"Older students bring a variety of experiences to class..."
Francisco Navarrete, an administrative supervisor in a law office, went back to school at age 36 after 15 years in real estate legal support. His goals are not about impressing a present or future employer. “My interest is in having a book of short fiction published,” says the English major in writing. “My main concern is enriching myself with knowledge.”
If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask, and how would you answer?
I guess I would ask myself, “Why go back to school at 36 when you have a solid career?” And I would answer, “Time means less and less the older I get, so why not use it to pursue a dream?” My main concern is enriching myself with knowledge, which sounds clichéd and possibly naive, but after 15 years of a fairly successful career in real estate legal work, I still do not have the fulfillment of doing something that means more than merely making money.
Besides school and your job, you also have your responsibilities as a husband and father. How do you balance everything?
Working a 9-to-5 job and being a husband and father is not nearly as hard has having no job and no family. I have lots of support from everyone in my life, including my employer, who all understand that being in school is a priority during the short time I am in it. I generally spend one full weekend day studying, and I’m somewhat demanding about leaving the office as close to 5:00 p.m. as possible and using my lunch hours to read. I always have my books with me and read whenever riding the CTA or Metra. I think the secret to doing well in any arena, whether family, work or school, is to give full attention to each thing while you're engaged with it. There’s always time for what has to be done if you are willing to sacrifice some frivolities.
How would you rate the humanities instruction at SPS?
It is the best I can imagine. I've never before experienced in school the sort of engagement and guidance the instructors at SPS have shown.
What are you hoping for as a writer?
My interest is in having a book of short fiction published. There are various pathways for becoming a writer — enough for me to feel confident, especially after my Northwestern experience, that writing opportunities may open up to allow writing to be financially supportive and free me to write full time.
Mike Stiff begs to differ with the notion that classroom learning is hard for someone who hasn’t been in school for years. “My brain feels switched on since starting back up,” he says. Building on a solid foundation in graphic design, he’s pursuing a communication studies degree to take on more responsibility in the creative communications field.
You have worked as a graphic designer and art director for quite some time. Why did you feel you wanted to return to get a degree now?
Returning to finish my degree has been a personal goal for years. As my career progressed, I was increasingly interacting with others — clients, vendors, team members — while being challenged to focus on the broader picture. I came to realize that effective communication is fundamental to my growth. At the small design firm where I currently work, I take on many roles: account manager, project manager, art director, designer and strategist. I’m pursuing a degree in communication studies with the ultimate goal of transitioning from day-to-day design into process and strategy leadership. I don’t want to move away from creative, just move upstream.
With all the options in the Chicago area, why did you choose communication studies at Northwestern?
The other programs weren’t what I was looking for — I either couldn’t relate my career goals to the majors offered or felt that I wouldn’t be challenged enough. When I attended an information session at SPS and saw the communication studies major plus organization behavior and leadership classes, the pieces fell into place.
Has Northwestern’s program met your expectations?
Yes, it has. More important, it has helped me exceed my own expectations. I think I’ve made the Dean’s List every quarter — something I’d done only once in my previous college career. It seems like every quarter I discover electives that apply to some aspect of my day-to-day work.
Has there been anything surprising about returning to finish your education?
I was most surprised by my aptitude for learning — I grasp new ideas and information more quickly as an adult student. I find myself really driven to get the most out of every class. The knowledge I gain is recent and relevant, giving me an advantage in the workplace. The mental stimulation is fantastic. I plan on keeping up the momentum after finishing my degree.
Fresh from completing her bachelor’s degree in organization behavior in September 2014, Dallas FitzPatrick didn’t even take a breather before starting a master’s degree in human resource management. She found that “time management, focus and dedication” were the keys to successfully juggling school, a more-than-full-time job and wedding plans.
Tell us a bit about your background.
Prior to attending SPS, I'd worked in early-childhood care and education for 10 years. I loved it, but I was ready to use the skills I’d gained over the years in an organizational context, so I studied organization behavior.
You were on the dean’s list. How did you balance work and school so well?
