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Evening the Playing Field and Making a Difference: A Closer Look at Inclusive and Fulfilling Graduate Student Experiences from the 2020 Gallup-2U Study

Written by David Sutphen on Apr 22, 2021

Related content: Graduate Programs, Outcomes, Digital Education

L-R: Degree Program Alumni Marina Del Pizzo, Jeffrey Jenkins, Corrie Brock, Gail Solod

Today, we released the Positive Career Outcomes and Equitable Experiences: 2020 Gallup-2U Graduate Alumni Outcomes Study, which includes findings from our second year of research with Gallup focused on understanding the academic and career outcomes of alumni from our partners’ online degree programs. Last year’s inaugural Gallup-2U study found that the vast majority of graduates from 2U partner programs had both rigorous and positive academic experiences, and that 92% of alumni would still pursue an online degree if they had the chance to do it all over again.

For year two of our research with Gallup, we decided to dig deeper into the career outcomes and motivations of alumni, designing the study to answer questions including:

  1. Are alumni from 2U partner degree programs having positive career outcomes?
  2. What motivated these alumni to attend graduate school?
  3. Are alumni thriving in their careers and well-being—even amid the pandemic?

Equally important, we wanted to know whether, in answering these questions, the perspectives and experiences of first-generation alumni and alumni of color would differ than their White classmates.

A closer look at the report’s findings tell an encouraging story. In particular, the study found that 97% of all alumni surveyed reported a positive career outcome—whether that was finding a more fulfilling career path, making a career or field change, receiving a promotion or more pay, or attaining up-to-date and relevant skills. These positive career outcomes were also the case for 94% of Black and 97% of first-generation alumni.¹

When it came to their motivations for attending graduate school, the desire for a more fulfilling career (41%) or a different one (26%) far outweighed the desire to earn more money (9%). Nevertheless, more than half of alumni (53%) reported salary increases after graduation and 20% reported significant increases in pay. And even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of 2U partner program alumni are satisfied with their lives overall (69%) and rate their lives positively enough to be considered thriving.

Although the report is filled with many more insights that speak to the positive and equitable career outcomes of alumni, including for Black and first-generation graduates, it’s the personal stories of individual students that really capture the life-changing impact of their online graduate degrees.

Here are four of those stories:

By far, two of the best years of my life were spent in this program because I absolutely love what I learned. In so many ways, I felt like I got a better learning experience online.
— Gail Solod, online Master of Public Health program graduate, George Washington University

Gail Solod: A 2019 graduate of the George Washington University online Master of Public Health program

Gail Solod began her career in finance with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. She was a senior finance analyst for several years in the hi-tech sector followed by biotech, where she eventually transitioned to pharmaceutical sales.

Gail began seeing the impact of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement cuts across the healthcare industry and the implications for providers and patients. Coupled with political shifts potentially impacting women’s reproductive rights and contraceptive access, this compelled her to become an advocate for disadvantaged populations, especially women, who struggle to get equitable health care.

She enrolled in the George Washington University online Master of Public Health program from her home in Colorado to follow that passion.

“By far, two of the best years of my life were spent in this program because I absolutely love what I learned,” she says. “It was incredibly comprehensive. They did a phenomenal job of making us feel included in the university system.”

Gail continues: “The beauty of the online program was that there were so many students of different ages and nationalities. Sometimes you can get a somewhat homogenized viewpoint at a university when you're in an on-campus program. But online, we constantly had students from different countries and fields: medical providers, practicing physicians, etc. They all wanted that overarching viewpoint of public health rather than this myopic view of a patient as a set of issues or complications—and that actually helped everyone see the forest for the trees. In so many ways, I felt like I got a better learning experience online.”

Though it wasn’t required, Gail decided to move to Washington, DC, for her immersion experience and to take a couple of courses on campus. She remained in the nation’s capital after graduating and is now a regional public sector senior manager for a nonprofit, helping expand access to medicines for women regardless of their socioeconomic status.

“From a success standpoint for me, it was really about contributing back to society—making sure everyone has the opportunity to thrive in our healthcare system, regardless of socioeconomic status,” Gail says. “I wanted to take everything I could possibly get out of the program because I want to understand why our current healthcare system is failing people and I want to make a difference. Having this Master of Public Health creates a much richer conversation with the clinics I work with. It enables me to understand their challenges and helps them to understand we're all in this together to serve their patients better.”

