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Recent Grads of the MSC Hybrid Leadership Program Talk about their Experience

Watch as three recent graduates of the MSC Hybrid Leadership Program talk about their experience as students and how they have leveraged their new knowledge in the workplace.

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How Communication is Helping Save Lives

Sam Wijeyakumar ’19 cares about education in a “hard-core way,” as she describes it. And for good reason: Education saved her life.

She was a good student but dropped out of high school in the mid-1990s, becoming a victim of human trafficking. Her tenacity won out; she eventually finished high school and began college in 2000 despite still being stuck in on-and-off trafficking.

Fifteen years later, Wijeyakumar finally earned her hard-fought bachelor’s degree. By this time, she had also founded Rahab’s Daughters, a nonprofit dedicated to the fight against human trafficking. After achieving these goals, she knew she wanted to continue her education and earn a master’s degree…but worried she wouldn’t find the time or resources to make it happen.

“I wanted a graduate degree that would help with my nonprofit,” says Wijeyakumar, “but I didn’t want a program focused only on nonprofit management because I also work in digital transformation. I was looking for a program that would speak to both sides of my professional life.” At the time, she was working as a senior account executive for Liferay, an open-source software company.

After weighing her options, she applied to earn an MS in Communication at Northwestern. She knew the Custom Leadership Program curriculum would be diverse enough to support her goals. Shortly after being accepted, however, she deferred for two years to manage health issues and make sure funds were available for her daughter to attend college. Wijeyakumar returned to the program in 2018 to earn the degree while also taking care of her family, running her nonprofit, and working full time.

Managing two teams—one in the Midwest and one on the West Coast—she traveled four to six days a week through the duration of the program.

“Sometimes I’d fly home on Saturday morning, come straight to class, and then leave again,” she explains. “But I think people are the most important part of a graduate program, so I wanted to be in class where I could meet them.”

She says her cohort made the entire experience better. They created study groups to help maintain a semblance of work-life balance. Even after graduation, the groups still keep in touch.

“I came geared up for this program because it was going to help my nonprofit, but it helped everything. It helped me as a person. All avenues of my life got better. And when a leader gets better, everyone wins.”

“We all had busy and demanding jobs, but we always helped each other,” she says. “If one person was behind on the reading one week, then we’d catch them up. We worked together to make sure everyone was on top of everything. For our capstone projects, we all took the day off work and recorded each other’s videos.”

Shortly after earning her MS in Communication, Wijeyakumar landed a new job as vice president at Veriday, her previous employer’s software partner. “My degree definitely helped with that jump,” she says. “I still get to work with my old company and team, but I’m able to lead new product launches into the United States. Knowing I had the theory around persuasive communication and being able to put together eloquent communication plans, this degree helped my confidence. I knew I could handle the role.”

In addition to honing her leadership and change management skills, she says the program also taught her more about directing virtual teams. During the pandemic, these concepts have been put into practice more than she ever anticipated as she guides remote teams in strategy creation and decision-making.

As part of the program’s thesis, Wijeyakumar also got to conduct research on human trafficking. As a result, she’s now embarking on her PhD to learn more about data mining. “I studied how FOSTA-SESTA laws affected human-trafficking communication online,” she explains. “My research showed that the laws hadn’t helped—they simply took communication overseas and proliferated it in other directions.”

In the future, she hopes to use her newfound knowledge to internationalize Rahab’s Daughters. As the fastest growing crime in the world, human trafficking is a global issue—and a trillion-dollar industry.

“I came geared up for this program because it was going to help my nonprofit,” says Wijeyakumar, “but it helped everything. It helped me as a person. All avenues of my life got better. And when a leader gets better, everyone wins. If I hadn’t gotten an education, I’d probably be dead. I wouldn’t have been able to stand on my own two feet. I tell human trafficking survivors all the time: ‘They can take so much from you, but they cannot take your education. With that, you have the building blocks for a firm foundation to rebuild your life.’ ”

Mission and Vission

Professor Randy Iden talks about the how, why, who, and when of crafting a mission statement for your organization.

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Earn Your MS in Communication From Northwestern

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Building Confidence & Knowledge to Take on a New Career Challenge

Ivan Jaime ’20 believes in putting in hard work, no matter the situation. As he earned his diploma and went on to study marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, he was also working his way up at supermarket chain H-E-B. Starting out as a bagger, he had risen through the ranks to central checkout manager by the time he received his undergraduate degree in 2005.