Time management, focus and dedication! While attending school I worked 50 hours a week, in addition to planning my wedding. It wasn’t easy, but my education was important to me. Setting aside a dedicated study time each week was very effective, even though it sometimes meant missing social events.
What attracted you to organization behavior?
I studied organization behavior because I wanted to gain a better understanding of how individuals behave within organizations and what motivates them. I wanted to learn more about what makes effective leaders and teams. I felt the knowledge gained from studying organization behavior would apply to many settings, especially human resources. I am now working on a master's in human resource management.
Has your SPS experience influenced what you want to do?
As my program went along, I became more interested in courses like conflict resolution, employment law and human resource management. I also was shocked to learn that I really enjoyed finance and accounting! These courses, and the amazing professors who taught them, emboldened me to pursue not only a career in HR but also a master’s degree. My SPS experience changed my career path — and it changed me. I learned more about my leadership and communication style and about how to be a better team member. The program was challenging, but the result was remarkable growth, both professionally and personally.
It would seem that someone with “senior” in his job title wouldn’t need more academic credentials in his field, but senior systems analyst Frank Wayne is pursing a bachelor’s degree in information systems. His reason? “Technology is constantly changing.”
With all the educational options in the Chicago area, why did you choose Northwestern?
I was hired by Northwestern University Information Technology (NUIT) two years ago. My manager encouraged me to apply to SPS, and I jumped at the chance. I always wanted to go back to school, but I had never considered a school with the reputation of Northwestern, so ending up at SPS was a happy fringe benefit of my job.
How are you able to juggle all the parts of your life?
Work and personal obligations had interrupted my college education more than once, and now, with a one-year-old son, I would not be able to do this without the support of my wonderful wife, Marzena. Thanks to her, I have been able to really focus on the curriculum. I was even inducted into the Alpha Sigma Lambda honors society last spring.
You already have a successful career in IT. What are you getting from the classroom that you haven’t found on the job?
While I have a lot of experience in IT, technology is constantly — and sometimes radically — changing, and the roles of IT professionals are changing. In the old days, because computers were a hobby, you could develop a skill informally and have something to offer an employer. Today, an education with a perspective on the evolving IT landscape is more important than ever. I have been fortunate to work with leading technologies for years, but the SPS program has introduced me to many novel ones. The program is making a real effort to anticipate new technologies and incorporate them into the curriculum.
What do you especially appreciate about the instruction at SPS?
The professors allow for the skill level of each student and challenge those of us who already work in the field. I also have many interests outside of IT and have taken great pleasure in photography, astronomy and English classes. I’m impressed by the faculty’s breadth of experience and how earnestly they approach teaching.
Life, according to Northwestern University School of Professional Studies alumnus Benjamin Clinger, is about putting yourself in a position to maximize your opportunities, and jumping on those opportunities when they present themselves. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, took every AP class available, and finished in three years. Then he did what you’d expect any motivated, academically gifted student athlete to do: he dropped everything to tour the country with a rock and roll band. “The band moved to Atlanta, then we moved back to Chicago. I needed to raise some money to make a record, so I started driving a taxi.” Always entrepreneurial, Clinger soon pulled together a business plan and a bank loan and started his own black car service. Then September 11 happened, and his business tanked. “I was married. I was in my mid-20s. Do I keep making records? Do I try to ride out the storm with the black car business? Do I go back to school? We decided my going back to school would give us the most options.”
So Clinger retook the SATs with a bunch of 16-year-olds and started considering colleges. “My philosophy is that if you work hard enough, you can compete with anybody. So my goal was to get into the best school that would accept me. In Chicago, that meant my choices were Northwestern and the University of Chicago.”
Because Clinger demonstrated such ambition and success when he entered the program, the School of Professional Studies allowed him to supplement his evening classes with daytime classes with traditional Northwestern students. “That really proved to me that I was getting a ‘real’ Northwestern degree. The faculty was the same. The caliber of students was the same. In fact, because the classes are smaller, I think I had more access to faculty and better conversations with my classmates in the SPS format.”
