One-year master’s students balance academics and athletics at Smeal. 

The Smeal College of Business has become a go-to destination for Penn State athletes who choose to earn a business-related master’s degree during their fifth season of eligibility.

Olivia Jack personifies that trend.

Jack is pairing an undergraduate degree in marketing with a master’s in business analytics while navigating the countless responsibilities of competing as a high-level swimmer at Penn State. She believes the two credentials will offer a competitive advantage when she enters the job market.

Jack is one of nearly 30 Nittany Lion athletes and Blue Band members who during the 2022-23 academic year chose Smeal to pursue a one-year master’s degree while completing their NCAA academic/athletic eligibility at the university. Programs include accounting, accounting analytics, finance, commercial real estate, business analytics, supply chain, and management and organizational leadership, recently re-tooled as a one-year MBA.

Smeal Lifelong Learning

“I researched various one-year master’s programs and was most interested in the business analytics program,” says the Glenville, New York, native, who was granted an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I spent four years developing my creative skills and thought I would benefit from working on my analytical skills to create a balance for myself in my future profession.” 

Sajay Samuel, faculty director of the MBA program, says the college’s one-year master’s programs are ideal vehicles for athletes who want to continue their learning journey during their fifth year. “For those athletes who come from non-business backgrounds, the one-year MBA could be a well-designed springboard to gain an overall understanding of business,” Samuel says.  

“For those with more specialist academic backgrounds, there are different one-year master’s programs that can improve and sharpen their knowledge and skills ranging from finance to commercial real estate and supply chain. While these programs are academically rigorous and demanding, they are designed to accommodate the busy schedule of high-performing athletes.” 

Jack fits into that category. She has completed internships in fashion marketing and hopes to find employment in that field, with a focus on consumer insights and analytics. Jack also was president of two cultural clubs on campus and was the athlete representing Penn State in the Big Ten Equity Coalition.

Smeal Lifelong Learning

Pursuing a Smeal master’s degree during their fifth season of eligibility has become a popular option among Penn State student athletes, including, from left, Anna Simon, Olivia Jack, Hunter Nourzad, Katherine
Asman, and Andrew Funk.

“Professors within the Smeal College of Business have been some of the most helpful people during my five years here,” Jack says. “They have not only accepted my commitments outside of class as equally important, but they also empathized with me when I have had moments of being overwhelmed with class, training, and life outside of the two. They have helped me develop as a woman and a businesswoman and have enabled me to grow as a woman in sports.”  

Lauren Bridgens, a 2022 graduate and high-level gymnast, believed that linking a marketing degree with a master’s degree in finance would set her apart from other job candidates.  

“I felt like this was the missing piece to becoming a well-rounded businessperson who could really choose whatever career path I wanted,” she says. “It gave me some more training on the analytical side of business to supplement my marketing degree as well as my skills from being involved in athletics.” 

“I felt like this was the missing piece to becoming a well-rounded businessperson who could really choose whatever career path I wanted.”

Bridgens now works in the higher education field for Oracle, the world’s third-largest software company, and says her two degrees paired well. “I would 100-percent recommend Smeal to any athlete in a similar position as me,” she says. “Not only was I able to have supportive faculty who worked with me surrounding a very demanding schedule, but now I have two degrees from one of the most highly respected business schools in the country. I already have seen the benefits in just eight months of working.”

Neil Rager is the assistant director at the Morgan Academic Center, a learning service resource at University Park that aims to help all student-athletes reach their potential while achieving academic and athletic excellence. Rager says Smeal is a “great partner” for students who aspire to pursue post-baccalaureate opportunities. 

“Smeal’s master’s degrees and online graduate certificate offerings provide excellent opportunities for students to enhance their undergraduate experience,” he says. “Students value the real-world experiences they gain through their program of study and the support system provided by the college not only while they are part of the program but also when they leave Penn State. Our students are fortunate to have to a strong partnership with the Smeal College of Business.” 

Bucknell University graduate Andrew Funk brought prolific basketball skills when he transferred to Penn State for the 2022-23 academic year. He also brought a degree in finance. “I thought Smeal’s management and organizational leadership program would really build upon this foundation,” he says. “The program has done a great job in marrying the two, and I’ve been able to learn more this year than I could have imagined. 

“I would like to work somewhere within the financial sector when I am done playing basketball, which would certainly put both of my degrees to good use. Being able to manage and lead within a business setting is something I want to do in my career, and I believe Smeal has prepared me extremely well to one day do exactly that.” 

John Harrar played five seasons as a power forward on the Penn State men’s basketball team. He earned an undergraduate degree in business management and, like Funk, a master’s in management and organizational leadership. Harrar says he wants to pursue a coaching job because he enjoys everything that comes with basketball, including the business side of the sport. 

“I recommended Smeal to my teammate who was a sophomore at the time,” Harrar says. “He is really enjoying it and found another community to be a part of. I find that as an athlete at Penn State, you can find people who like to compete, have a great attitude, and share the same values such as teamwork in the Smeal College of Business.”