Sometimes the person you most need to prove yourself to is you. When Rod Sierra entered Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies to pursue a self-designed degree in Latin-American Studies, he’d already had “an interesting, opportunistic life.” He left home at 17 to pursue acting in New York. Like many working actors, he held a series of odd jobs, one of which led to six-year stint as a producer for ABC News Radio. He was attending a convention in Puerto Rico when an explosion tore through the USS Iowa. With no other reporters on the scene, Sierra covered the event from a payphone. His work earned him an invitation to join WGN Radio in Chicago. He worked there for eight years, covering breaking news stories, interviewing politicians and entertainers, and creating a weekly public affairs program focused on Latino issues. He also started a family, and that got him thinking.
“Even though I had a certain amount of success,” says Sierra, “it was really clear to me that if I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I expected them to go to college, get a degree and move on in life that maybe I needed to have a degree of my own.”
But the more he thought, the more he realized that getting a degree was about more than setting an example. “All of my professional peers had gone the traditional route of going to college, getting a degree, and then starting their careers. It was something that gnawed at my personally. I wanted the validation a degree would provide. That, and I wanted to have the experience of sitting together with a bunch of other bright people and learning together. I wanted to see how that would change the way I thought about things, how I strategized and solved problems.”
“Of course, going back to school meant deciding what to study, and that presented its own challenges. I was already a journalist, so I didn’t need a journalism degree. At the time, I wasn’t that interested in business. But I was interested in my family history. Although I was raised speaking English, I come from a Puerto Rican family, and being able to provide a greater context for that personal family story was very intriguing to me.”
Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies helped Sierra design his own Latin American Studies. “They let me pick and choose courses from different programs — sciences, literature, history — to create my own unique degree. It was important to me that they allowed me that space.”
“But the greatest benefit I got from the experience was the people in the classroom,” says Sierra. “They were all ages, they all came with very different experience, and they all wanted to be there. They wanted to grow. They wanted to learn. They wanted to share their insights and learn from others.”
After graduating from Northwestern in 1998, Sierra left journalism to become manager of public relations for Peoples Energy. Again, he got noticed, this time by someone in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office, who offered Sierra a job as deputy press secretary, a post Sierra filled for 2½ years before returning to Peoples Energy in 2002. “Then my CEO suggested I get my MBA. After my undergraduate experience at Northwestern, Kellogg was the only choice.” When People’s Energy was bought out, Sierra accepted yet another invitation, this time to set up the marketing and communications teams at Johnson Publishing Company, home to Ebony and Jet magazines. Today, he is the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at the American Medical Association.
“Had I not gone back to school,” says Sierra, “I may not have looked for the type of career experiences that I did. I came to Chicago as a reporter, and I was happy in that career, but after Northwestern, I started to think about different things that I could do. I just felt a different level of confidence in myself and who I was and had a much broader and deeper sense of the world. I don’t think I ever would have gotten that regardless of how successful I might have been professionally. It really did make me feel more whole.