First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Katie Parks

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Class: Class of 2020

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Fun Fact About Yourself: I spent three weeks traveling across China and Taiwan eating as many local dishes as possible as research for the opening of a new restaurant in Chicago, Duck Duck Goat.

Undergraduate School and Major: Northwestern University; Economics and Psychology

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Stephanie Izard Inc.; Director of Operations

What did your parents do for a living? Account Manager at Northern Trust Bank and Messaging Administrator at Sargent & Lundy

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? A.A. and A.S.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My grandma is my biggest inspiration. Born in rural Poland, she only made it through the third grade before leaving school to start working on her family’s farm. After surviving unimaginable situations in Germany during World War II, she moved to the United States with my grandpa. Not knowing English, she worked her way up in a factory while also caring for three children.  She eventually saved enough to purchase a home in Chicago and later became a US citizen. In my mind, she is the definition of the American Dream. I contribute all of my educational opportunities to the groundwork that my grandma laid for my mom and in turn, me.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? My parents always put my education first. I grew up under the assumption that I would go on to pursue some sort of degree after high school. However, during my freshman year of high school I came to the realization that I had full control over the quality of higher education that I could receive. I began caddying that summer with the intention of earning a full-ride scholarship to Northwestern University through the Evans Scholars Foundation. Hard work, both in school and on the golf course, led me to my dream of becoming part of the class of 2012 at Northwestern University.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? The pressure of making my degree worthwhile was my biggest concern. I initially pursued majors and internships solely for their post-graduation salary potentials. It took some time to realize that I was the only one in my life setting crazy expectations for how I would use my degree after graduation. After taking a step back, I realized that everyone who cared about me would be supportive of whatever path I felt was right, regardless of prestige or salary. I changed my strategy and chose my majors based on what I was passionate about studying. I explored careers and companies based on culture to find ones that I would align with.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? For the first time, I felt like I was on my own. Up until undergrad, there was always a clear next step to work toward: take the ACT, graduate high school, get into college, etc. All of a sudden the future was open-ended and I felt like I was all alone in figuring out what that meant. I wanted to give every opportunity a chance, so I overextended myself and said yes to clubs and job fairs that I knew weren’t right for me just because I was scared to say no. It took some time to learn that it’s ok to say no. Only then was I able to devote time to the things I really cared about instead of being pulled in a million directions.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you

wish they would understand better? That my parents’ support did more for me than they could ever imagine. No matter what I did, my parents were always there, proud and encouraging. Getting out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself, even if it means sometimes failing, is a lot easier with a cheerleading squad behind you. At the same time, wanting to make my parents proud was a driving force in everything I did. They had worked hard and had sacrificed a lot to help get me to Northwestern.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I am my own biggest critic and always pushing myself to learn what my limits are. For five years, I grew with my company and managed a wide variety of exciting projects that took me around the world. But a few years in, I began wondering what else I would be able to accomplish if I had stronger leadership skills and a better understanding of the business I was helping to run. I decided that pursuing an MBA would be the best way to force myself into new and uncomfortable business situations in order to become a stronger, more effective leader.

How did you choose your MBA program? It took me a VERY long time to narrow down schools. In the end, I only applied to two schools. I decided that if I didn’t get in to a school that felt like a perfect fit then maybe an MBA wasn’t the best next step for me. Thankfully, Kellogg thought I was the right fit for them as well. There are a lot of reasons why Kellogg stood out to me, but the two biggest are Kellogg’s commitment to their students and the community that they have created. Besides the gorgeous new Global Hub building, it was exciting to learn about all of the creative ways that Kellogg innovates each year to address both changing student interests as well as a rapidly evolving global job market. From adding new course offerings in topics like Growth and Innovation (based on feedback from the companies hiring MBA graduates) to bringing non-traditional companies to Evanston for on-campus recruiting to having a full-time Chief Innovation Officer on staff, Kellogg is finding ways to prepare their students for a changing world. Honestly though, meeting the current students is what set the program apart for me. I wanted to learn with these incredibly accomplished, but also incredibly humble, people who also know how to let loose and have a good time.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? Besides remembering how to study for tests again, my biggest concern was the financial burden of pursuing my MBA. Should I give up my salary for two years and pay to go back to school? I spent a lot of time speaking with current and former Kellogg students who had had similar concerns as well as some people who chose to not pursue an MBA because of those same concerns. In the end, I decided that the risk was worth taking for the opportunities that would become available to me both during and after my time at Kellogg.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I am very grateful that I graduated undergrad without student loans thanks to the Evans Scholars Foundation. As I return for my MBA, I will be financing this degree on my own through personal savings and loans.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? You’re the first person in your family who wants to be a (insert job here). Amazing, but you don’t have to get there on your own! Find someone who is older than you with similar career goals, whether it’s an upperclassman or alum, and ask them any and all questions you might have. They’ve already been through the process of finding an internship or a full-time job, and they have incredible lessons to share. Entering a career field that you have no previous personal experience with is a lot less daunting when you have someone to talk to who completely understands what you are going through.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? As an Economics and Psychology undergrad, my interests have always been around studying why people make decisions and how those decisions impact individuals, companies, or global markets. I’m going to take some time at Kellogg to explore a few career options within Marketing and Strategy. I’m also looking forward to taking some Social Impact classes and learning how to integrate that thinking into Marketing and Strategy.