When it comes to the word “trailblazer,” I think: a pioneer, an innovator. Someone who takes calculated risks, understands how to influence change for the betterment of everyone, and does not settle. A leader who knows tomorrow’s problems won’t be solved by yesterday’s solutions.
For nearly a decade, Jenelle Acosta has been a shining star on the Student Engagement team. Throughout her tenure at 2U, Jenelle has worn multiple hats—from leading a team of admissions counselors to overseeing the student success strategy for some of our highest-profile university partners—and she’s now our senior training manager for onboarding new employees to the team. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to spend time around Jenelle knows that she exudes confidence and truly lives the coaching mentality. And that’s why the team chose her as one of the winners of our new Trailblazer Award.
Jenelle’s unique brand of leadership and mentorship is core to our team’s continued success in serving the needs of a dynamic range of learners and consistently challenging the status quo to keep evolving the student experience. She is beloved by our entire team—this photo of admissions counselors hosting a surprise “Dress Like Jenelle Day” is proof of that—so following our online awards ceremony, I was eager to dig a level deeper with Jenelle and showcase how bold, creative, and empowering she is for all to see.
The admissions team once surprised Jenelle (back row, second from right) with "Dress Like Jenelle Day"
So Jenelle–you celebrate 10 years with 2U this August. That’s so impressive, and why you’re such a guiding light for the team! Walk us through your life at 2U. Where did you start and where are you now?
I’ve been lucky enough to build my career with 2U. I started in 2012 as an admissions counselor for MPA@UNC, worked my way through the ranks, and eventually became the director of admissions for Counseling@Northwestern. In 2019, when the Student Engagement department was formed, I was asked to help train the managers on both technical and people skills. Training and coaching is always something I enjoyed doing, but this was the first time it was my primary focus. Now I’m the senior training manager for shared services, leading an amazing team of training specialists who are passionate about improving and transforming the training experience for all of Student Engagement.
Speaking of passion…what sparked your passion for joining 2U’s student-first mission to eliminate the back row in higher education?
I wanted to work with students and at the time was considering a master’s degree in higher education administration. But wow, did those plans change! 2U was a startup when I began, constantly changing and evolving—even faster than we do now—and I really enjoyed being a part of making something bigger than myself and solving new problems everyday. It was hard at times, but the people at 2U are the main reason I’ve been at the company for so long. If you have a good team around you to help weather the storm, you’ll eventually get to blue skies and smoother sailing again.
In 2019, Jenelle earned a Master of Science in Analytics from American University, a 2U-powered program
I think that’s such a healthy and positive outlook to have in the face of challenges. How do you socialize and build up that same perspective across the team as a senior training manager?
The simplest answer is that I lead and support my team in facilitating the best training experience for all employees within Student Engagement. Our goal is to teach and improve proficiency and confidence in one’s role. But in my heart, no matter what role I’m in, I’m a coach. That means my job is to put humans first, listen deeply, and help people figure out what they’re capable of and where they want to go.
You’ve clearly learned a lot of the “secrets to success” at 2U. What’s one particular leadership lesson you’ve really taken to heart here?
Stop talking and listen. My greatest failures as a leader have come from when I didn’t listen. Even though I thought I was listening, I was actually only doing so to respond—defend myself, protect my ego, etc. In those moments, I was operating out of fear of failure, rejection, and abandonment, which of course is human nature. But my greatest successes have come when I’ve really listened to understand—the other person’s ideas and concerns, the problem at hand, even where I went wrong. In those moments, I get to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of the collective, rather than just from my own limited experience.
Yes, we’re more powerful together than working in our own silos. As a team, how have you seen Student Engagement collectively blossom and evolve over the years? What excites you most about how we’ll continue to support student success in the future?
I believe the biggest thing that has changed in Student Engagement since I joined the company is the expectations of our team leaders—managers, directors, and above. We expect them to practice emotional intelligence, respect work-life balance, and take a human-first approach to management. And I’m excited to see what kind of culture we can create within Student Engagement by facilitating learning opportunities between all of our lines of business. Not only can we learn from each other how to best support students, but we can also learn how best to show up for our employees.
Jenelle has too many pets to count, but here she is building a TV stand with her dog Mellie
Speaking of employees, dozens of their nominations led to you being one of the two winners of the team’s Trailblazer Award. What does that honor mean to you?
It’s hard to describe. I feel incredibly honored that I was even nominated, and I was a little shocked to have won, in all honesty. There are a lot of people who are doing incredible things for the department. After reading the messages from those who nominated me, I just feel privileged to work with such kind and supportive people. I will hold onto those messages as little reminders of the impact I can have on people.
You’re so deserving, and you clearly see the value in constantly working to improve yourself, too. A couple of years ago, you earned a Master of Science in Analytics from American University, which is a 2U-powered online program. How have you applied learnings from that experience back into your growth at 2U?
My goal in pursuing analytics was to improve my effectiveness as a leader by developing a deeper understanding of how to use and interpret data to make decisions. I wanted to increase my knowledge and confidence not only for my own work, but for when I need to partner with my more analytically inclined colleagues. The program was hard work, but since graduating, the skills I learned have helped me better represent my team and work with other stakeholders and vendors.
Jenelle and her wife Gaby (once a 2U employee herself!) on their wedding day in 2014
And let us not forget you recruited your wife to join 2U for a while, too. Tell us more about that cool dynamic!
My wife, Gaby Acosta, and I have been together for nearly 16 years and married for seven. We met in elementary school when she was the patrol on my school bus, and we went to the same schools all the way through high school. Soon after we both graduated from college, I began my career with 2U, and six months later, convinced Gaby to apply for a position on the Marketing team. Thus began an epic career adventure for both of us in our own little corners of the company for six and a half years. Gaby left 2U a couple of years ago, and it was around that time that we launched The Way We Lead, a podcast centered on the topic of inclusive leadership—something we’re deeply passionate about. We both love learning from experts from such wide-ranging backgrounds while pushing ourselves to check our misconceptions at the door.
You two are a dynamic duo. As we wrap up here, what advice do you have for others considering 2U for their career? How about someone just starting at 2U?
For someone considering a career with 2U, just get your foot in the door. Our company is vast and world-class, and there is plenty of opportunity for networking and mentorship. For someone just starting with 2U, especially right now as we are all working remotely, join one of our Business Resource Networks or social groups. Not only will it be incredibly valuable for your career to network, but it can also help you feel seen and supported through the process of starting a new job.
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