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“You can’t limit yourself”

Growing up in the backyard of Google and Facebook, Jennifer Kohler (MBA, 2022) might as well have lived a million miles away. She dreamed of a future in the technology industry, but a high school diploma seemed to be the top level anyone in her family or friend group “could” reach.

“None of my friends in high school were talking about college applications or career paths,” says the 39-year-old manager with Cisco, a software, networking and security company. When she asked her dad about college, he said it wasn’t in the cards. Just one uncle in the family had a college degree. Plus, money was an issue.

That was that, and she got a job as a server.

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Then she took a job in property management. But she couldn’t shake the desire to work in tech. The first splash of cold water came when she was called for an interview for a tech job she really wanted. “On the scheduling call, they noticed that my application said I was going to school but didn’t have a degree,” she says.

She didn’t land that interview.

Discouraged, she thought she’d have to settle for jobs that didn’t challenge her. But her boyfriend offered a different path. She could start at community college, transfer her credits to a university and, if needed, take out student loans. He said she could do it.

She would call on those words through adversity, tragedy and a six-year disciplined journey. It wasn’t easy. Her friends thought she was crazy for trying. But in 2022, she earned her Master of Business Administration degree from University of Phoenix.

Here’s how she got there.

Persevering through steep odds

As with many adult students, Kohler’s path to college had plot twists. She worked odd jobs and took classes at a community college. Finally, in her early 30s, she enrolled at University of Phoenix to begin a bachelor’s in business with a marketing emphasis.

She hunkered down, working full time all day and doing homework on weekends and evenings. “I had friends tell me, ‘You’re way too old to be going back to school.’ But I knew that sacrificing was going to pay off in the future,” she says.

In 2020 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business — but not before tragedy struck. Her boyfriend of 16 years died by suicide, leaving her alone in Phoenix, a big city she didn’t know well.

I had to start all over. Learn to live life alone. It was way too much for a person to handle,” she says. She credits one of her University of Phoenix instructors with recognizing something had changed. “She noticed a difference, pulled me aside, and said, ‘I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’ve seen a change in you. If you’re hurting, it might be beneficial for you to take a break so you can work on things.’”

She did take that break. Not for long — but long enough to seek therapy and start healing. “I needed to educate myself about not having guilt and getting over his death in a healthy way,” Kohler says.

She found a new place to live, resumed classes and became even more determined to earn her bachelor’s degree, which she did in 2020. Her first career break had already come when Cisco hired her, knowing her college degree was in progress, to work with their sales reps to conduct training, help with quotes and support business development.

She began following the leaders from her company on LinkedIn. “They all had MBAs. They stand out. Seeing how they really care about their career paths became a motivation for me,” she says.

MBA or bust

In 2020, her job took her to Chicago where she had to learn another big city. “I didn’t know how to take the train. You learn a lot about yourself when you have to do hard things,” she says.

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She looked into an MBA with University of Phoenix, discovering that Cisco offers employer tuition benefits. She enrolled at University of Phoenix for round two of school, and by 2022 she earned her MBA.

She also began posting on LinkedIn about women in tech — posts that other women have rallied around and applauded her for. While Kohler herself focuses on the business side of things, she uses those skills both to contribute to Cisco’s overall success and to bring awareness to the value women can bring to the tech sector.

“Especially in tech, where there’s already a limited [number] of women, I could see that if we came together and collaborated, we would be stronger,” Kohler says. “Not seeing enough of that makes me want to post more about it.”

In her current role as a renewal manager at Cisco, she’s now learning a completely different side of the business. Her job is to help close renewal deals, and she’s loving it. Soon she’ll be making another company move, this time to Dallas. “It’s eye-opening how big this world is. You can’t limit yourself,” she says, sounding very much like someone who figured out how to take the “L” in Chicago.

Her longtime friend Jessica Nelson couldn’t be prouder of all Kohler has overcome. “Seeing her push through adversity to get to her dream has been powerful. She definitely has her eyes on the prize.”

That prize even came at personal cost to Nelson.

“There were times when I called her, and she just wasn’t available. She’d have to study for a test. Watching her say no and stay focused on her goals … honestly it has given me the courage to take a step back and say no to things when I have a full schedule,” Nelson says.

Kohler is glad she pressed through challenges to get her degrees. And she’s glad she did it when she did.

“When you go to school when you’re older, you’re more mature,” Kohler says. “And it’s way different when it’s your money and your grind.”

She offers this bit of hard-earned wisdom, especially to girls or women who want to explore a career in tech: “Keep your eyes on the prize and not what people around you are saying. And if the people around you are negative about your goals, change your associations,” she says. “You have to listen to the right voices.”

Not one to pull a punch, she continues: “You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. There are people who settle in life. We don’t have to be those people.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A journalist-turned-marketer, Laurie Davies has been writing since her high school advanced composition teacher told her she broke too many rules. She has worked with University of Phoenix since 2017, and currently splits her time between blogging and serving as lead writer on the University’s Academic Annual Report. Previously, she has written marketing content for MADD, Kaiser Permanente, Massage Envy, UPS, and other national brands. She lives in the Phoenix area with her husband and son, who is the best story she’s ever written.

 

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