Lauren Pahnke excels at endurance. She completed her fastest Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Placid, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon — in just under 12 hours, one grueling stroke after another. And she completed her Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS) degree at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies in 2014 in much the same way, by focusing on one class at a time while working full time as a senior business systems analyst at the university. “It’s important to stay on top of every class,” says Pahnke. “I took one class a quarter until I finished.”
Pahnke’s road to becoming a techie was far from straight. At Cornell University she majored in nutrition, the closest fit to her interest in fitness management. After graduation, she segued into event planning as a campaign manager for Team In Training, a national group exercise program run by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Chicago. After relocating to Texas while her husband completed his PhD, Pahnke found work as an events planner at the University of Texas at Austin. “While I was there I started to shift focus,” says Pahnke, who went through a career assessment that steered her to computer programming and software engineering. An apprentice program at the university trained her to become an information technology manager in financial systems. When the couple moved back to Chicago in 2011, Pahnke landed a job in Northwestern’s IT administrative systems.
“I had training for the work at Northwestern, but that’s not the same as having a degree in information systems,” says Pahnke. “The MSIS program was exactly what I needed. It was geared toward working people, it gave me the skills I needed, and it filled in the gaps in my knowledge. I wasn’t looking for a new job — I love my work and the people I work with. What I wanted was the formal knowledge that I lacked. It made me even better qualified for what I’m doing.”
MSIS students may take some or all of their classes online. Pahnke’s favorite course, foundations of leadership taught by Mark Clare, used a blended format, beginning online before bringing people together for a three-day workshop. “I liked learning about different leadership styles and becoming more aware of how I work with others and how I could change,” says Pahnke. She found an IT strategy class to be especially valuable and enjoyed sampling electives like network security — all useful in her work.
In fact, Pahnke was so pleased with what she learned that when she was invited to be a teaching assistant in the MSIS program, she jumped at the chance: “It keeps you thinking about the concepts.”