When Faced with a Midlife Career Crisis, “Education is the Best Way to Navigate the Transition”

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The following speech was given by Kathryn Spencer White at the August 28, 2019 College of Professional Studies graduation ceremony. Ms. Spencer White ’19, the ceremony’s student speaker, relayed her triumphs and pitfalls (both professional and personal) to her fellow graduates as she described her journey through a midlife career crisis which led her to enroll in the master’s in Nonprofit Management program at the college. A career changer who has worked in two countries, and graduated from college as a single parent, Ms. Spencer White now lives in Maine with her family where she serves as the first executive director for the Boothbay Region Community Resource Council:

Good morning honored guests, members of the faculty, colleagues, and my distinguished fellow graduates. It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you as we arrive at the end of this part of the journey together.

I stand before you as a hardworking nonprofit executive director, but more importantly as a sister, a mother, a colleague and a friend.  

Like all of you, this is not my first educational milestone. We are here because we are the kind of people who know that in life, it is important to keep your eyes open to opportunity. The world continues to evolve at a rapid pace and education is no longer a stage in life but a life-long endeavor. 

This is the world we live in, or at least, it has been since I was a kid growing up in Silicon Valley in the 1980’s.  My dad worked in IT and we had an IBM plant right around the corner from our house. I watched my parents’ generation move from a paper-based world to one of kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, then terabytes and I have no ideas what’s coming next but I know that  change is coming and no matter what your age, you can either evolve with the times or you can wither in despair.

Two years ago I was deep in the throes of a midlife career crisis and I had a choice: I could stay stuck or I could evolve. For me, adaptation is always preferable to hopelessness, but it’s hard to know where to start: where is the first brick in the yellow road?

Over the years, I’ve found that education is the best way to navigate the transition.

The internet is full of fast tracks and life hacks, certificates and easy online access to a breadth of knowledge that is beyond anything I could have imagined in 1984 when I was in 8th grade. Our school was generously gifted a classroom full of the first Macintosh computers, which were little more than glorified typewriters donated to our school by the then upstart Apple Computers - we weren’t impressed; Atari was “funner” and the Commodore 64 was easier. Change, it turns out, isn’t always fun or easy.

Two years ago I knew I needed more than a quick fix to help me navigate my way out of that crisis. For a lot of reasons, I needed a flexible online program. I also wanted a red brick research university, a member of the academy who would award a qualification that was specific to my sector, would strengthen existing professional muscles and help build weaker ones, and could both withstand time as well as provide a launchpad for everything else I wanted to do.

It was a tall order.

Northeastern delivered the goods.

With this degree, I have everything I asked for and more. I have studied with people young and old, ballerinas and national security specialists, as well as teachers and lawyers and paramedics in countries as far flung as Vietnam, Canada, England and Costa Rica. All at the same time.

For many of us, this graduation marks the end - we are done with reading lists and exams, discussion posts, group presentations, Kaltura videos and 15-page papers due on Sunday night. For those of you who have climbed your last academic mountain I say, “Well done! You did good work.”

Happily, this master’s degree was just the start of my Northeastern journey. Next month I will join the Doctorate in Law and Policy at Northeastern's Seattle campus. There is further research to do, more problems to understand, and new skills to acquire. I’m not done asking questions. 

When I called my mother to tell her I was doing one last degree, in Seattle no less, she was baffled - how can you be in two places at once? 

Because today, anything is possible, even defying the space time continuum.

At my first college graduation I was a single mom with a 2 year old. Now I’m a working mom with 5 kids - I’m in awe at what single mothers and working parents can achieve! I’m inspired by the folks who grew up in poverty and have had to work twice as hard for what they have or the folks who have had to wrestle with disability and disappointment and a life that so often gets in the way of ambition and potential.

Each one of us has our own amazing story. Each one of us has overcome obstacles and challenges and has had to learn to defy physics. But here’s what I know for sure: no matter how young you are as you sit here today, and no matter how old, as long as you still have fight in you, there are still opportunities to pursue. 

Northeastern is the kind of university that recognizes that with flexibility, human potential is limitless.

As you leave here today, remember a few things that your sister, mother, colleague and friend has learned along the way:

Stay open to opportunity.
Embrace change.
Do it with purpose. Do it with courage. 
But most importantly, do it without regrets. Do the best you can with what you have and leave the rest to history.

Here is where we part ways. Thank you for walking this part of the road with me. Thank you for your wisdom, courage, and grace under pressure. I will carry you with me as I embark on this new Northeastern adventure.

I wish you all Godspeed, wherever the journey may lead.

About Kathyrn Spencer White:

Kathryn Spencer White began her career as a high school social studies teacher in Baltimore. After a number of years teaching in Maryland and Virginia (Baltimore and Fairfax Counties), she moved with her family to the United Kingdom. Since her U.S. teaching license wasn’t recognized in England, Kathryn decided to pursue a less stressful line of work. So she went to law school and, in 2008, qualified as a U.K. lawyer, specializing in higher education and charities at a top 100 global law firm. 

In the wake of the global economic meltdown, Kathryn decided her future lay not in serving corporations but the public. She spent a number of years as the manager of a multi-agency children’s partnership in Stoke-on-Trent, one of Europe’s most economically deprived cities. She returned to the U.S. in 2014 to join Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville, Virginia. There she focused on homeowner support and community development and drafted the first citizenship-status-blind homeownership affiliate policy in the U.S. After leaving Habitat, Kathryn helped found a nonprofit that worked to empower under-resourced communities fighting against environmental racism. 

In February 2018 Kathryn fulfilled a lifelong dream and moved to Maine when she was appointed as the first executive director for the Boothbay Region Community Resource Council, a rural human services nonprofit that seeks to ensure all people have the resources they need to live with dignity and hope. Kathryn’s work focuses on advocacy for rural communities, fundraising, governance, and program excellence. During this time, she earned a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management with a concentration in Leadership from Northeastern. 

Kathryn also holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz, a Postgraduate Diploma in Law from the University of Law in England, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice from Staffordshire University.
Kathryn’s greatest legacy, however, is her family. She is the mother of five kids aged 7 to 28 and can usually be found throwing a football with the youngest, debating public policy with the elders, sometimes both at the same time.