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Finding the good in the bad with alumna Barbara Smith

By Michael Feder

Barbara Smith is always setting goals for herself. Getting an education hasn’t always been one of them. 

“I was bored in school,” she says of her time growing up in Queens, New York, as the fifth of six children and the youngest girl in her family.

Smith’s mother wanted her to go to college and get an education, but Smith had a different plan, one that was partly inspired by watching Elvis Presley movies on TV.

“I always wanted to join the Army,” she says.

Smith would go on to do just that. And whether she’s talking about her military career, which took her around the world, her two University of Phoenix (UOPX) degree programs, her role as the vice president of her local UOPX alumni chapter, her good jobs or her bad ones, one persistent theme emerges in her narrative: a commitment to make the best of every situation.

“We all have our bucket lists,” Smith says. “Above everything else, you have to have faith that what you want to do is going to come to fruition.” 

 

From Queens to South Korea (and back!)

It wasn’t just seeing Elvis in uniform that made Smith interested in donning one herself. In the military, she saw a place that was diverse, where everyone was judged by no standard but their ability to perform the job that was given to them.

“One thing they do in the military that they don’t do in the civilian world is [have] everyone receive the same core training,” Smith says. “Everyone knows how to fire a weapon. Everyone knows how to properly prepare for an inspection. No matter what level of leadership you may or may not be in, you still have the same core skills.”

Portrait of Barbara Smith

This egalitarian approach would inform Smith’s management approach later on. “Just because you’re in the workforce” she says, “doesn’t mean you shouldn’t develop the same skills as your supervisor.”

The military also offered the opportunity to learn an extensive skill set. Smith took advantage of this opportunity to develop skills that would benefit her when she reentered the civilian world.

“In my five years, I got to do a lot,” she says of her military service, which took her to Germany, South Korea, Washington State, North Carolina and Hawaii. She completed administrative specialist and postal operations training and worked in both areas until she re-enlisted and elected to attend the attached Finance Specialist School. After completing this schooling she was reassigned to Hawaii.

Smith enjoyed the Army so much, in fact, that she joined the Army Reserve upon leaving active duty in November 1990. 

From the VA to Verizon

When Smith left active military duty, she began working for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). She had a daughter by that time, and it helped that the VA hospital was within walking distance of her home in Queens. She began her civilian federal service as a clerk in human resources, where she developed an interest in Human Resources. Her career led her to a position as an office manager where she further developed her management skills.

Smith worked for the VA for 10 years before deciding to make the move to Verizon. She would work there 19 years, initially as an administrative assistant in the Dispatch Resource Center but gradually moving into more leadership roles. Eventually, she was tapped to join the business services department, handling Verizon’s corporate internet clients.

Though she excelled at Verizon, Smith could see the writing on the wall. She had ample experience, but there were managerial heights she would not be allowed to reach without a degree. Interview after interview, her lack of a degree stood in the way of her advancement in the company.

“I needed my education to validate my experience,” Smith says.

Smith at University of Phoenix

In 2003, Smith started at University of Phoenix. Things didn’t go exactly to plan though and she didn't finish her degree then. It wouldn’t be until 2015, when she began thinking about leaving Verizon, that Smith came back to UOPX to complete her degree.

 

This time around, she was able to complete her degree, a Bachelor of Science in Business with a Human Resource Management Certificate in 2019. The ability to complete her coursework on her own time with well-developed online resources played a major role in her degree completion. 

Barbara Smith at graduation in a sundress and cap with roses and a diploma

 

“We all have our bucket lists,” Smith says, “and completing my degree was on my bucket list. My degree validated my [more than] 35 years of work experience.”

She left Verizon in 2018 and began working again for the federal government in Arlington, Virginia, this time for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

She was in the middle of completing her Master of Management degree program when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, Smith found herself isolated in a place she was unfamiliar with. 

Once a Phoenix, always a Phoenix

Without a friend group in Virginia to lean on, Smith turned to the alumni network at UOPX for support and connection. In the Facebook group for the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia alumni chapter, she noticed a post from the chapter president who was looking for alumni to join the board. 

Smith answered the call. She joined as a vice president of operations and never looked back. Since joining, she has spearheaded a number of events and initiatives. In fact, as we spoke, Smith was getting ready to drop off a trunkful of toys from her chapter’s recent Toys for Tots charity drive.

“My goal now is to get the members more involved,” Smith says, “so that our chapter can continue to grow.”

To do this, Smith will likely rely on her greatest strength: communication.

“Smith understands the complex nuances of different people,” says Joseph Nash, the alumni chapter president. “She communicates those nuances in a way that others can have empathy with, greatly enabling leadership to better serve the alumni.”

Smith’s enthusiasm for University of Phoenix is contagious. In fact, her daughter just finished her associate degree and is working on her bachelor’s.

In her own words, she is “always setting goals for herself.”  This includes completing her Master of Management degree in January 2021. 

From a bored high school student to a two-time graduate of higher education, Smith’s story isn’t the most predictable nor the most straightforward. Yet that throughline of perseverance and faith in the future appears in every chapter. 

 

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