Psychology and Spanish, College of Charleston
For graduate student Jennifer O’Leary, taking the time to create life experiences for herself after earning her bachelor’s degree was essential figuring out her next steps.
Jennifer, who graduated from College of Charleston in 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and Spanish, knew she wasn’t ready for graduate school at the age of 22. She didn’t know yet what career path she wanted to follow but was aware her options were limited with her psychology major without more education.
So, she traveled.
She studied abroad in Cambodia and Vietnam as a teacher assistant — her second study abroad trip to these places and her third study abroad trip total.
“In my undergrad, I really enjoyed working as a peer advisor and ended up studying abroad twice with the university and then as a teacher assistant after graduating. I realized through that, that I really enjoy talking to students,” Jennifer says. “I liked working with the students and helping them, whether it was with research or integrating them into the culture since I had been there prior.”
Jennifer returned from that last trip just as she landed her first full-time job at Lexington Medical Center in her hometown of Columbia, SC. There, she worked as a coordinator in the oncology office, welcoming patients and getting them ready for their appointments and treatments.
While she was happy to have a job right out of undergrad, she recognized that her position wasn’t one that she wanted long term.
Still, she worked.
“I wanted to work and figure out what I wanted to do before I committed all my money to a master’s degree where you can’t go in undecided,” Jennifer says.
“I don’t think I would have gotten to this point without having worked somewhere else. I needed a realization of where I wanted to go and waiting allowed me to have work experience in an office, working with people.”
After four years at the medical center, Jennifer decided it was finally time to pursue a graduate degree.
Jennifer let her experiences studying abroad and as a working professional guide her toward a program she was excited to apply for — the masters in higher education at UNC Charlotte.
“I wish I would have realized what I wanted to do sooner. Not immediately after undergrad; not graduate and then go to school because I’m very happy I worked first. But I wish I would have done it just a little sooner,” Jennifer says. “Looking back on it, though, how was I supposed to know? I had to experience things first. All of my experiences got me here.”
As for heading back to the classroom after four years off, she says it feels like riding a bike. Once she got into her routine of balancing classes, making friends in her program, and working as a graduate assistant in Leadership & Community Engagement (LCE), she knew she had made the right decision.
In the LCE office, Jennifer has enjoyed helping manage PILOT, the largest leadership program at UNC Charlotte with more than 1,000 student participants annually. Each semester, approximately 100 workshops are sponsored by LCE in collaboration with many campus departments.
This experience with LCE within the Division of Student Affairs has also allowed her to think critically about career goals after graduation in December 2020.
A career in student affairs is at the top of her list, and, with excitement in her eyes, she discusses the possibility of one day landing a job in international education or a campus multicultural center.
Either way, her primary goal is to build relationships with students and assist them through any transitions they face in college because, she says, that was the kind of support she received as an undergrad that changed her college experience.
“I am interested in helping students navigate whatever life transition they are facing.
I would like to work with international students and students interested in going abroad. When I think about first year students, I want to help them transition. When I think about international students and students going abroad, I want to help them transition, as well.”
In the meantime, Jennifer has been accepted to a summer internship program in Dublin for higher education — another experience that is sure to help her excel in this next phase of life. If the logistics come together, she hopes to learn about their academics and school systems and how they compare to those in the United States.
No matter where her future career takes her — close to home or across the world — if there are students in need of support, Jennifer will be there to help guide the journey.