“I work with health systems that serve a disproportionate share of low-income populations. These populations often have high maternal mortality rates and lack access to the most effective forms of contraception. It’s a very concerning issue, and we knew that being able to incorporate an affordable IUD in these healthcare systems would have a direct impact on these communities. That was one of those moments where I was like: Oh! This is where my work is going to be really impactful, where the rubber meets the road, as you’d say—where we're actually seeing how we create a difference for people.”

I wasn't just a handicapped guy or a disabled guy. I was a student. I was a contributing student—and there was never a time where anyone in the program told me that I couldn’t do this.
— Jeffrey Jenkins, online Master of Legal Studies program graduate, Washington University of St. Louis

Jeffrey Jenkins: A 2017 graduate of the Washington University of St. Louis online Master of Legal Studies program

As an FBI agent for 22 years, a chief of police, and once the owner of his own business, Jeffrey Jenkins bore witness to the crushing force of mental health issues within the criminal justice system. He decided to return to school to advocate for people suffering from mental trauma who find themselves in court—to help them navigate a system that often doesn’t consider the details of their psychological condition as relevant to their case.

But in 2012, another driver ran Jeffrey off the road, putting him in a coma for two months followed by a wheelchair for life. But he refused to be “a vegetable, just sitting around at home waiting for my disability check.” In 2015, Jeffrey enrolled in the Washington University of St. Louis online Master of Legal Studies program and got to work.

“I wasn't just a handicapped guy or a disabled guy,” Jeffrey says. “I was a student. I was a contributing student—and there was never a time where anyone in the program told me that I couldn’t do this. Even my classmates were cheering for me, and when we had team assignments, they’d call me and we’d share our stories. It was such a growing experience.”

He’s now a psychological Ph.D. candidate with a legal degree, working at an outpatient behavioral health agency in Enid, Oklahoma, with the court system while also pursuing his doctorate.

“In my role now, I’m able to go before the judge and give them information about my client that they don't normally get with a public defender,” he says. “Usually, judges just want to get them in and out. But I explain to them there’s more to my client than what you may be hearing or seeing. There are some other factors at play, so I present my assessment of their psychological profile. Then the judge says, Okay, let's try what you’re suggesting and see if that helps. And It does, because I know the system.”

“What defines success for me is that moment when the judge says they agree with me, and then my client and I get everything we need,” Jeffrey continues. “When the client feels good, that makes me feel motivated and I can go home thinking, I did it, I did it. And I can tell my team about the changes we made and they say, There’s no way we could have done this without you.”

Everyone challenged each other but not from an intimidation factor, because from the beginning the program just put us all on the same even playing field.
— Marina Del Pizzo, online Master of Public Health program graduate, George Washington University

Marina Del Pizzo: A 2019 graduate of the George Washington University online Master of Public Health program

Marina Del Pizzo didn’t have the most amazing GPA from her undergraduate Biology major at a small college in rural Virginia; she was on a soccer scholarship and athletics were her primary focus. After graduating and moving to Philadelphia, Marina began working as a receptionist in urgent care, eventually cross-training to become a medical assistant. In turn, that made her want further training to become a physician’s assistant. But she needed a better academic record to begin applying to PA programs.

Marina entered the George Washington University online Master of Public Health program to not only prove she was capable of handling the studies and responsibilities, but also to get a better sense of where she could apply her clinical and managerial skills beyond acute medicine.

Marina distinctly remembers: “Nearly every single one of my professors was like: Listen: You're going to graduate from here because you're smart enough, you're capable, and you're going to be my colleague soon. Here’s my cell phone—text me, call me, email me. If you need a deadline extension tell me, we all work, we're all human beings, we get it. We want you to succeed, so we're going to set you up for that. And it just made me look at school so differently than I had before, because before it had honestly been such a constant competition with myself and with my peers. This is why I think I did so well—working full-time and studying full-time—because we were in an environment in which everyone was saying, We're here to help. It allows students to have the confidence to know they can actually do this.”

“In the online classes, we had so many ranges of individuals from different backgrounds,” she says. “They were changing careers, or just finishing undergrad, or picking up another degree because they were interested in health care. They all brought so many different perspectives. Some shed light on what they faced in the military or as a surgeon or even a college athlete. Or they were nurse practitioners and doctors and radiology technicians who provided clinical, real-world sides to issues that gave all of us things to think about in our desire to create this foolproof healthcare system of the future. We’d break issues down and ask each other, Why don't you think this is going to work? What can we do better? Everyone challenged each other but not from an intimidation factor, because from the beginning the program just put us all on the same even playing field.”