The other thing the School of Professional Studies offered Clinger was speed. Knowing Clinger wanted to finish his degree quickly, SPS administration helped him build a schedule that allowed him to graduate magna cum laude with a double major in political science and history in just two years.
Clinger directly credits his SPS experience and Northwestern’s reputation with his admission to Yale Law School. “I applied everywhere from Kent to Harvard, and I was shocked when Yale accepted me. But that’s when I really learned the power of prestige and personal connections. I chose Northwestern out of my own sense of competitiveness. I wanted to measure myself against the best students and the most challenging curriculum. But what got me into Yale were the personal relationships I’d formed with my professors and the letters of recommendation they wrote for me.”
Once again displaying a talent for everything but timing, Clinger finished a joint JD/MBA at Yale just as the 2008 economic crisis was beginning. But thanks to his motivation, intelligence and credentials, he was aggressively recruited by Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, where he is now a successful mergers and acquisitions lawyer.
“I counsel current SPS students that they need to set goals and treat every class, every paper, every test as a step toward that goal. Then if you work hard and you’re lucky, you might find opportunities along the way that exceed your goals.”
Success is often a matter of timing, of doing exactly the right thing when you’re best able to maximize the result. When triathlete and former Army paratrooper Steve Janowiak decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in economics at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies, it was his second attempt at college. “After the military, I worked in commercial real estate and spent some time as an engineering student at a big state school, but I was basically going to school because that’s what everyone in my family did. When a job offer in Paris presented, I figured, ‘how often am I going to have an opportunity like this?’ so I jumped on it.”
Janowiak worked in Paris for two years, helping arrange public exhibitions throughout Europe for an association of visual artists. “It was a great experience. Among other things, I got to learn the work styles of several different countries, which is invaluable when your job is to basically get things done.” When Janowiak came back to the States, he returned to commercial real estate. He also decided it was time to return to school.
“To me, not having a bachelors degree meant that I hadn’t finished my education,” says Janowiak. “And I wanted the foundational knowledge base and the understanding of how to problem solve and how to look at things from all different angles that earning a degree would provide. Also, I thought earning my bachelors degree, particularly while working full time, would demonstrate to potential colleagues and employers that I was ambitious and dedicated and serious about advancing myself.”
Janowiak noticed an immediate difference between the School of Professional Studies and the state university he’d previously attended. The coursework was much more rigorous, and it was also much more integrated. “The focus on writing and communication skills especially, both in the prerequisites and in the courses themselves, was one of the most valuable things about the program,” says Janowiak. “The students were different, as well. They had a certain ambition, a certain drive, a certain inner desire to learn that made them constantly go above and beyond what the professors asked of them.”
Janowiak also noticed a difference in himself. “It’s nothing fancier than finding the passion for learning things I didn’t know,” says Janowiak. “Had you asked me to read the The Odyssey when I was 19, well, I might have done it, but not with the level of awareness and intensity I brought to it in my 20s. This was the right time for me to be back in school.”
In almost every class, Janowiak organized study groups to take advantage of the intelligence and energy that surrounded him. “There’s a natural human tendency to become like those around you,” says Janowiak. “That’s what made the study groups so successful. We’d feed off each other’s passion. There was also an accountability factor. No matter what, Saturday was study time. Sometimes we’d sit together and never talk, but we were all there together in case someone had questions. That’s how we supported one another.”
Since graduating in 2000, Janowiak has held a series of increasingly high profile positions in commercial real estate and has conducted over $6.3 billion in real estate transactions. As the former president of the Young Real Estate Professionals, he helped grow membership from 25 to 2,600. He’s currently Director of Acquisitions at Inland American. “Northwestern University School of Professional Studies was exactly what I needed at that point in my life, and I think the success I’ve had since then proves it.”
When Katya Siddall — a former Army medic and former VP at JPMorgan — entered Northwestern University School of Professional Studies, her goal was to become a doctor. “Northwestern had this really fabulous pre-med program for working adults and I thought it would be a great place for me to prepare for medical school.”
One of the things that attracted her to Northwestern was her desire to be challenged. “I’d studied finance at a state school, and quite frankly, I was bored. So I was looking for a place that was really going to push me.”
