DALLAS, Pa. — Kristen Durso’s road to her own success started with Student Success Services (SSS) at Penn State Wilkes-Barre 15 years ago. Now that Durso’s career has brought her back to Penn State Wilkes-Barre, she has found that many things remain, including the welcoming atmosphere and the helpful services provided by SSS.
Durso began her role as an academic adviser for Student Success Services in November. SSS is a TRIO federal grant program for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college, are from a low-income family, are physically challenged or have learning disabilities. The program is designed to improve college retention and graduation rates while providing additional career options.
“We provide a nurturing, supportive environment where students will find many learning opportunities,” Durso said. “We offer workshops and development of skills that students can continue to build on. We are here to help our students and support them through their college experience.”
SSS is by no means new to Durso, who was able to take advantage of those services while she was a student at Penn State Wilkes-Barre.
“Student Success Services was a huge part of my experience at Penn State Wilkes-Barre,” she said. “I really built a lot of skills and confidence. It truly shaped me and influenced my life.”
Commuting from her home in Nanticoke, Durso began her studies at the campus in 2004 as a student in the Division of Undergraduate Studies. During her time there, she received academic tutoring, specifically in English. She was a work-study student and a peer mentor in SSS, attended workshops and coordinated a white elephant sale.
“I made a lot of friends and relationships through my time in SSS,” Durso said. “I had such a supportive environment and really felt at home at Penn State Wilkes-Barre.”
After selecting English as her major, Durso spoke to her adviser about studying abroad. She spent a semester at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, enjoying her studies and additional travel in Europe.
At Penn State Wilkes-Barre, Durso served as vice president of the Lion Ambassadors and was also part of a club called the Lazy Artists Society whose members focused on writing poetry and other creative pieces.
She also met another student, Alex Manorek, who became a good friend — and eventually, her husband. Manorek graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in history.
“Life took us in different directions, and then we found each other years later,” Durso said. The pair wed in May 2023.
Durso graduated in 2008 and worked in the admissions office at Penn State Wilkes-Barre for about three months before leaving to pursue a master’s degree. She now holds a master of arts in teaching from Marywood University, a master of arts in education from King’s College, and an English as a Second Language certification from King’s College.
Her Penn State connection continued with adjunct faculty roles at the Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton campuses and a full-time role teaching English at the Scranton campus. After a brief time in South Carolina, Durso returned to northeastern Pennsylvania in a new profession as a case manager for a nonprofit organization.
“Then life brought me back to Penn State Wilkes-Barre,” she said. “I wanted to go into academic advising since SSS was a huge part of my life. When I saw the position listed, I really took it as an opportunity.”
Her firsthand experience with SSS enables Durso to relate to the students on a different level, she said.
“I see myself in them as they’re walking through the door. It’s really helpful that I can relate to them, knowing I was once in their shoes,” she said. While the location of SSS — now in the Murphy Center — has changed since she was a student, the feel and the encouragement found there have not. “It’s very supportive and welcoming, and that’s what I first felt when I walked on the campus as a student.”
Gail Stevens, SSS coordinator and Durso’s supervisor, said Durso brings a unique perspective to her job that benefits the students.
“Kristen is a wonderful addition to the Student Success Services program, especially because she is an alum of our program,” Stevens said. “She understands how the program supported her but also brings new ideas of ways to engage our students. As an undergraduate student in SSS, she was very active, and we are thrilled to have that motivation to bring that same enthusiasm from her professional perspective to our current cohort of students.”
Returning “home” to where she started her college journey has been a meaningful experience for Durso, who said, “I feel blessed every day that I get the opportunity to be here. I’m an ‘embrace every day’ type of individual and I believe there’s some reason why I’m here. I really look forward to working with the team and expanding this program to make it even better.”
Durso is one of several Penn State Wilkes-Barre alumni who have returned to work at the campus. Read about a few of them in this feature story.