A Degree a Decade in the Making

Nicole Carrera, Assistant Director of Communications
Tara Valoczki stands on stage in black Commencement robe and hat
Tara Valoczki at Commencement on May 16, 2024

When Tara Valoczki was looking to further her career, a professional mentor encouraged her to consider Widener for a doctoral degree. After beginning her studies in 2014, Valoczki has finally reached her goal and will cross the stage some 10 years later to receive her doctoral degree in K-12 educational leadership.

Valoczki worked as a teacher at Hershey Elementary School before moving to a principal role at a neighboring school district. There, she worked alongside a professional mentor and Widener alumnus Bernie Kepler ‘07 who had completed his doctorate at the university.

Graduate students seated at commencement, smiling

“Within the first couple of months, he recommended I look at a doctoral program based on my career goals and aspirations,” said Valoczki. “I looked at a couple of different programs and felt that [Widener] was rigorous and met my needs.”

Shortly after beginning her classes at Widener, she was offered a position at Milton Hershey School, a residential pre-K through 12th grade school dedicated to preparing students from families of low income for successful and fulfilling lives with all costs covered. This new role meant she would have to pause her own education for a year.

“There’s nothing else like [Milton Hershey] in the world, so when you have that opportunity, you can’t pass it up,” said Valoczki. “Coming into Milton Hershey your first year, they want you to be immersed in the community and the culture and learning your responsibilities, so I had to take a year off to get acclimated.”

She continued to grow her career at Milton Hershey School, becoming head principal at the elementary school before moving to head principal at the middle school, all while re-working and defending her dissertation pre-proposal.

“I was full force into my research and writing for my degree, and I finished a lot during my first year as middle school head principal,” said Valoczki.

And then, shortly after, Valoczki’s father passed away unexpectedly. She describes him as her biggest mentor and cheerleader, and credits both of her parents for encouraging her to set goals and excel academically and personally. She reached out to her Widener advisor Zora Wolfe, associate dean in the College of Health and Human Services, and took a leave of absence from her doctoral studies.

Over the next year, Valoczki took a step back and focused on herself, her family, and her career, continuing to be promoted within Milton Hershey School to senior director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. She then decided it was time to finish her degree.

“I reached out to Zora over the summer and told her, ‘I have to finish,’” said Valoczki. “I know my kids are watching me go through this journey and I can’t not finish. I had my research done, I just needed to write it. [Zora] was amazing and supported me all fall.”

Valoczki credits Wolfe for being there every step of the way as she navigated her life, growing career, personal loss, and completing her degree.

“I would have never finished if it weren’t for Zora. I owe her this and she knew how important it was to me personally but also professionally. She has a way of making you really think and analyze and evolve as a learner and a writer. I’ve been with her for so many years now and I’ve just learned so much from her,” Valoczki said.

I love Widener and I just had a tremendous experience."

Valoczki still serves as senior director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Milton Hershey School and has applied her education to her career.

“It’s a really large role and responsibility, and I love it because the work I’ve done through Widener prepared me for this exact position. This is exactly where I wanted to end up,” said Valoczki.

After committing a decade to completing her degree at Widener, Valoczki is proof that persistence pays off. In addition to her personal and professional journey, Valoczki is a mother of three teenagers who she hopes can learn from her experience about the importance of learning, and that anyone can do it.

Valoczki experienced all Widener's learning avenues, including in-person and online classes. The combination of flexible learning with a human connection led her to success through it all.

“I love Widener and I just had a tremendous experience,” she said. “That human connection with the professors like Dr. [David] Rentschler. He was my very first professor at Widener and he sat on my dissertation committee at the end, and you wouldn’t have that if you just did an online program.”

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