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Continuing Education for Professional Growth: A Student’s Story

AUDIO | Continuing Education for Professional Growth: A Student’s Story
Institutions need to keep student needs and demands in mind when designing programming, especially when it’s aimed at working professionals.

The following interview is with Nikki Karakostas, winner of the 2014 Mary Cone Barrie Scholarship. Karakostas is a student at the George Washington University’s (GWU) Law Firm Management program and expects to graduate in December 2015. In this interview, she reflects on her experience as a non-traditional student, and shares her thoughts on how higher education institutions could evolve to better meet the needs of adult learners.

1. Why did you decide to enroll in university as an adult?

I didn’t finish my undergraduate degree in a traditional sense. I started with everyone else at the same time and then, due to some unforeseeable circumstances in life, I pursued my undergraduate degree part-time. After that, I got to the point where I decided I wasn’t done yet; I wanted to keep going. As an adult, I continued to pursue learning for a variety of reasons.

I’ve been working in law firms while pursuing my undergraduate degree, associate’s degree and certificate, all in a variety of legal support roles. I’m currently working as a paralegal at a law firm based in Maryland. The traditional career path is what I’ve essentially taken. If I wanted to move up, I felt like I needed some post-grad, and that’s what brought me to GW.

2. Where do you see this credential getting you in terms of your career goals?

The law firm management program at GW is fairly unique and very well recognized in my field, which is what attracted me to it in the first place.

My industry has changed in a variety of ways since 2008. The management of law firms has changed into a top-down corporate structure as opposed to traditional models where lawyers were actually running the business. In order to proactively prepare myself for something like that, I felt this program was a perfect fit.

3. What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an adult student?

I find that time management is a major issue for me. As most adult students can say, it’s a big undertaking to pursue any type of degree. Assignments don’t necessarily mesh well with your professional schedule.

What brought me to [apply for the Mary Cone Barrie] scholarship specifically was actually some of the monetary downfalls I found for post-graduate students in my role. I was having trouble finding additional funding.

4. You’re managing a personal life, a professional life and an academic life; how difficult is it to maintain a balance between those lives?

I knew walking into this program that it was going to take sacrifices. I’m blessed to have a family that understands when I can’t make it to a function or a dinner or things like that.

I did go ahead and tell myself that for the next 18 months I should just kiss my social life goodbye. In some ways I’ve done that, but in other ways, everyone that’s close to me in my life respects what I’m doing and understands that it does take up a large portion of my time. One of the benefits of the actual program I’m in is that we are fortunate enough to be placed with other students of similar lifestyles and expectations of the program. We all work together, we all have full-time jobs in the legal field, so we’re all juggling multiple balls.

5. What made GWU stand out to you when you were looking for postsecondary programs?

I’m in a position in life where if I’m going to be pursuing any sort of education, it’s going to be in addition to my career. I wasn’t in a position to pursue a program that would need to be full-time during the day. My search began primarily with finding some sort of alternative timing, whether there be an online component or whether there be evening classes or things of that nature.

I did pursue parts of my undergrad online and I didn’t necessarily enjoy that as much as face-to-face. Although it wasn’t a necessity, I did want a component of face-time in the program I ultimately ended up with.

Lastly, I weighted the programs based on prestige. I’m of the personal belief that if you pursue a post-graduate degree, the institution you select very important. In my industry, GWU has a very reputable presence.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the challenges that adults face in higher ed and some of the ways that institutions could adapt to really make that process easier for them?

Different institutions can incorporate many different types of infrastructure to encourage communication between the student body and the actual administration of the institution. GW has been instrumental in helping me find different resources for managing time or networking with other students and other programs, or even just helping you register and complete things that take time out of your day that can be shortened with fewer bureaucratic processes. As technology gets more complex and processes get more complex, institutions should continue to adapt and evolve to make those processes easy for their students to encourage these professionals to purchase their education in a non-traditional fashion.

This interview has been edited for length.

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