The year of 2020 was undeniably hard for, well, everyone.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many people saw their jobs vanish as widespread layoffs occurred, and businesses were forced to shutter temporarily or permanently.
It was — and still is — a bleak time for those seeking employment, and some are looking to go back to school to transform their careers and enhance their skill sets.
And while it sounds like a big leap, such a move can be a tremendous opportunity.
One such person is Maria Salgado, who is currently pursuing an online Master of Education in Enrollment Management and Policy (EMP) at the USC Rossier School of Education. Salgado was born and raised in Los Angeles and ended up at UC Santa Barbara to get her bachelor’s degree. After graduating, she spent several years in the nonprofit world, first taking a position with City Year at AmeriCorps.
“I was following my passion … I knew I wanted to do something that was service-related,” Salgado told USC Online. “I was a Corps member helping students in middle school to achieve proficiency in math and science and English language arts.”
From there, Salgado worked for a private organization to assist students with disabilities before starting as a program manager at College Track, a nonprofit that helps students from underserved communities gain admission to college.
Salgado enjoyed four successful years there, adding, “It feels good to be in a position where I can do work that I love, and I know that it’s also having a positive impact in the world that I live in.”
She soon realized, however, that she was ready for a new step: graduate school.
“It was always a personal goal for me, but I also wanted to make sure that I found the right program that would help me advance my career and that would be worthwhile for me. I think that was something that kept me from going back to school for a long time. I needed to justify for myself that the investment was going to be worth the degree,” she explained.
Landing at USC Rossier
At the time, Salgado’s life had been rocked by a personal crisis: In 2018, her father fell seriously ill. Salgado left her position at College Track behind and moved to Washington state, where her father lived, to help him during this difficult period.
Once he was more settled, she was prepared to transition back into the workforce and start her job hunt. She even had a few interviews lined up, but then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The positions were all canceled. Career opportunities became scarce.
“I’m still continuing to job search, and it’s been really difficult,” she admitted.
For Salgado, though, there was at least one bright spot: She decided to begin the two-year EMP online program at USC Rossier, despite the chaos caused by COVID.
“I don’t know how things are going to go. I don’t know if I will have a job or not, but at least I’ll be doing something to move forward in my career,” she said.
Since the classes are all online, she figured the pandemic likely wouldn’t disrupt her education in any major ways. Plus, the flexibility of her course schedule means she can keep pursuing career leads.
“If I do eventually find a job, it’ll be manageable for me because it’s an online part-time program. It all just made sense,” she explained. “I do feel that I’m prepared to take on another responsibility. When I transition into a full-time role, I feel pretty confident that I’ll be able to do it successfully and balance classes. My professors are very understanding.”
While job searching, Salgado isn’t looking for something terribly different than what she was doing before her father became ill. Salgado decided to pursue her master’s degree in enrollment management and policy not because she wanted to leave the nonprofit world behind, but because she wanted to learn new skills to make more of an impact in the field.
While Salgado can “only say positive things” about her time at College Track and highlighted the “life-changing” effects the organization had on its students, she said there were parts of the work that felt limited.
“Every year that we recruited a new class, it was just so hard to turn away students. We’re only allowed to take a certain number of students because of our capacity,” she explained. “So that was something that [made me feel] like there are some things that need to change in the college admissions industry. And this program was very specific to doing that work.”
Making an Impact on the College Admissions Industry
When it came to choosing where to attend school and which program to select, she said there was only one real option for her.
“It was kind of the only program that I applied to, partly because I really felt comfortable in the recruiting process. I had been out of school for a really long time, and [the recruiter] was very accessible,” she said.
It wasn’t just about the ease of the admissions process, though. Salgado emphasized her decision was also heavily influenced by the value of the classes and curriculum.
“Coming from a college access and support nonprofit world, I felt that that this program would help me get to the career that would allow me to have a bigger impact in the industry,” she said.
In fact, Salgado is confident she’s made the right decision. While she may only be in her first semester, she’s already learning valuable information she believes will help her in her career moving forward.
“Just this past semester, we were talking about, ‘How do you decide on a college admissions program that is profitable and equitable?’ And so I really feel like I’m learning this process from a completely different standpoint from when I was a college guidance counselor,” she said.
“This program will help me develop the skill set to think like a leader.”
Another area Salgado has been able to explore in her coursework is financial aid policy and its adverse effect on student achievement.
“It was something that I saw when I was working at the nonprofit: Financial aid was one of the big reasons why students decided to leave even after having matriculated successfully and having completed their first year successfully,” she explained. “I’ve been thinking about college success rates nationwide. It’s something where we haven’t achieved a critical success. My classes just got me thinking: I want to really understand, what are the challenges, and how can I contribute to the solutions?”
So where does Salgado envision her career going?
“In my wildest dreams, I want to be in a leadership position in higher education. Maybe that’ll be a president of a university or a provost or a dean … Maybe it won’t even be at a university at all, maybe it’ll be the College Board,” she stated. “I feel that this program will help me develop the skill set to think like a leader.”
Clearly, when it comes to education enrollment, Salgado knows her stuff. So when asked her advice for others looking to start over with school during the pandemic, Salgado was clear — and she is basically an expert: “I always encourage education.”
Of course, she added, prospective students should do their research beforehand as “when it comes to graduate programs, it is a little bit harder to justify when you’re already in the workforce and you have income and probably also financial responsibilities.”
The benefits of an education, however, especially at a time when the economy is in serious upheaval, may very well outweigh those considerations.
“Is it going to be the right investment for you?” she advised. “I would say just do your homework and see if it’s going to be a good return for you. Think about the ways that it’s going to truly be an investment for you. If it’s something that you’re passionate about, and you feel like it’s a reasonable opportunity, then I would say go for it, definitely.”
Learn more about USC Rossier’s EMP online program today.