EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout February, in celebration of Black History Month, our “A Day in the Life” series highlights members of 2U’s Black Engagement Network (BNet) who support the programs of our partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Shortly after college, Nicki Cornelius was offered a unique opportunity by the philanthropic arm of her employer, GEICO: travel the country and organize programs to provide essential resources and skills to underrepresented communities. It was a chance to channel the strengths of her mind and heart. Over a decade later, Nicki has once again found that passion balance, but she’s made a couple of service pit stops along the way.
As a military spouse, Nicki has called many states her home. The first stop was Washington, where she honed her corporate marketing expertise. Tennessee was next, and it was there that she got her first real taste of how rewarding a specialized role in higher education marketing can be. “I found incredible fulfillment working at Austin Peay State University, spearheading marketing initiatives to improve recruitment efforts and increase student enrollment,” recalls Nicki.
Four years later, the military brought Nicki back to her home state of Virginia, where she was presented with the opportunity to take her enthusiasm for increasing access and awareness of education to 2U. Now, as a brand strategy director, Nicki’s career has come full circle. She leads marketing efforts for 2U-powered programs at two of the nation’s premier Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Howard University and Morehouse College, once again empowering underrepresented communities by opening up doors to life-changing education.
Here, BNet sits down with Nicki to learn more about her desire to create opportunity and eliminate the back row in education.
Nicki and her military family: husband David, son David Jr., and daughter Emersyn
We’re excited to hear your story, Nicki! To start, what brought you to 2U? What was it about the company that initially sparked your interest?
It was 2U’s genuine effort to hire and promote a diverse workforce and shape an engaging culture that really resonated with me. And, of course, I love the admirable mission of increasing access to education. It’s been very rewarding to join the team during a global pandemic and have a seamless transition, despite the 100% remote working environment.
We’re so proud to hear that you identified with the inclusive culture we’ve been so intentional about building from the start. Now that you’ve been with 2U for over a year, how would you describe your day-to-day role? What does a brand strategy director supporting our Howard and Morehouse partnerships do?
As a brand strategy director, I mentor, guide, and elevate strategic marketing initiatives for Howard and Morehouse to support their mission of providing high-quality online education to adult Black students nationwide. Much of my job is about collaborating with senior leaders at both institutions to generate greater awareness and ensure we find the right students for the right programs at the right time in their lifelong learning journey. Day to day, I work with my team to brainstorm out-of-the-box strategies that will attract top talent to these programs, using my extensive marketing experience and insights into the needs of underrepresented communities to help position these programs in the marketplace.
That sounds like incredibly rewarding work. What’s been one of your proudest moments working on these programs so far?
It was amazing to see that the marketing strategies we designed for these programs led to an inaugural cohort of over 200 students for Morehouse Online, and exceeded our enrollment goals for Howard. Though I didn’t attend an HBCU, I’m a proud member of the first Black Greek letter sorority founded on the campus of Howard—Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.—and have a strong affinity for the HBCU mission. Playing a small part in creating more recognition and appreciation for these HBCUs is incredible.
Wedding day for Nicki (far right) joined by her sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Your passion shines through, Nicki. What excites you most about working on 2U-powered HBCU programs, and what do you believe are the unique opportunities available to learners through the Howard and Morehouse programs you support?
I love being able to guide learners toward opportunities that might otherwise seem out of reach. One group I’m extremely proud of is Morehouse Men who didn’t finish their bachelor’s degree. It’s been rewarding to offer these men a chance to “come home” and finish their degree at Morehouse, even if they no longer live in Atlanta, GA. Simultaneously, during this time of social unrest, I’m proud to lead the marketing strategy for the Howard MSW Online program, which offers social work professionals the opportunity to advance their education and make impactful change in disparate communities.
These opportunities are definitely much-needed. On the theme of development, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned by supporting the Howard and Morehouse programs?
To keep an open mind, be nimble, and, at times, take a different approach than the tried-and-true strategies used for other 2U-powered programs. Each program we support is different and unique, and they should be treated as such. I’m taking a “learning” approach–leveraging 2U marketing expertise while continuously pivoting based on the evolving needs and wants of prospective students.
A growth mindset is so important. You told us what most excites you about the programs you support. Now, reflecting on your time at 2U, what’s one of the most inspiring moments you’ve experienced while working on these programs?
Hands down, visiting the Morehouse campus in Atlanta. The intent of the trip was to meet with key stakeholders and experience one of the institution’s open house events. I left with so much more! I had an opportunity to learn about the rich history of the campus and its graduates, was introduced to President David A. Thomas, met current students that are incredibly smart and driven, and gained a clear understanding of the overwhelming pride to be a Morehouse Man. So much so that I’m advocating for my three-year-old son to apply for the Class of 2039! You can’t step on that campus and not be inspired. I left with a renewed motivation to bring visibility to the life-changing opportunity of getting an online education from Morehouse.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting David Jr.: a (hopeful) Class of 2039 Morehouse Man
Class of 2039–wow! The Morehouse energy sounds contagious. Speaking of an inspiring community, how does your membership and involvement in BNet, as one of 2U’s Business Resource Networks, help inform your work in support of HBCU partner success?
I love the support and engagement of BNet. Since 2U announced the Howard and Morehouse program launches, BNet has shown wild enthusiasm. Any time I’ve met colleagues that are alumni of either school, they’re thrilled to provide personal insights and combine their 2U expertise to strengthen our marketing efforts. Partnering with HBCUs demonstrates 2U’s effort to prioritize diversity and culture within our company and through our business partnerships.
Well said! It’s evident that you support Black learners every single day—but what does Black History Month mean to you, in particular?
Black history is celebrated year-round in my household. It’s critical for my children to understand the story of our ancestors, the hard work and trials our family endured to open up present-day opportunities and privileges, and the importance of understanding and embracing our culture to keep us all grounded. I’m passionate about representation and grateful to work for a company that’s inclusive of many cultures and committed to increasing diversity throughout the organization and all levels of leadership. I’m hopeful that as 2U’s HBCU partnerships expand, this will further advance the mission of eliminating the back row in higher education, especially for Black learners.
Absolutely. To wrap up, let’s leave readers with some career tips. What advice would you give someone interested in joining 2U to support HBCUs and expand access to high-quality education?
Do your research! You’ll find that 2U demonstrates its commitment to diversity through its workforce and partnerships. If you have a passion for making measurable change in the higher education space, an interest in applying your unique talents to help universities thrive in the digital age, and want to have fun while doing so, come check out 2U.
Meet more BNet members: a senior student success manager, an implementation manager, a program director, and a curriculum manager who’s now the global chair of BNet.
Learn more about us.
At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help partners thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.