Here’s What A Mid-Career Shift Really Looks Like
Before Paula Carey was in her current role as director of housing at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, she found herself in the midst of a divorce, with six children to raise. Carey had been working as a real estate broker, but was looking for an opportunity to have a more meaningful impact.
“I thought, ‘I want to help people at a higher level.’ I kept asking myself, ‘What school can get me where I need to go?’ I was looking for a university to help me develop my substance,” she says.
Carey has been working since the day after she completed a business management degree, beginning her career in real estate. Eventually, Carey joined the National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers, where she learned how to counsel residents through foreclosures. She then connected with St. Louis’ Urban League, helping residents who received mortgage loans through Fannie Mae foreclose on their properties with dignity, or avoid foreclosure altogether. Working with the Urban League, Carey recognized she had the skills, passion and potential to do more than loss mitigation.
“It gave me a different perspective,” she says. “The organization works on community outreach, offering financial literacy classes, preventing homelessness, and more. And I can bring that new perspective to some of the task forces I serve on today.”
Carey found a home in nonprofit work, and even though she had an undergraduate degree and years of solid work experience, she knew she needed to strengthen her education to really pull off the shift. A few years later, Carey graduated from WashU’s University College with a master’s degree in nonprofit management while working full time, and became director of housing at the Urban League while still in school.
So, what happened in the middle? We sat down with Carey to hear about her journey in higher education and how University College helped her successfully evolve into the leader she is today, making the shift from real estate to nonprofit work.
What did the process of evaluating higher-education programs look like for you?
While working with the Urban League on contract, and later as an advisor, one of the things I found was that while I had education and years of relevant work experience, I needed something to tie everything together. I looked into University College and went to an information session, but I didn’t think I’d be able to afford Washington University.
I chose to enroll in online classes at another university, but I didn’t like the experience of learning purely online. I had met with a wonderful advisor at University College when I was weighing my options, so I went back to her and said I would try to make the program at University College work when I had fully paid for my classes at the other school.
She broke down the educational costs of all the schools I was considering, and WashU actually came out less expensive than the others. She did the breakdown by credit hour, the time each class would take and resources available for students. Plus with WashU, you’re getting the benefit of that reputation, and people saying, “Wow, you went to WashU?”
My advisor also encouraged me to look at what was really going to help move me to a higher level in the nonprofit world, where I wanted to be. When someone is walking you through the information and they let you make the decision, it makes all the difference in the world. At University College, they were true to their word, every step of the way.
How did a WashU degree impact your career and your daily work routine?
While in school, I was promoted to the director of housing position at the Urban League. It’s a position that I’m helping to create for the agency to help tie our city, county and Illinois divisions together, and to create a unified front. With the education I received from Washington University, every single class gave me the opportunity to solidify the position I am in today.
Professors are incredibly knowledgeable about the information that they’re teaching—it’s like they’re bringing the reality right off of the pages, and you’re able to put it into practice immediately. The programs don’t challenge you to just go in and do a job. They challenge you to be truly great at the job you’re doing.
What was your experience like at University College, and how did you balance it with working full time?
It was very rewarding, though it did require balance, time management and listening. Just like in high school, when the teachers tell you about the syllabus—listen. Ask the professors questions. Involve your friends and family in your learning. I used to do my homework with my youngest child, who is in high school. I am also still in touch with alumni and current students. We encourage students along the way to keep going, and we always tell them to follow the script, and not to say, “I think it should be done this way.” Contact the professors if you don’t understand something, especially if you’re working full time. Don’t think to yourself, “I’m an executive at a company, I should know the answer.” Ask for that support, and you’ll get it.
Classmates will also be able to assist you. There’s an open dialogue that allows you to lean on others and ask, “How did you make your way through this?” That encouragement from one another helps. And my advisors were fabulous. That, right there, is a vital support team. You have to lean on them, and take things in bite size chunks. During lunch at work, I would do my reading. And if there was something I didn’t understand or wasn’t clear about, I’d say, “This is my understanding, but is this what you’re asking for?” I looked at it as having a part-time job. I would prepare and break it down into bite-sized pieces.
How did the support from professors, administrators and classmates impact you?
It benefited me greatly, especially as a resident of Ferguson, Missouri. When everything happened with Michael Brown, my advisor asked if I wanted to make up my classes later, because of the unrest. I said, “No. I started, and I’m going to finish.” I made it through with that internal support from advisors and my classmates. It’s an environment that is healthy. And normally, this is the one thing I do know: when people are going to graduate school with a full-time job, they stop going to church and meetings, and shying away from other responsibilities because it’s so overwhelming. I made up my mind that I was still going to go to church, do my bible study, and go to the gym, and I still performed at a top level.
How has your master’s degree impacted you in your current leadership role?
It has helped me to really think outside the box. When people come to us and explain that what they’ve been doing isn’t working, we look at their process and ask why they’ve implemented certain systems. We can ask, “If this isn’t working, what are your options?” It has really opened up my mind to the possibilities. And if I can’t do it, I can connect you to someone who can.
The opportunities that University College creates gave me a fresh start, and introduced me to friends that I believe I will have for a lifetime. A WashU degree opened doors for me.
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