By Elizabeth Exline
Around four or five years ago, Kristy Baron was in what’s known as a stretch assignment for a director role at UScellular. She’d been with the company for more than a decade and was preparing for the next step in her career when the company implemented a new requirement for directors. Suddenly, a bachelor’s degree was a must-have — and Baron didn’t have one.
“I had my associate degree, and I was not very far from having my bachelor’s degree,” Baron recalls. “I was a few credits shy, actually. But there were other candidates they were interviewing, and I no longer met the requirements, so it was a really emotional journey.”
Baron could have blamed the company or resented the change in policy.
But she doesn’t think like that. Whether because her parents set an example of hard work and personal accountability, or because she was simply born that way, Baron sees herself as responsible for her future. When things go right, she takes credit. And when things go wrong, she takes charge.
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Baron has never shied away from hard work. She worked two jobs when she was in high school, she says, and opted to work full time as soon as she graduated. Taking on debt for higher education wasn’t something she wanted to do, especially since she was busy with life: She was young when she got married, started a family and moved from California to the Chicago area.
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In the Midwest, Baron took a job with UScellular, and she gradually worked her way up from customer care, to management, to the tech side of the house, to sales.
After a year, she became eligible for tuition assistance under the company’s previous policy. She used it to earn her associate degree in business administration and, even though it was too late for that first director role she wanted, her bachelor’s degree in management.
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“I kept waiting for what I thought was going to be the perfect time, especially at first as a young mom and then as a second-time mom moving,” Baron says. “I was just always waiting for when it was going to be perfect, and it never was. It wasn’t perfect when I started my bachelor’s degree program or my associate degree program. Things were going on. Family life was going on. Work was going on. It was never perfect.”
What was perfect, at least for Baron, was her school choice. She’d been on the fence about whether to attend in person, online or a hybrid situation when she reached out to her chief human resources officer for input.
“She was like, ‘At the end of the day, what’s important is that you are able to get your education in a way that fits in with your life,’” Baron recalls.
Because University of Phoenix (UOPX) is an established leader in online education, Baron was able to leverage support services and fit her education in with other obligations at work and home. But the process wasn’t seamless.
“There were a couple of times where I prioritized school, and I regretted it; where I didn’t go to something because I was doing schoolwork and there was this negative feeling of missing out,” Baron says. “So, I immediately swapped that and was like, ‘I have to find the time for school that is not interfering with these other things.”
Once she got into a rhythm, Baron found other positive reinforcement. Her son, for example, watched her study and do homework and cheered her on. And her team at UScellular supported her in more ways than just financially.
“I had leaders who would say, ‘I can’t believe that you’re running Sunday school, you’re doing your kids’ sports, you’re performing well here, and then you got an A in economics,’” Baron says. “It just felt like they cared.”
Baron may have pursued higher education for career reasons, but the payoff has transcended the promotion she once wanted. As a first-generation college graduate, she was able to walk at commencement in front of extended family who’d traveled from throughout the country just to see her do it. (She even inspired a few to consider going back to school themselves.)
It has also sparked in her a desire to continue learning. She’s currently enrolled in the MBA program at UOPX, and she has used her knowledge in more than just her career. Baron and her husband started a side business during the pandemic, a food truck that sells Hawaiian shaved ice, and they plan to expand once they relocate to Florida. “A majority of the MBA program totally helps you set up for something like this and be able to do it really successfully right from the beginning,” Baron says.
Then there are the ways Baron likes to pay forward her knowledge and experience. Mentorship is something she takes seriously, partly because she has directly benefited from good mentors and partly because it’s just who she is. Watching junior employees rise to new levels in the organization is something she savors.
“She is incredibly knowledgeable and willing to share what she knows from both her professional and personal life,” observes Christine Paulsen, who’s worked with Baron for the past two years. “She is also respectful and a good listener. She balances her airtime very effectively, so you know when she is choosing to share, you should take that moment to listen.”
And that missed promotion that started it all? Well, Baron has made good there too. Today, she is the director of DevSecOps Retail and Care Platforms at UScellular, and she’s never looked back.
“In the moment [when I missed that first promotion], I really think it solidified for me my motivation to continue on, even past my bachelor’s degree and go for my master’s, which I’m close to finishing,” she says. “I never wanted that to be an issue again.”
For the record, it hasn’t.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, parenting, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors. Today, if given a free hour and the choice, she'd still prefer to curl up with a good story.
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