The premed program’s organic chemistry class is a perfect example of the push Katya was looking for. “The o-chem professor is notoriously demanding. Some students take organic chemistry over the summer at MIT or Harvard just to avoid him. But I liked that I was doing something that was hard and would make me think. And he turned out to be such an interesting guy.”
But a different class offered a different kind of challenge, one that led Katya to alter her career path. She took Biological Anthropology class as one of her premed electives. “It just blew me out of the water. I had no idea that anthropologists did the kinds of things the instructor was talking about. And I was like, ‘this is science!’ This is coming up with new concepts and figuring out ways to test them. That’s what I enjoyed about it.”
Katya’s newfound passion for the investigative aspects of science soon led her into a research collaboration with anthropology professor Erin Waxenbaum. In 2010, Katya received an Osher Scholarship from SPS and a Foster/FAN grant from the anthropology department to do field work in Kenya with Waxenbaum. Using an Undergraduate Research Degree, Katya also made two trips to the Smithsonian Institution to study the museum’s collection of human pelvises. As part of that research, she developed a technique for using pelvises to determine the gender of human remains, a technique that has both forensic and anthropological applications. She and Professor Waxenbaum have published several articles about their research and made presentations at major anthropological conferences.
Not surprisingly, the study of human history lends itself well to the study of modern men. While she finishes her degree, Katya has been working for a local start-up called Trunk Club, which helps men choose clothing that fits their personal style. The company, whose CEO founded the Bonobos pants company and whose COO started Ebay Motors, has given Katya an opportunity to apply the data analysis and pattern recognition skills she’s honed as an anthropology student to a more commercial venture. “I have skills that nobody at my company has. I can say, ‘Here’s our problem. Here are five possible solutions. Here’s how we can test them. Here are the outcomes we can expect.’ Business schools are starting to teach these skills as part of their MBA programs, but scientists have been applying them ages.”
In fact, Katya sees a lot of parallels between working for a start-up company and being a student at SPS. “Just like a start-up, SPS is very flat. If a student has an idea for a class and can find a professor willing to teach it and some students committed to taking it, the dean would absolutely sign off on that class happening. At SPS, if you take the initiative and work hard for what you want, you will grow very quickly, you'll get to know a lot of people very quickly, and you'll be very successful very quickly.”
Mike Waller always felt that he was just as intelligent as his peers. But studying was a challenge for him, while others seemed to sail through. “My entire life people have told me I ‘wasn’t trying’ or ‘didn’t have what it takes,’” he says. “I started believing them.” After struggling through high school, some community college, and a stint at University of Texas, he decided college wasn’t for him.
Waller joined the U.S. Coast Guard during the Gulf War, but didn’t feel intellectually challenged. After the military he worked as a residential construction manager, but he knew a bachelor’s degree was key to an executive position or to switching fields. He considered community college again, but his wife convinced him he could aim higher. She was right — Waller earned his bachelor's degree in 2012 at SPS as a student in Leadership and Organizational Behavior major. The unique program combines a student cohort, interactive learning and flexible but intensive scheduling to help busy, high achieving professionals complete a degree in two years. “It’s a phenomenal program, which reminded me a little of boot camp,” says Waller. “With the cohort’s support, it’s very difficult to lag behind or drop out.”
Waller also received a referral to Northwestern’s Disability Services, where he was diagnosed with mild dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. “It changed my life — I finally had an answer for my challenges in school. I received medication, occupational therapy, and learning strategies.” Armed with these new tools, and real-world knowledge from his courses, Waller is starting his own real estate company and considering graduate study.
For two years in a row, an undergraduate from the School of Professional Studies landed a prestigious Undergraduate Research Grant, sponsored by the Office of the Provost at Northwestern University.
With the aid of the grant, Luke Fidler, an art history major, traveled to Paris to conduct research for his project, “Place, Space, and Mortality: The Pervasiveness of Death in the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis.”
The University awarded Fidler $1,367 for the project, with Fidler covering the remainder of his expenses himself. Peter Kaye, assistant dean of undergraduate and professional programs at SPS, said that Fidler’s accomplishment “is one more example of how our students can compete with anyone.”
