Over 2 million women left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic and millions of jobs primarily held by women (in retail, restaurant, travel and hospitality fields) have vanished without certainty they will return. As we all start to come out of the pandemic, women are emerging stronger and ready for real change—and that starts with workforce reentry and career advancement.

In fact, Strayer University recently released a nationwide survey to better understand current challenges women face to rejoining and advancing in the workforce and find ways to support their continued education. And they reported that 64% of Black women say they are spending up to five hours a day online looking for a new job. So, we sat down with three women who are showing us just how their lives have changed.

While there are many ways to get ahead, they each chose to go back to school as a way to progress in their careers. They have risen from the months of uncertainty with redefined purpose, renewed passion, and new career paths.

Follow Your Passion

During the pandemic, Alicia Jackson was furloughed from her job as a program manager. She had enjoyed her work and previously saw the potential for advancement, but she always felt drawn to the court system, so she looked at this as her moment to explore the possibilities. As a mom to five children, she loved working with kids, and started to see a thread that connected her to the court system as a volunteer child advocate. “When I was furloughed because of the pandemic, it turned into my time,” says Alicia. “Now was the time to focus on my journey and create new opportunities.”

Balancing virtual schooling for her kids, online classes for herself to finish her degree, and volunteering in the court system was not easy, but she took a step back, made a list of small goals that led to bigger goals and just started crossing them off. “You have to make a plan, then forget about it,” she says. “I know it sounds wrong, but you have to be flexible and be OK with what happens.” And that’s just how she discovered her true passion as a child advocate.

Working with kids became her passion, “the expression on their faces when you listen to them, and they see that you are there for them, it inspired me,” says Alicia. Getting up every day and knowing she is making a difference fueled her to continue working toward her degree, even when school converted to only online programming at the on-set of the pandemic. “I connected with all the resources they had to offer,” says the Strayer University graduate. “I felt the passion from the staff, the professors, and my advisor, they gave me the hands-on experience and support I needed to stay connected. They even offered stress management webinars—those got me through when I felt like I couldn’t do enough.” And now she has graduated and is on the path to changing her life and the lives of many children.

Invest in Yourself

Like Alicia, Angel Jamurath felt the stress increase during the pandemic for herself—and the other women in her office. “I looked at the supervisors and they were all underpaid and over-stressed,” she says. “And now we all had to balance work with kids doing online learning at home.” So, after 20 years of remaining stagnant, Angel felt the determination to push forward. “I wanted to take my career to the next level,” she says. “And earning my degree was next level.”

It was then that she said it was like a lightbulb went off for her. “As women, we always want to take care of the home and the family, but like they say when you take a flight, you have to put your mask on first before you can help others,” Angel says. “We have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of everyone else.” And for her, getting her degree was the ultimate form of self-care—plus it showed her children that if she can do it, they could too.

Persevering through the pandemic, she is ready to kick things into high gear and ready to take the next step in her career—and her life. Being 40, she thought she was beyond going to school and setting new goals for herself, but now, “I know the importance of investing in yourself and it’s important for me to teach that to my children.”

Make Your Own Promotion

Unlike Alicia or Angel, Kencheska “Chess” Howard-Jones’s story starts just before the pandemic. She had been attending classes and working toward her degree when the unthink-able happened. Her mother, her rock, passed away only three weeks after a cancer diagnosis. And then Covid-19 arrived and her uncle also passed away. She took just few days off from school, but says she then turned her grief into action and headed right back to classes.

She never stopped going into the office during the pandemic, “it was stressful to go into work, but I had to,” Chess says. She loves her job as an assistant at a property management company, it is the best gig in the world for this bright, spirited people person, but after being an assistant for 13 years, she realized she couldn’t grow without getting a degree. “Being with people, helping people is my passion,” she says. “I was reluctant to be a manager, but then I realized I like this and want to do more.”

Persevering through it all to graduate Magna Cum Laude, Chess attributes her success to the drive instilled in her by her mother and from the solid friendships she made with her fellow students, “they encouraged me and uplifted me.” A Strayer University grad, Chess says, “they teach success, the teachers held my hand and helped me to succeed.” And she did. She has since received a promotion where she will be overseeing a larger staff and working with more residents—and inspiring her team as much as she has inspired us with her story.

Is It Your Time?

Women have had to make tough decisions throughout the pandemic — balancing work and childcare or juggling virtual meetings with virtual schooling.  Now many women are ready to reinvest in themselves. According to the survey, 63% of Black women who experienced in a change in their work status during the pandemic believe that continuing their education is necessary for them to advance their career.

Andrea Backman, President of Strayer University, says, “Women who are looking to return to school to finish or pursue a new degree should seek out relevant, flexible programs designed for working adults that will allow them to learn on their own time. They should speak to their current, or potential, employer to see if there are tuition assistance programs.”

If you’re one of the working women spending up to five hours a day looking for a new job, these three women have some advice for you, like don’t wait to begin your journey. According to Alicia, “it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish—and it’s never too late to get started.” Angel agreed with that and added, “If you’re waiting to find the right time, it will never be the right time,” she says. “Until you decide to make the change, nothing will change.”

Sometimes you just have to take the leap. “We are all capable of doing great things,” says Chess. “Tap into your gifts and reveal the giant that is hidden inside you—if you believe you can, then you will.”

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