Melizza Zavala Duran spends time with friends on campus

Student forges her own path with a Letters, Arts, and Sciences degree

Psychology. Business. Social work. Melizza Zavala Duran wanted to combine three differing areas of study for her bachelor's degree and a customizable program at Penn State Mont Alto allowed her to do just that. She will enter law school with a background unlike that of any of her peers.

Zavala Duran, a first-generation immigrant, is forging her own path with the Letters, Arts and Sciences degree.

"You can do so much with it and focus on so many areas. You can see how the areas overlap," she said.

While most degree programs have essentially the same required courses for each student, the Letters, Arts, and Sciences bachelor's degree is different for everyone. Students select five courses (in three disciplines) at the 400 level, four courses from skills areas, and three supporting courses.

Students develop a theme — such as promoting good health across a life span — and essentially work backward by selecting coursework in that theme.

"Letters, Arts, and Sciences is a very different process because it's a degree that is customizable. This is a program that absolutely requires a higher level of self-knowledge because the first question I ask is, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’” said Lauraine Hawkins, program coordinator.

Hawkins said many Letters, Arts, and Sciences students are occupational therapy and physical therapy students seeking a bridge from the associate to a bachelor's degree in preparation for graduate programs. Other students design unique approaches to specific topics based on several disciplines. The Letters, Arts, and Sciences major asks all students to explore themes holistically, whether the student is preparing for a career immediately or is seeking admission to graduate or professional programs.

Hawkins described Zavala Duran as a "young woman with big ambitions. In addition to outstanding work in her classes, she is serving her fellow students as the president of the Student Government Association."

Those ambitions focus on becoming an immigration attorney, as Zavala Duran says she wants to help families like those in her community.

Penn State Mont Alto's Career Services Office guided Zavala Duran in building her resume to obtain a long-term internship with the law firm of Wertime & Gomez LLP.

"I'm super grateful I had that opportunity," Zavala Duran said.

Attorney Annie Gomez Shockey, who now serves as a magisterial district judge, felt Zavala Duran was well prepared by her classroom studies.

"It's amazing what she's been able to accomplish in such a short period of time," Gomez Shockey said.

As an intern, Zavala Duran was treated like a paralegal whose job responsibilities included letter writing, interpreting Spanish/English, and placing phone calls.

"There were times we talked about what was happening at school and what was happening at work, and how they'd compare. I believe in higher education, and I think we're lucky to have a place like Penn State Mont Alto here," Gomez Shockey said.