After graduation, he accepted a position with Union Pacific Railroad in yard operations management. Three years later, he got a call: The company was building a public affairs department and thought he’d be a good fit. He joined the brand new team in 2008 as the director of border policy and community affairs and spent 12 more years at the company.

“I initially started with a focus on community relations,” he says, “which eventually developed into legislative advocacy and lobbying.” While Jaime was developing corporate strategy for state and local government affairs, he also went through Union Pacific’s Leadership Development Program to prepare for future executive-level opportunities. The experience reminded him of how much he loved learning—and inspired him to continue his education.

As a minority, Jaime says he’s always thinking about his “yeah-buts,” as he calls them, when he’s striving to achieve new goals. “Studies have shown that women and underrepresented groups don’t always get opportunities based on potential. We get the ‘Yeah, you’re extremely qualified, but …’ responses. I’ve always tried to eliminate as many of those as possible. Getting my advanced degree was one way I could do that.”

 

“The team that hired me mentioned my education as proof that I’m a learner. They wanted someone who could learn quickly and hit the ground running.”

 

Working full time, Jaime was looking for a program that offered a hybrid approach: He didn’t want to attend all classes in person but also didn’t want a 100% online experience. “I looked for programs that were a mix of the two—and done in a cohort style—so I could become close with people. Northwestern’s MS in Communication was the best program for me.”

Instead of meeting in person the usual four times, his Hybrid Leadership Program cohort only met twice due to COVID-19. But that didn’t stop the group from developing lasting connections. “We’re so close,” he explains. “It felt like there was very special chemistry.”

Shortly after graduating from Northwestern, he accepted a job offer from Walmart: Jaime is now the company’s director of government and public affairs for Texas and Oklahoma, where he operates at the intersection of corporate strategy and public policy.

“I enjoy that mix where businesses are having to make decisions to improve their profitability in a way that serves the general public,” he says. “Often, those goals seem to be at odds with each other, but they’re really not.”

He says the program’s capstone experience helped him feel confident and prepared to take on this new career challenge. “My degree played a role in several ways. The team that hired me mentioned my education as proof that I’m a learner. They wanted someone who could learn quickly and hit the ground running. Through the program, I also got to know myself better and understood my value proposition. That was critical in helping me sell the skills I bring.”

Developing Effective Communication Skills to Support Inclusion

As Kate Harrington-Rosen ’19 studied at Montreal’s McGill University, her volunteer experience had as much of an impact on her professional life as her degrees in Hispanic Studies and Latin American/Caribbean Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies.

Volunteering for the on-campus, student-run Sexual Assault Resource Center, she received training to provide crisis management services and lead support groups for students and adults who had experienced sexual violence. By her senior year, Harrington-Rosen was co-running the center with a friend; together, they facilitated and managed all-volunteer recruitment and training.

After graduation, Harrington-Rosen moved to Portland to work with another Sexual Assault Resource Center as a crisis advocate, responding to hotline calls.

“Their office had a team that supported youth in the sex industry,” she explains. “Trafficking is a big issue in Portland because it’s on the I-5 corridor. I was doing direct case management and support with youth, including interventions on the ground. I was also doing practitioner training and working with colleagues, community partners, NGOs, and law enforcement to train folks on best practices. That became a theme for me: serving as a practitioner and a trainer.”

A move to Chicago in 2015 connected her with Chicago House, where she managed a workforce development program serving trans and gender-nonconforming adults. “That’s when I started turning up the notch on training and facilitation work,” she explains. “I was working closely with employers to train them on how to create a trans-inclusive workspace and navigate some of those practices.”

After her impact in the nonprofit world, Harrington-Rosen decided she wanted to work in an academic setting to see what kind of difference she could make there. Joining Northwestern’s Office of Equity, she was hired to train students, staff, and faculty on university policies and procedures about sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination.

 

“A lot of the work of communication is giving people new concepts, framework, and language to think about themselves, their own experiences, and the ways they hold power.”

 

Her thinking on diversity, equity, and inclusion aligns closely with scholar and educator Andrés Tapia, who talks about inclusion as a skill instead of an attitude. For Harrington-Rosen, communication serves as the link between these two things.

