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Family matters

For University of Phoenix (UOPX) alumna Shetia Burnett, MBA, family is more than inspiration. (Although it’s that too.) It’s a way to measure her MBA degree program at UOPX, which she completed in 2019.

“I started my degree pregnant, and I ended my degree pregnant,” Burnett says with a laugh.

She currently works as a strategy analyst in value-based program management for Highmark Health. She credits her company with offering exceptional support while she earned her MBA, gave birth to two children and advanced her career.

As Burnett’s story illustrates, sometimes it takes a village not just to raise a child but to also raise a mother, a wife and an employee to new heights.

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Born to shine

“Shetia has acquired many qualities on her journey of life,” says her mother, Marsha Curry-Nixon. “She’s overcome so many obstacles in her life to get where she is now.”

Some of those obstacles happened in her childhood. Burnett and her seven siblings spent three years in multiple foster care homes while Curry-Nixon was incarcerated.

But that was Burnett’s beginning, not her ending. Curry-Nixon completed her sentence, worked to get all eight of her children back, moved to Harrisburg and then put herself through school to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

All the while, Burnett was watching. She’d always excelled in school — Curry-Nixon proudly shares how Burnett was identified as gifted early. 

Portrait of Shetia Burnett

This passion carried her through young adulthood as she completed high school, earned her bachelor’s degree in business and took a position with a national rental car agency. 

She had, in a sense, arrived. “But a part of me wanted more,” Burnett says.

For that’s the other part of Burnett’s equation: a competitiveness (with others and with herself) that drives her. Only one other sibling attended college, and Burnett wanted to stand out.

“Because we both finished our undergrad degrees, that competitive part of me was like, ‘I’m going to take it a step further,’” Burnett recalls.

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Committing at all costs

Burnett was a few years out of college at that point and several years into the first role of her career. But her job was 40 minutes away from home, and her request to move to a closer branch was denied. Instead of giving up on the idea of her master’s, however, Burnett decided to leave her job.

She jokingly describes this period of unemployment as a “valley” of life. Her fiancé at the time supported her while she started her master’s program and took odd jobs here and there, including working for her mother’s nonprofit organization. What she really wanted, though, was a role at Highmark Health.

“I had applied to Highmark probably three or four times prior to actually getting in,” Burnett says. She’d long felt her business administration degree was foundational but so broad that she wasn’t sure how to channel it into something she loved. Then she found the business analyst role and Highmark and knew that’s where she belonged.

A few months after starting her MBA in late 2015, Burnett was hired at Highmark. She was over the moon and eager to prove herself. But the timing could’ve been better: She was newly married, a stepmother to her husband’s son and, by late summer 2016, pregnant with her first child.

“I didn’t want school plus pregnancy to distract me from being a new employee,” Burnett recalls. “So, I took a pause. One thing had to go. Obviously, it wasn’t the baby, and it wasn’t the career, because that was paying my bills.”

Burnett took a break, delivered her son, Jessie, and established herself at work. By the time Jessie turned 1, Burnett was ready to complete what she started. “I was like, ‘All right, I didn’t do all that for nothing. I should finish,’” Burnett recalls. 

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Finding her village

In taking a step back, Burnett could reflect on what had worked and what hadn’t. Yes, she wanted the master’s degree, and yes, she had the aptitude to complete it. But her approach had been all wrong. “I was a new wife, and I was trying to please everyone,” she recalls. “I had a new career. I was a new mom [to my stepson]. And I was just like, ‘I got this.’ But at some point, I did not have it.

By the time Burnett returned to her degree program, she resolved to do things differently. Her external circumstances helped. She was a year into her career, and her management team at Highmark was 100% behind her. “It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders because of their support and my husband’s support,” Burnett explains.

Curry-Nixon concurs. “When we discussed her going for her master’s, she said, ‘Mom, I know I can do this because you showed me it could be done.’”  

Burnett learned during the first year of her program that she couldn’t do it all alone, so this time she leveraged support at home and at work. She delegated tasks to her husband — putting the kids to bed, making dinner — that opened up windows of time for her to complete her coursework.

She also focused on setting a sustainable schedule. During the first year of her program, she stayed up late to write papers and crammed in the work whenever she had spare time. 

Shetia Burnett poses at commencement with her two sons

“The second time around,” Burnett says, “I was like, ‘I got kids. I’m in a full-time job. I have to set a daily schedule.’ So, I knew exactly on what days I was cooking and on what days I was responding to a discussion post. I knew what availability to give my project team [at school] every single day. And all that included a day where I did nothing, absolutely nothing, because I knew I needed that refresh.” 

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The formula worked. By the time Burnett participated in the commencement ceremony in the summer of 2019, she was pregnant a second time. (She smiles to remember hiding snacks under her graduation robes to fuel her through the event.)

She cherishes that familial moment. All three of her children were present one way or another. Later on, she would discover through a DNA test and a subsequent meeting with her biological father that her paternal line is peppered with high-achieving women who’d earned master’s and doctoral degrees. In this way, family has been her support, her motivation and her destiny.

Reaping the rewards

When Burnett returned to work after delivering her second biological son, she was in for another surprise: She was promoted.

For her part, Burnett was ready for it.

“I’ve got this degree for a reason,” she explains. And as she continues to grow her career at Highmark, she plans to use it. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, parenting, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors. 

 

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