The second time around More professionals returning to college to get new career skills

Mark Pereira, 33, is pursuing a second bachelor's degree by double majoring in broadcast journalism and video production at William Paterson University. Currently working in sales with a business degree from Kean University, he says he hopes to switch to a career as a news or sports broadcaster.-(AARON HOUSTON)

It’s become increasingly commonplace for professionals in midcareer to return to college to acquire skills for a new vocation or add to the ones they already have to enhance their marketability. We profile three such New Jerseyans to learn why they chose to go down that path and where they believe it’s taking them.

After the birth of his son, Mark Pereira decided to return to college to prepare for a second career he had been considering for several years.

“I did not think about pursuing my degree until my son was born,” Pereira said. “My dad was always my role model. He worked very hard to provide for my brother, my mom and myself. I want my son to feel the same way about me so I couldn’t tell him to follow his dreams as he gets older if I wasn’t following mine. I would not be doing what I am preaching.”

In November 2016 he and his wife Vanessa welcomed their first child, son Ethan. That life-changing event also got Pereira, 33, thinking about a career change.

Pereira earned an undergraduate degree in management/international business from Kean University in 2012, and for the past several years has worked in sales with T-Mobile.

But having long considered a career in broadcast news or sports, he decided to research mass communications colleges, then enrolled at William Paterson University in Wayne to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Pereira is among a growing list of professionals that for any number of reasons has embarked on acquiring new skills midcareer and gone back to school.

“The biggest challenge is time management,” said Pereira, who grew up in Union and lives in Kearny. “There are a lot of 18-hour days. I do not sleep a lot. My son is teething so I am up at random times of the night. My bosses at T-Mobile are understanding of my situation.”

He credits his wife for supporting him as he pursues his next career — and through a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011.

To become a broadcaster, Pereira is attending professional networking events and career fairs, seeking advice. He is also applying for internships at ESPN Radio, CBS, NBC and Z100, the Top 40 radio station licensed to Newark. He figures he cannot introduce himself to too many people.

“I talk to everybody because you never know who you are going to meet,” he said. “I started to look at alumni in the field, people who went to William Paterson. One of my favorite sports broadcasters is [alumnus] Kevin Burkhardt. He sat at these desks.” 

Burkhardt got his big brake when he became an in-game reporter on New York Mets telecasts and is now a national play-by-play announcer and studio host for Fox Sports in Los Angeles.

Pereira said he is learning to make adjustments to the pressures of live television. He produces and anchors a show on campus, writes and edits his own scripts and is learning how to work with a teleprompter.

Like any other budding broadcaster, Pereira said he’s willing to relocate from his home state if he reaches his dream and is offered a job elsewhere.

Becoming ‘more relevant’

Seventeen years ago, Amanda Santana set out to earn a doctorate in forensic psychology. She researched schools but did not find a college close to New Jersey that offered such a degree program. She then launched into her first career.

Santana worked as a psychologist at the Morris County Correctional facility for seven years, providing treatment services to inmates. In 2008, she moved to the East Orange-based nonprofit Family Connections, whose mission includes preventing juvenile delinquency. She has since been promoted to director of programs.

The clinical experience she gained as a psychologist, she said, has helped her to be a better supervisor to those doing clinical work. Santana worked with people who were struggling with a variety of social, economic, legal and mental health challenges.

“I was able to obtain supervisory training and experience and I gained a very thorough understanding of the criminal justice system,” Santana said. “I learned that you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, to be OK with the fact that we are all susceptible to the vulnerabilities of the world — that no one is above or below another. And I have learned that we need to embrace this in order to effectively help others at challenging times in their lives.”

Today, Santana, 40, leads a team that provides services to children and adults who have experienced trauma and drug abuse so they have the resources necessary to improve their lives and become self-sufficient.

Having enrolled at Seton Hall University in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit management, Santana points to her giving birth to her two children as a defining moment in prompting her to switch careers. She now balances her family commitments while pursuing a second master’s.

“When I decided to go back, I thought I would be the old lady in class,” she said with a chuckle. “I have tried to balance in-person classes and online. I love the learning. I am loving the education and I am sucking it up like a sponge and applying it every day. I am able to use it in the moment so I feel very connected. I feel like this balancing act is rewarding. I am absolutely going to stick with it.”

“I feel like when I heard about this degree it will help support me to not only be more relevant but to have more skills and greater capacity to fulfill the position,” she continued. “I realize how little I knew about the structure and history of nonprofits and the theory behind what we do.” 

Santana has enjoyed being in class with students of varying ages. Even though she has worked at Family Connections for more than a decade, she values the pursuit of her second master’s degree.

“Ideally, we want to live in a world where we are not needed,” Santana said of the work Family Connections does. “That would be a good problem to have. Unfortunately, I do not see it happening in the near future. It would be a dream goal so that all of the individuals who need us are thriving and all these challenges do not exist.”

Back to the future

Kent Daniel, 51, is proof positive that a person can return to his or her original career after some time away.

Upon earning an associate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Daniel worked in the fashion industry from 1986 to 2010 in a career that took him to faraway places.

After losing his job in 2010, Daniel looked for another fashion job but couldn’t find one that paid close to his previous salary.

Facing a professional crossroads and needing to make money, he became a bus driver for New Jersey Transit. About a year later he applied for a job at Montclair State University. Today he is the supervisor of the transportation department, overseeing the shuttle buses on campus.

“I drove for one semester,” Daniel said. “That was not my calling. I respect the job but it was not what I wanted to do.”

To return to the fashion industry, Daniel enrolled at Montclair State and this year graduated with a bachelor’s degree with a business major from the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship.

In Professor Ross Malaga’s class on entrepreneurship, Daniel got the idea to found his company Culture, a free-trade women’s clothing company that manufactures its products in India.

“One of the benefits of working here is that I got to attend classes for free,” Daniel said. “That was one of the big lures in staying here. I could have been a full-time bus driver. But I want to work at Montclair State, get my degree and I will be better off. I love education and have always been a good student.

“My sanctuary is in the classroom. It is so exciting being a 51-year-old in the classroom with 21-year-olds and I would like to think I brought a lot to the table and they brought a lot to the table for me. It kept me nimble, young and dynamic.”

Daniel also earned a third-place finish with a classmate in Montclair State’s BulbHead.com Inventors Day for Aspiring Entrepreneurs, winning $10,000.

Looking to expand his business, Daniel is focused on growing his company while also staying committed to working at Montclair State. He said he would not have been able to strike out on his own if he had not earned his bachelor’s degree.

“Going back to school gave me the confidence and resources I needed to launch my business,” Daniel said. “It gave me the knowledge and tangible resources that one needs to start a business, including how to find an accountant. Overall it gave me confidence that I can do this and taught me how to form an LLC (which he did in June). Going back to school taught me how to develop a business-model canvas. That is a very popular entrepreneurial tool.”

“The challenge I already face is getting the factories to make a small amount of clothing for me,” he added. “Factories hesitate to make a few hundred pieces of a style because they make more money when they have orders of a few thousand pieces of a style. My challenge was to get the factories to do me a favor, make a small amount with the hopes that it could be something bigger.

“I have a lot of contacts in India because I used to travel there five times a year,” Daniel said.

He is growing his company through his own website, www.CultureArtisanClothing.com, and on Facebook and Instagram. He is preparing deliveries that will begin being shipped next month. And Daniel will also be setting up temporary locations to sell his clothes and some stores in and around Montclair have agreed to carry his brand.

“My ultimate goal is to be a known brand that brings satisfaction to my customers,” he said.

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