“Inclusion is a learned skill like any other,” she says. “I don’t know how to speak Spanish unless you teach me. I don’t know how to do geometry unless you teach me. Same with inclusion. A lot of the work of communication is giving people new concepts, framework, and language to think about themselves, their own experiences, and the ways they hold power. How do we help people understand themselves better and give them tools to engage in radically different ways?”

After beginning her Northwestern career, she realized she wanted to learn how to transition to having deeper conversations about a future where everyone feels respected, included, and valued. At the same time, she was also thinking about graduate school, identifying the MS in Communication’s Custom Leadership Program as a good fit.

“My career had been built around communicating to many stakeholders at once. Those are skills I adapted to organic settings and working directly with people in crisis. But, outside a training setting, I needed to figure out what was effective,” she says. “What I got from the program was this idea of moving from unconscious competence toward conscious competence.”

For Harrington-Rosen, it was extremely valuable to be able to understand why certain ways of communicating are more effective than others, giving her new language and context to build on her practices.

A week after she earned her degree, Harrington-Rosen was promoted to Northwestern’s director of equity outreach and education. She now oversees a department that trains more than 5,000 people every year on harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence prevention.

Outside the office, she’s also passionate about consulting. Several years ago, she built Praxis Group, which offers services to organizations that want to reach beyond the traditional ideas of inclusion. The firm focused on what she calls “cultural humility”: equipping people to think about what it looks like to have spaces rebuilt for queer and trans folks to support all genders, identities, and sexual orientation. As demand increased, the practice grew—and she stepped aside to pursue one-on-one consulting with clients.

“I think higher ed is a really interesting space to work on inclusion,” she says. “I’m also interested in what we can do in other types of spaces as a proving ground. What does it mean to do meaningful work and hold ourselves to very intentional standards?”

Going Beyond Her Comfort Zone

After earning her BA in English in 2014, Stephanie Santos ’20 was excited to join the workforce for the first time. Her love for digital journalism led her to jobs at big-name tech companies, including LinkedIn, Google, and Facebook. What she appreciates most about the online world is the way it provides a platform for those who haven’t been able to speak out in the past.

“Tech was never what I set out to do, but I was quite enamored by the impact it has on the world,” says Santos. “It’s creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to amplify their voices and be part of the mainstream consciousness and media, empowering those who don’t always get to have the microphone.”

A few years into her profession, she decided to reevaluate her journey to make sure her values and passions aligned with her career; she wanted what mattered most to be reflected in her day-to-day work.

“There are so many things I care about,” she explains, “and there were so many areas where I wanted to grow my skills. At first, I hesitated, thinking I was too young. But then I decided to look at graduate programs. Northwestern’s MS in Communication ticked all the boxes—from diversity to rhetoric, public speaking, and persuasive writing. It felt tailor-made for me.”

She knew the Northwestern name would lead to a top-tier educational experience, but she wasn’t sure how an online program would work for her. After the first few classes, however, Santos realized how the virtual environment still allowed her to build rapport with faculty and peers.

“The combination of in-person and online courses in the Hybrid Leadership Program was incredible,” she says. “There was such a focus on being introspective and inclusion as a practice—every class, every teacher, and every in-residence seminar honored that. The people I went to class with were so diverse in their lives and their professional experiences. Being in that environment opened my mind to different possibilities, and it was wonderful to get outside my comfort zone.”

She credits the MS in Communication program with honing her skills and giving her the confidence to speak up. At work, she had gotten used to being the youngest person in the room. This sometimes held her back from participating in meetings or taking on challenges. Backed by her degree, she felt more confident and prepared to voice her thoughts and opinions.

“This degree gave me a real confidence boost in the workforce, which left a positive impact on my day-to-day interactions inside and outside of work.”

The MS in Communication also gave Santos the courage to leave the corporate tech world she knew so well for a new opportunity: joining a small startup focused on inclusionary workplace practices and increasing diversity in hiring and talent pools.

In her new role, Santos is responsible for content management and creation across the organization, which is a perfect marriage of her passions and skills.

“This degree gave me a real confidence boost in the workforce, which left a positive impact on my day-to-day interactions inside and outside of work,” she explains. “It’s been incredibly impactful in the way I show up in all parts of my life now. This degree was the best decision I have made in a very long time.”

