Alissa Berdahl came to 2U through a circuitous journey. She earned her degree from American University, where she was attracted to the inclusion of service as part of its mission. Upon graduating, Alissa traveled abroad to teach for three years in Japan through The JET Program, which solidified her passion for working in education. Then, once she returned to the U.S., she settled in Colorado and began advising others who wanted to teach abroad just like she had.
“It was incredibly fulfilling work, and when it came time to make a change in my career, 2U was a natural fit,” Alissa explains. “The way that 2U commits to giving the best possible service to students and supports them throughout their educational journey was inspiring to me. Equally important was the company culture, which gives employees the flexibility and opportunity to find fulfillment in both their careers and personal lives.”
As an admissions counselor at 2U, Alissa continues to have the opportunity to impact lives through the power of education. “I absolutely love working with prospective Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) students,” she says. “They’re an incredibly dedicated and diverse group of professionals whose mission is to create systemic change through social work. Getting to know each individual is one of the most exciting parts of my job. And then seeing them accomplish what they set out to do—oftentimes even more than they thought possible—makes me proud to be a part of their team.”
But learners are not the only individuals Alissa supports. She is also the global vice chair for caregivers for 2U’s Parents & Caregivers Network (PCNet), advocating for the people whose jobs do not start and end at nine and five. We recently sat down with Alissa to talk about the all-important job that brought her to the company’s newest Business Resource Network and, in some ways, has kept her at 2U: being a caregiver for her mom.
An early photo of Alissa and her mom
Hi, Alissa! For PCNet, you’re one of our two vice chairs, and you specifically focus on caregiving. To start, how would you describe your own caregiving journey that brought you to us?
My caregiver journey for my mother took several forms during her cancer fight. She was first diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2015 and was mostly able to maintain independence until about 2019. That’s when the cancer, compounded by physical and mental stresses, began to make everyday tasks impossible. In 2020, I left my home in Colorado for a two-week visit to my mom’s home in Arizona—and ended up staying for a year.
During this time, my mom underwent several surgeries, including a radical surgery that left her incapacitated for several months. I went from helping with chores, bills, and doctor appointments to being a round-the-clock nurse, housekeeper, financial adviser, chef, therapist, etc., while still trying to make sure I wasn’t falling behind at work. I was deeply grateful for the fact that I could work remotely and take the time I needed to provide for my mother. When she was given a final terminal diagnosis last summer, we were able to do home hospice. I was able to spend those last few weeks focusing entirely on ensuring her peace, in large part because of the incredible support 2U offered.
That time with your mom was unquestionably a very challenging yet special period for you and your family, Alissa. You must have learned so much about your mom and yourself in the process. What inherent “superpower” would you say you discovered in becoming your mom’s caregiver? And more generally, what changes do you think are needed in the working world for there to be more understanding, support, and inclusion for all kinds of working caregivers and parents?
I feel like caregivers have a surplus of superpowers that they acquire in their journey! But one “superpower” I’m especially proud to hold onto is one I didn’t think I was capable of until I was left with little choice: self-advocacy. Caregivers are often overlooked—there’s an assumption that because most of us will at some point be caregivers to loved ones, we should be able to handle all that it entails. But our society isn't set up to allow for family members to provide 24/7 care while also maintaining their own careers and responsibilities.
We need our employers and support networks to step up for us, and we must be able to articulate specifically what we need from each of them. Having conversations with my mom about needing time to myself was hard (especially when time together is finite), but it was essential to preventing burnout and compassion fatigue. In the same way, talking to my manager about needing to take time off—sometimes very last minute—was incredibly difficult at first. But the understanding that was given helped me to vocalize those needs and prioritize my own health as well.
Hat fashion show! Alissa says her mom was one of the silliest people you'd ever meet.
Learning how to self-advocate is one of the most difficult—yet most important—things you can do for yourself and the people around you. To that end, what’s the definition of a “caregiver” to you, and what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as one?
This is such an important question and one we don’t always think about! To me, a caregiver is anyone who is providing care to a loved one—whether that is direct, day-to-day care or peripheral care. Especially today, this takes on so many different forms. It's important to remember that whether someone is driving their spouse to the doctor for an appointment every week, the primary contact for their parent in a nursing home, or a live-in helper for their grandparent who is struggling with dementia, they are all caregivers.
As far as a lesson in all this? Time with our loved ones is so precious, but prioritizing ourselves is also an incredible gift to both of us.
And that’s one of the many reasons why PCNet exists: to help our colleagues and each other strike that necessary balance. So, what are you most excited or inspired about with the launch of our new BRN?
When I was first caring for my mom full-time, it was during the pandemic. I was living in an area of the country where the only person I knew was my mom, and I didn’t know anyone else my age who was going through anything similar. Despite the amazing support I got from friends, family, and colleagues, it was still an incredibly isolating experience. Since we started PCNet, I’ve found an amazing community of support from other caregivers and parents. More than anything, I want 2U caregivers to feel supported, seen, and appreciated, and I am looking forward to making that happen!
Mom and daughter savoring every moment together
And how about our allies who aren’t parents or caregivers themselves? What’s a great way for them to support us in their everyday interactions and professional relationships?
Check-in with a “PC” about something other than their loved one! This isn’t to say that asking about someone’s child or parent or other loved one is in any way bad. But sometimes PCs just need to feel seen beyond their caregiving/parental role.
Right! It’s a big part of who we are—but it’s not everything. Wrapping up, what advice would you give other parents and caregivers interested in joining 2U?
So much of the advice I want to pass on is directly from our Guiding Principles, but I’ll try to keep it to just two! “Be candid, honest, and open” with your team, with yourself, and with your loved one(s). If you can’t take on an additional project right now, say so. Also: “Relationships matter”—as in, the relationships you have with your colleagues, students, family, and friends. The inclusion of BRNs like PCNet illustrates the importance that 2U puts on relationships, both within the company and in your personal life. No one should have to choose between the two.
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