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DEN@Viterbi Alumni Highlight - ExxonMobil

How one ExxonMobil employee endured three location changes, one job change and still earned her master’s degree from one of the top engineering schools in the nation, all from thousands of miles away
By: Derek Lazo
July 23, 2013 —

Ashley Penna, an ExxonMobil business planner, has an unrelenting determination. It’s this determination that led her to leave Los Angeles and pursue an opportunity on the Virgin Island of St. Croix, only to endure her company being shut down, prompting her to relocate to a new home in New Orleans -- all while earning her master’s degree from one of the most competitive engineering schools in the nation.

Ashley’s story begins when she received an exciting offer to work in the Virgin Islands while pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California (USC). She didn’t want to forgo the progress she had made toward her doctorate, but it seemed she had to make a hard choice: either continue her education and lose a valuable opportunity for experience or quit her education halfway in order to work full time.

“At the time, I felt like I had no other options. It was either pursue my career or pursue my education,” said Penna. “But I decided to do my due diligence and see if there were any master’s programs that would accept the credits I had already earned and provide the tools for my educational success while I was abroad. That’s how I found DEN@Viterbi.”

The Distance Education Network at the University of Southern California (DEN@Viterbi), an online engineering graduate program, takes USC’s world-renowned Viterbi School of Engineering and puts it in the palm of your hand. Students like Ashley take classes at their convenience, communicate with world-class faculty with the click of a button, and earn one of dozens of specialized master’s degrees, all while working full time. And unlike other schools, DEN@Viterbi delivers the exact same program and provides the same faculty support for on-campus and remote, off-campus students.

Suddenly, Penna had the solution she was looking for: she could finish the remaining courses for her Master’s of Science in Chemical Engineering and work full time. Still, there was the traveling, packing and transitioning to an island life to consider.

“The time difference, traveling and full-time career commitment meant pursuing a traditional master’s degree was not really an option for me,” Penna said. “I knew working abroad and getting my master’s online would be challenging, but after learning about the program’s flexibility and student resources, I knew the tools were there for my success.”

Despite the distance, Penna never had an issue with accessing the program. She could participate in class lectures at any time or anywhere she had an Internet connection and review lectures and notes conveniently timed around her busy work schedule. Other aspects of the program that appealed to her included all the “fresh” lectures (no “canned” lectures being recycled from semester-to-semester), as well as DEN@Viterbi’s graduation rates, one of the highest in the country.

She also had the right tools. She could stream lectures in real-time and even participate in class discussions live through USC’s multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art classroom studios. Microphones, high-definition cameras, behind-the-scenes production personnel, and nearly round-the-clock tech support ensured that students "attending" lectures abroad felt like they were sitting right there in the classroom.

These facets of the program turned out to be invaluable for Penna: about a year into her employment in St. Croix – and several classes deep – she was surprised to learn that her company was being suddenly shut down and everyone laid off. Then came the stress of needing to quickly find a new job and a new place to live.

She eventually secured a position at the ExxonMobil refinery in New Orleans, but the transition to the Big Easy was anything but. With two apartment moves in the first few months of being in a brand new city, Penna was stressed to say the least. Amidst all the movement and growing pains acclimating to a new city, new job and new friends, she never skipped a beat on her education. She worked on assignments when she wasn’t unpacking and used the Wi-Fi at work and library to seamlessly download lectures and notes.

“It’s been a challenging road, but I’m so thankful for ExxonMobil and DEN@Viterbi. I now have the opportunity to support ExxonMobil’s efforts to increase our ethanol-blended fuel production and take on more leadership in our projects,” said Penna. “My new degree will also help me on my way to becoming a technical advisor, where I can support our junior staff’s professional development and educational endeavors.”

Penna's experience is not unique; thousands of working professionals have advanced through the DEN@Viterbi program, learned new skills and immediately applied them to workplace situations. The world’s top engineering companies like ExxonMobil recognize the benefit of such concurrent work-learning programs and trust DEN@Viterbi: it’s the most prestigious online engineering program, rated No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

“I’m astounded that more people do not know about the program, but for anyone considering pursuing an engineering master’s and working full time, DEN@Viterbi deserves a hard look,” said Penna.

With her master’s degree now complete, Ashley is thrilled to be an integral part of the ExxonMobil team and to provide guidance to the next generation of engineers.