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How 3 San Diegans Switched Up Their Career Path During the Pandemic

Plus, which classes to take this summer so you can too

By Jennifer McEntee | Photography by Jenny Siegwart

Adult Ed - Amir

When Amir Al-Qadaffi’s career was paused, he enrolled in UCSD Extension’s courses to sharpen his skills

Mission Hills resident Amir Al-Qadaffi was working as a DJ and concert promoter when the pandemic hit. With restrictions on social gatherings, he could no longer book in-person gigs like weddings and private parties.

“It really shut down everything for me,” he says.

But rather than let the record skip, he picked a new track. At age 38, Al-Qadaffi, aka “DJ Hoody,” enrolled in UC San Diego Extension’s self-paced online project management program. Now with a few classes under his belt, he hopes to use the certification to further his career in the entertainment industry or even open his own agency one day.

“The pandemic is terrible, but it’s allowed me to do things I might not otherwise try,” he says. “This education is the best way for me to put my unconventional job experience to work. I can put a stamp on that experience and make it official.”

He wasn’t ready to choose his life’s direction just out of high school, when many schools encourage students to pick a career to pursue at a four-year college. “I’m glad I did it this way. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was 18 or 19.”He says we put pressure on ourselves to achieve certain things by a certain age.

Continuing education programs have long been a way for adults to fit in some schooling while juggling obligations to family, work, or military service. San Diego benefits from an array of adult education options, from basic high school diploma programs to vocational training, master’s degree courses, and skills-based certifications.

The economy needs it. The pandemic created career instability in many industries. Research by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office shows that the state lost 1.6 million jobs in 2020 as a result of coronavirus health concerns and stay-at-home orders, despite the 11 preceding years of job growth. Hardest hit were close-contact jobs in tourism, travel, food service, health and beauty services, arts, entertainment, and recreation.

Women, minorities, young and mid-career workers, and those with less education experienced a disproportionate share of the pandemic-related job losses. Why? Because they represent the largest share of the workforce in industries that require face-to- face interaction.

Changing the Game

Even when state officials determine that the public’s risk of coronavirus transmission is minimal, Mary Walshok believes that businesses will be forever changed because of the pandemic. She’s a UC San Diego adjunct sociology professor who’s written six books and more than 100 papers on topics including regional innovation and workforce development.

Adult Ed - Walshok

Professor Mary Walshok says education is a lifelong pursuit

“Every career is going to require digital intelligence,” Walshok says, noting that retail, health care, and construction increasingly require computer fluency.“We’ve already pivoted to deliver content and services in new ways. Restaurants will probably never go back to just on-site services—they’ll include catering and need a good website and digital technology to take orders. It will enhance the work they’re doing on site.”

Walshok will conclude her tenure as dean of UC San Diego Extension this month, but will continue as associate vice chancellor for public programs to launch the university’s new 66,000-square-foot facility on the corner of Park Avenue and Market Street in East Village. Its soft launch is set for January 2022.

The location for UCSD’s new space—situated right next to the trolley’s Blue Line, among East Village’s diverse mix of educational institutions, businesses, and residential buildings—is intentional. The idea is to bring together meeting and office spaces, resources, and classrooms for collaboration among students, educators, entrepreneurs, and the larger business community.

“There’s a large downtown population that wants to work, learn, live, and play within walking distance,”Walshok says.“We’re going to be one of those active centers for learning and playing.” It’s part of a greater shift for the modern job force. She emphasizes that working professionals and universities alike are realizing education is a lifelong pursuit: “We need to prepare for a life of learning, not a life of work. What universities are discovering is that we need to have a 60-year curriculum, not just six or 10 years. People will come back to be refreshed, renewed, and re-energized.”

New Skills for a New Reality

National University’s Brandon Jouganatos says mid-career education is a chance to get newly sought-after skills: “Schools like National University align with employers to find out what the current needs are. We can teach to those specific goals.”

Adult Ed - Sara

Sarah Lower switched her field

Continuing education professors are often practitioners in their field, with timely practical experience and insights. “We have established partnerships with employers who hire directly out of our university because they know that our curriculum is exactly what they’re looking for,” says Jouganatos, NU’s chief operating officer and vice president for enrollment management and student success.

Several career paths have become even more relevant in light of the pandemic. Jouganatos has seen increased demand in education, counseling, health care, cybersecurity, and emergency medical technology. National University is San Diego’s largest private nonprofit university, with degree, certificate, and credential programs specifically for adult learners. The average student age is 33.

Unlike attending a traditional college fresh out of high school, adult education programs are designed to offer flexible schedules and be mindful of prior work experience. With a brief phone call to the admissions office, a prospective student can get help collecting old transcripts and identifying an academic path that meets their career goals.“It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since they’ve submitted a school paper,”Jouganatos says.“We serve a very heterogeneous population and can help them reach their professional or academic goals.”

La Mesa resident Jen Gold, age 29, hoped to become a teacher eventually. She earned a bachelor’s degree in visual art at the University of San Diego, and began a career in marketing and social media. Then 2020 happened. The year’s health and social justice issues made her realize she didn’t want to postpone her future ambitions. “It threw a light on the fact that time isn’t promised,” she says. “I didn’t want to wait. I saw a gap where I could be useful.” She enrolled in NU’s Master of Education program that fall.

Gold hopes to teach high school biology and art, preferably in the district she attended, Grossmont Union. She’s going to school and working full-time, both remotely. If all goes well, she’ll be a student teacher by this fall. “National University has a pretty fast-paced program,” she says. “It’s intense. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”

No Time Like Today

Time was on Sarah Lower’s mind when she decided to reinvent herself. “The years go by quickly,”she says.“This pandemic has made us realize that. I thought about going back to school every day for months before I decided to go for it.”

Lower, age 34, recently enrolled in UCSD Extension’s online copyediting certificate program. She hopes to develop marketable skills that will help her get work editing websites, blogs, and eventually books.

Her husband is in the US Air Force, stationed at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. Having grown up in a military and law enforcement family, she went into police work despite her love of writing and editing. When the opportunity came to update a 600-page police training manual, she was happy to take on the task.

The coronavirus shutdown began within months of the Lower family’s move to Southern California. With two elementary-school-age kids, no other family nearby, and no one hiring, Lower revisited her dream of working in publishing.

“I was left wondering what I could do. If I can’t work right now and I have to be home because the kids are in virtual school, let me do something that I can control,” she says. “I can give myself an education where I’m losing some ground in experience.”

Managing her schoolwork and household duties is a balancing act. Her copyediting classes post coursework on Monday, so she decides then how she’ll fit the videos, lectures, and workbook activities into her children’s school schedules. “Some days I’m ahead of schedule, some days I’m at the clock.”

Adult Ed - Jen

Jen Gold’s pursuing a lifelong dream

Class discussions have been a welcome salve to the isolation she’s experienced as a stay-at- home mom in a new town amid widespread closures.

“I feel like we’re on our own island,” she says, explaining that online conversations with her classmates give her a chance to talk to other adults and get valuable feedback.

She recommends it for anyone looking to advance their skills.“An education is never going to fail you. I will always support people putting time and energy into investing in themselves.”

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