Fidler’s research in France was tied to a quarter-long independent study class with Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Shirin Fozi-Jones, a specialist in medieval tomb sculpture at Northwestern. In his grant proposal Fidler noted that “my scholarly work has increasingly focused on the intersection between art, death, and the sacred.” As an undergraduate Fidler presented two papers at art history symposia, published a paper in Vestnik: Journal of the School of Russian and Asian Studies, and contributed to the online journal of The Birch. After graduating from Northwestern in December 2012, Fidler plans to pursue a doctorate in art history.
To explore a concept as abstract as the pervasiveness of death on a site used as a reliquary and royal necropolis dating back to the early sixth century, Fidler created some concrete ways to examine the historic abbey, using photographs, drawings, and written observations to compile a comprehensive catalog of representations of death in tomb sculptures. He also assessed experiential factors such as the temperature of the flagstones on which worshippers stand, the air currents that circulate incense in the church, and structural changes from renovations and reconstructions over the centuries that doubled the aisles in the nave to make tombs and relics more accessible to the public.
Patricia Pendry was always interested in child development, but never imagined she’d become a human development professor and researcher at a well-known university. There were significant challenges in getting there: the college degree she earned in her native Netherlands didn’t set her up well for making a career change or applying to American graduate schools, and Pendry was also working full-time and raising her children.
Pendry enrolled in an evening psychology class at SPS to see where it would take her, and soon she was hooked. “It confirmed that I love the field, and I decided to earn a new undergraduate degree,” she says. “I started taking more classes. I’d get the kids to bed by 7:30 and then hit the books.” But the real spark came for Pendry in a challenging class on personality theory and research taught by the late SPS instructor Scott Acton. “That’s when I was bitten by the research bug,” she recalls. “I realized I wanted to conduct my own research in an academic setting and that requires a PhD. Acton helped me realize I was capable and inspired me to pursue graduate school. It was a great loss when he died in an accident. I later dedicated my dissertation to him. He and other SPS instructors, like Eshkol Rafaeli and Michael Bailey, gave me a lot of encouragement — and flexibility, too.”
Thanks to her instructors’ support, as well as hard work and an attitude that “you get out what you put in,” Pendry earned her bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology in 2000 from SPS and went on to obtain a PhD in Human Development and Social Policy from The Graduate School at Northwestern in 2007. She was then offered an assistant professorship at Washington State University, and is currently teaching child and family development courses. She also conducts research on the effects of family functioning on child stress, health and behavior, as well as related interventions. Pendry’s most recent project, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), is a clinical trial on the effects of equine (horse) facilitated learning on adolescent stress hormone functioning and social competence in children. “I love what I do, and my family loves it here in Washington,” she says. “SPS made a tremendous difference in my life.”
Catherine Thomas grew up in a small town in Montana and was studying ornamental horticulture at Montana State University when a summer internship lured her to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, in 1991. “I thought the Chicago area would be an exciting place to live,” says Thomas, who discovered that her new workplace provided the ultimate excitement. Thomas stayed on at the garden, working her way up a trellis of increasingly challenging positions. Today she is the garden’s plant propagator, in charge of coaxing seeds and plants to reproduce and adapt to their environments.
“Once I realized I was going to stay here, I decided to complete my degree,” says Thomas. She took one or two classes at a time at SPS to accommodate full-time work and a personal life. “My marriage took place while I was at SPS, and my daughter was born the year I graduated,” says Thomas, who graduated in 2001 and now has two children. “When you’re working and going to school, you learn to prioritize.”
At SPS Thomas took elective courses in subjects such as music and English literature, and she discovered a range of disciplines rolled into her chosen major in environmental studies. “We looked at how philosophy, sociology, geography and geology relate to the environment,” says Thomas. The knowledge she gained has helped her in her work, says Thomas: “We may need to treat seeds before they’ll grow, giving cold treatments to prairie plants or acid treatments to seeds that might pass through a bird’s stomach. We look to nature.”
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.