Marina is now on her way to pursuing her dream of becoming a physician’s assistant. She’s waiting to hear any day now on her acceptance to the PA programs she applied to for the fall.

“I was drawn to the human side of medicine through different experiences with family members who have been sick and my own experiences with different physicians and providers,” Marina says. “I’ve had family members tell me, You know, I feel like they're not listening to me, or, I feel like I’m just a number, or, It's really hard to get this medication—even though it’s what my doctor prescribed me. So I viewed the Master of Public Health as what would give me a better understanding of all of those gaps and some of the more social aspects of health. The program allowed me to see a different side from what I had been exposed to clinically as an EMT and medical assistant. And with the degree, I knew I could further myself and do a nursing or PA program,” she said. “I felt balanced and fulfilled because it gave me a sense of purpose. The program opened up my horizons and showed me there are so many different opportunities out there beyond being a clinician.”

I feel more fulfilled with myself—and that helps me feel more fulfilled in my career. The online platform is what allowed me to be able to get this degree and pursue something I didn’t know I could do.
— Corrie Brock, online Master of Legal Studies program graduate, Washington University of St. Louis

Corrie Brock: A 2018 graduate of the Washington University of St. Louis online Master of Legal Studies program

Growing up in Houston, Corrie Brock had always planned to go to law school right after getting her undergraduate degree, but her parents’ divorce required her to begin immediately working instead. She eventually moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, had two children, and leveraged her BS in Communications Studies to become the national marketing director for a global accountancy and business advisory organization.

She still wanted to explore roles in the legal field—perhaps in mediation and arbitration—but needed an online program that wouldn’t require her to quit or scale back her job, or require her family to give up their home and relocate to wherever she decided to study. That’s when she found the Washington University of St. Louis online Master of Legal Studies program.

“You weren't just one of 170 people in a giant, faceless virtual classroom,” Corrie recalls. “You were one of 15 that were sitting on the screen together at 9 p.m. at night talking directly to your professors. So I felt like we had a better, more established relationship. It was also great to see students from not only all over the world, but also all sorts of jobs—to help you understand why they want this degree too because it is so versatile,” she said. “There were some people from law and this program was just helping them enhance their careers. There were professionals from the sciences and business people. There was a woman I graduated right next to and this was, like, her fifth degree and she was 67. It’s these life experiences that you get from the program, which puts you in a place where people are asking questions and you can hear different responses and perspectives that aren’t just textbook.”

Armed with her Master of Legal Studies degree, Corrie is still contemplating a role in mediation and arbitration, though she says the program also compelled her to consider becoming an advocate for youth in the court system. While exploring all of her options, Corrie very clearly sees the impact her legal degree has had on her current marketing role. She cites everything from thinking more quickly on her feet, more effectively presenting strategies and articulating arguments, more thoroughly anticipating and working through scenarios, reading between the lines in contracts, realizing “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”—and knowing how important it is to read and understand everything you sign.

“I feel more fulfilled with myself—and that helps me feel more fulfilled in my career,” Corrie beams. “The online platform is what allowed me to be able to get this degree and pursue something I didn’t know I could do. It empowered me. I got to fulfill my dream by sitting in my home office or sitting in my car and doing the work and being in class. During the course of my studies, I had someone laugh at me when I told them that I wanted to do this program. They were like, Why? And when I crossed that graduation stage, I just recalled that conversation every night in my head, whenever I was working on my degree. It doesn't have to make sense to anybody if it makes sense to you. What comes from that commitment is destined to be good.”

Inclusive Experiences, Fulfilling Futures—But There’s Always More Work to Be Done

The experiences and stories of Gail, Jeffrey, Marina, Corrie, and so many of the other alumni surveyed in our Gallup-2U study are incredibly inspiring. They also bring to life the important ways our partners’ programs are creating inclusive and engaging learning experiences—learning experiences that, after graduation, are also leading to positive career outcomes for all students.

Although there is still important work to be done across all of higher education in creating greater equity, access, and opportunity, the findings of our 2020 Gallup-2U study demonstrate that our partners’ online degree programs are delivering equitable academic experiences and positive career outcomes for ALL students. And that is the most important and powerful manifestation of our mission: to eliminate the back row in higher education.

I look forward to diving deeper into these and other issues here on The Latest and on future episodes of my monthly conversation series EDU: Live.

¹ Results from alumni who identified as Hispanic, Asian or as another race or ethnicity are not reported separately because sample sizes are too small to report results with reliability.

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