When Jen Jonas reached a glass ceiling in her career, she used that setback to change her perspective on the importance of education. Having worked in different human resources and healthcare sectors, her motivation to excel in the nonprofit health and human services field was inevitable.
After earning two degrees in under three years (BSBAHR and MBA), she now uses her passion for service to lead and develop others within her organization's HR department. In this interview, Jen credits WGU for an "ideal flexible and challenging college experience for people with busy lives and who want to excel in their careers."
Please give a brief description of your background.
I grew up in a very loving but challenged family with two very hard-working parents who each had a rough life start. Both had been exposed to many early adverse experiences, resulting in a hardened view of the world. As a result of this utilitarian worldview, they both began working very young and instilled in me a fierce work ethic and a desire to constantly prove myself. Unfortunately, they did not value or impress upon me or my two sisters the need for formal education, so when I graduated high school, I already had a full-time job and no plans or resources to pursue a college degree.
How did you find WGU; why did you choose our university?
A mentor recommended that I explore some online options since not having a college degree inhibited my potential for moving up in my career. I researched a few different online colleges and was attracted to the competency-based model of WGU since I already had a lot of experience and practical knowledge in several of the areas covered in my chosen degree plan. Another huge plus was that I could complete as many courses as I wanted in a given semester at a reasonably low fixed rate.
What made you decide to get your degree?
I had been working for a company I loved for a few years and worked very hard to establish myself as a leader within the human resources department. I took on any extra projects I could get my hands on and dedicated myself to advancing the organization's mission. When they posted for a Director of Talent position, I enthusiastically wrote a cover letter expressing my love for the company and our workforce and detailing some of the significant achievements I had made there regarding workforce development. I was not given an interview, but the VP of HR pulled me into her office and gave me a heart-to-heart, which at the time I resented – I was hurt that while I had proved, I could do the work and had the skills, something that I deemed arbitrary could hold me back. Ultimately, this hard talk resulted in another deeper discussion and planning session with my mentor at work, who gave me another gentler, but an equally definitive dose of tough love. She shared her thoughts on my potential with and without a college degree and helped me explore what I wanted out of life and my career. This realization was what I needed to push past my excuses and take the plunge.
Why did you choose your industry?
I started working in the nonprofit health and human services industry in 2009 as a direct care worker supporting children and families in need at a 42-bed children's emergency shelter. I was eventually promoted to a supervisory role and was responsible for overseeing a team of 15 of the most dedicated and hard-working employees you'll ever see. To say the work was challenging is an understatement. We were frequently confronted with some challenging and tragic situations with our clients, ranging from poverty to homelessness and even cases of extreme abuse and neglect. Staff often burned out, so I couldn't just supervise - I had to lead. This experience instilled in me a passion for supporting the amazing people working in high-stakes direct care roles. I began to read and listen to everything I could get my hands on that discussed the science and art of tapping into human motivation and what drives people to persevere through incredibly tough experiences. I also enjoyed serving my team very much. Eventually, I concluded that I could help them best from human resources, where many decisions that impacted them significantly were made.
Were any barriers you've overcome (life, education, career)? Who were your influencers and supporters?
My parents struggled with substance dependence and mental health, another motivator for staying in the nonprofit health and human services field. And although I wouldn’t change it for the world, I had my children pretty young, so parenthood was a factor that restricted my choices for continuing my education. I am so thankful that the mindset about where and how we receive an education is shifting. I could not have gone back to school and completed 2 degrees in less than three years if I had not had the option of attending virtually and working on my timeline. Some of the other colleges I looked at that claimed to be "online" and "flexible" still had pretty rigid requirements for when and how to complete your studies. WGU was one of the only options that made it feasible, given my busy work schedule and raising three kids.
Can you share your future career and life goals?
Immediately after I completed the MBA program at WGU, I tested for and obtained an SHRM-SCP certification, so I am now heavily credentialed in my field and ready to tackle anything. This next chapter of my career will be about inspiring others to achieve their learning and development goals and building programs that will improve the overall quality of work-life for the employees I serve. In my current role as the Director of People & Culture, I have the privilege of leading the learning, development, and people experience teams within the human resources department at a fantastic nonprofit healthcare company. I aim to obtain an executive-level position where I can apply what I’ve learned in the Master of Business Administration program. I plan to achieve this goal within the next two years.
What advice would you give to future and current WGU students?
I would highly recommend developing a routine early on and setting boundaries for yourself and those around you. I communicated with my kids and partner when I needed additional support and set household quiet times to help maintain some peace. I also sent them away on day trips to family members' houses or errands when I needed to hunker down and study.