She Recharged Her Passions with a Vanderbilt Online Doctorate—and Turned Her Capstone Project into a Dream Job
Meet Gina. After dedicating her life to one employer for so long, she felt stuck. So she enrolled in Vanderbilt’s online Ed.D. program powered by edX to learn how to help organizations evolve and managers become better leaders.
>>> Gina is one of several learners featured in our 2022 Transparency & Outcomes Report who’ve leveraged the power of online education to transform their lives, their communities, and our world for the better. <<<
On paper, Gina Des Cognets had seemingly done it all.
She had earned an MBA from a top-ranked institution and had gone on to hold several executive roles in different organizations, before eventually coming back to her alma mater. There, Gina served for 13 years in a variety of leadership positions, from director of alumni engagement to chief of staff to associate dean of operations.
But after dedicating her life to one employer for so long, Gina felt stuck. She had a standout resume and ample professional experience, but “something was missing,” she explains. “There wasn’t any more growth for me.”
What Gina did know was that she loves to learn and loves to lead others. “I feel the most alive when I'm learning. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop,” she says. “My dad used to say: ‘The day you stop learning is the day you stop living.’ And I am definitely his child.”
An Easy Decision
Uncertain where to take her career next, Gina gravitated to what she knew best. Already an accomplished business leader, she decided to seek out a doctorate program that would help improve her coaching and talent development skills. “To help organizations understand how to evolve, grow, change, and learn was something I was very excited about,” she says.
But as a full-time executive, wife, and mom, she was concerned about the time commitment. And while a program’s reputation was important to Gina, she didn’t want to uproot her family from the life they had in Vermont. That’s when she discovered Vanderbilt University’s online Ed.D. in Leadership and Learning in Organizations, offered by the university’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development on edX.
“Being able to go to a school with a pedigree like Peabody without having to be on campus made it an easy decision for me,” she says. “Much of the coursework you could do wherever you wanted, at any time. That’s the only reason it was possible for me. If the only choice I had was to learn in-person, I would not be a doctor of education today. The online degree gave me access to a way of thinking and learning that would help me do more of what I truly love to do.”
“It Just Made Everything Stick”
“In one of our first courses, we went really deeply into thinking about all the different ways to be a leader,” Gina says. “To this day, I still use and quote some of the learning from that class. It was just so catalyzing for me.”
It was while finishing up a final project requiring her to write about her own leadership theory that Gina decided she was ready to make a career change. So she quit her job and started a company with two other women that helps teams to leverage their strengths to improve productivity, engagement, and a sense of meaning in work and life. “The Peabody experience gave me the courage to imagine myself doing something different and exciting, and feeling like I had something new to offer the world,” she says.
In addition to blazing her own trail with a startup, Gina also joined Boston Beer Company in an instrumental director role where she could help develop internal talent. Now in a job that aligned closely to her education and passions, Gina was able to start immediately applying what she was studying online to her own professional life.
“It felt like I was in a learning lab,” she says. “Everything I would learn in the Peabody program, I would start practicing and doing in real-time—like creating a new internal leadership framework for the company. It just made everything stick.”
For her capstone project, Gina conducted an organizational analysis of Strava, an online fitness network. As a fitness enthusiast herself, she researched the company to understand how its internal culture impacted decision-making. Quickly, Gina developed an intimate knowledge of Strava’s people and processes.
“In the course of doing that project, I fell in love with the company,” she remembers.
A Golden Opportunity
Months after graduating, Gina still couldn’t shake her fascination with Strava. She felt the company excelled at cultivating a community of athletes and was eager to build on the work she had already done. When an intriguing position opened up, she leapt at the chance to apply—and after a vigorous interview process, she secured the role of Strava’s senior director of organizational development.
“I’m now truly living what is a dream opportunity for me,” says Gina. “I use skills I learned from my Peabody experience every day—like conducting data analysis to gain insights on Strava’s culture, developing programs to help managers become better leaders, and ultimately one of my favorite things: mentoring others.”
“If someone is considering Peabody’s online program and they think it sounds really exciting but also a little bit scary, that's their signal that they should go for it,” Gina continues. “You can make really deep connections online. When you're all learning together, it's incredibly powerful.”
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