If you have any questions or are thinking about applying to Northwestern, Stephanie would love to share her experiences with you! Send her a note.

MSC Alumni Association

Current and past presidents talk about the MSC Alumni Association

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Preparing for Crisis Communication and Remote Leadership

Photo by Joseph Xu

When Jennifer Judge Hensel ’19 first began her career journey, her heart was set on journalism. But, as she helped tell stories for student newspapers, she discovered a new passion: graphic design and layout. “I wasn’t much of a reporter, but I really liked organizing information on the page,” she explains.

After earning an AS in Media Communications, Print Media/Journalism from Pima Community College, Judge Hensel headed to the University of Arizona for a BFA in Visual Communications with an emphasis in graphic design. While in college, she worked at the Tucson Citizen Newspaper—one of two papers in town.

Because the publication printed in the afternoon, it was rarely the first to report on breaking news. At the time, online news was also starting to emerge, and many newspapers were closing down. Seeing the writing on the wall, Judge Hensel wanted to help the publication stay relevant—so she helped lead an overhaul of the 60-member newsroom to a focus on digital delivery and online content.

After eight years—and a successful transformation—she moved to Michigan and left the newspaper to pursue teaching, freelance web design, and branding work, which gave her the flexibility she wanted as her children were growing up.

Once she was ready to return to a full-time job, Judge Hensel joined the communications and marketing team at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. Her variety of experiences helped her land a web content specialist position involving web design and writing, with gradual increases in responsibility involving marketing strategy and management.

“Once I started at the University of Michigan and began to see my career grow, I set my sights on next steps and what I wanted for the future,” explains Judge Hensel. “Especially in higher ed, the higher the degree you have, the more you’re considered for administrative roles. I decided I needed a master’s degree to compete in that space.”

She wanted more than just a piece of paper—she wanted a degree that would make her better at her job. Her goal was to enroll at a top-ranked school that would allow her to earn an MS in Communication quickly—and online.

“I was suddenly managing a 24-person remote team that, up until that point, had worked in the same office together. And we were responsible for communicating around the crisis to thousands of people. This degree helped me weather all of that.”

“I watched peers go through being full-time parents and full-time workers while taking years to get a master’s degree,” she says. “I didn’t want to put my family or myself through that, so I was looking for a program that was super flexible. Northwestern is one of the few that does this—and does it well. Their focus on diversity, equity, and cultural competency also aligns well with my values and what my employer believes.”

Shortly before beginning the MSC Hybrid Leadership Program, the University of Michigan College of Engineering promoted Judge Hensel to executive director of communications and marketing. Starting on Day One, she began using what she learned in class on the job—from strategic planning to inclusive leadership. Northwestern’s emphasis on the science aspect of the MS in Communication degree ensured that she not only knew the “how,” but also learned the “why” behind her work as the voice of the college. Not too long after graduation, COVID-19 hit.

“I was suddenly managing a 24-person remote team that, up until that point, had worked in the same office together. And we were responsible for communicating around the crisis to thousands of people. We’ve now been in constant-crisis mode for eight months in addition to our normal jobs—plus doing everything remotely. This degree has helped me weather all of that. It’s also prepared me to shift my mindset into ‘long-term mode’ so we can think about refining collaboration, re-evaluating communication channels, and finding ways to make adjustments.”

In addition to the relatable and actionable curriculum, Judge Hensel also found unexpected value in the relationships she built with her cohort. Working alongside other professionals to finish the degree together helped her build lasting connections.

“I remember the first in-person residency,” she explains. “I was thinking, ‘I’m just going to earn my degree and move on.’ And I remember the team at Northwestern saying, ‘You’re going to leave this weekend not only knowing everyone in this room but also loving them all.’ It sounded crazy at the time, but it turned out to be absolutely true.”

CLP Student Experience

Join two MSC CLP Alumni as they talk about their experience in the program.

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Earn Your MS in Communication From Northwestern

Take the next step in your career. Earn your Masters to open new doors.

Co-Curricular Opportunities

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General Info Session

Discussion of curriculum, faculty, co-curricular activities, career services, alumni, and admissions processes. Check Out These Other Great Webinars See Upcoming

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Earn Your MS in Communication From Northwestern

Take the next step in your career. Earn your Masters to open new doors.