: My favorite memories were made last summer doing fieldwork on gray catbirds with Dr. Redmond and my best friend Grace Muench. It was refreshing to wake up and be excited to go to work. I would find myself disappointed on days we were not able to be in the field or had to cut short our time, for whatever reason. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the work, but I also learned a lot. It also reassured me that this was something I could see myself doing after I graduate.
Q: As you near graduation, what advice would you give to an incoming student about college in general, and Penn State Schuylkill specifically?
Hollenbush: A piece of advice that was given to me was to pay attention in your classes to what topics interest you. That can help guide you if you are unsure of what major to pursue. This was how I discovered how much I enjoyed ecology, and I will be graduating with the ecology option of the biology degree.
Q: What’s next for you?
Hollenbush: Currently, I have been applying for jobs related to my degree. I think next fall (2023) I might try for graduate school. If I do opt for graduate school, it will involve an ecology and evolutionary biology program. But I am not really set on any specific place or program yet.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years? What would you like to do with your degree?
Hollenbush: To be honest, it is hard to even see one year out. I like to take opportunities as they come. Maybe I will find a job that I thoroughly enjoy and stay there, and if I don’t then I might consider graduate school. I am open to whatever comes my way. Five years ago, I could never have pictured where I am now and all the opportunities I have had. I hope five years from now I am happy and doing what I enjoy.