Leveraging life-long learning for career acceleration despite uncertain futures

Portland State University dual degree student Qiwu Zhu on the value of her graduate business education

Qiwu Zhu has always been a passionate and high-achieving learner. As an undergrad, she saw the value in double majoring in both economics and psychology. After graduating, Zhu took a break from her ambitious course load with a gap year. She traveled through almost a dozen countries, including hitchhiking alone through Morocco and Turkey. “The world is full of good people,” says Zhu. “That trip shaped my worldview and set a foundation for how I perceived things.” 

After her gap year, Zhu was looking for a graduate program that would take her career to the next level, and help her approach business with sustainability and empowerment. That’s exactly what she found at Portland State University’s School of Business. “The Portland MBA was a different kind of program. It was the program I needed,” says Zhu. “The sustainability focus and mission to offer equal opportunities drew me in. The School of Business differentiates itself by educating students to live their values through their work rather than just chasing profits.”

Zhu was admitted to The Portland MBA in 2017, and in her first quarter, she took a range of core classes. “I took corporate finance and totally fell in love,” says Zhu. “It opened up a whole new world, and I just wanted to learn more.” With her growing interest in finance, she spoke with the academic director of the Master of Science in Finance (MSF) and was thrilled to learn that there was a dual degree option she could pursue. 

With the MBA/MSF dual degree, Zhu could take classes in both programs, graduate with two graduate degrees, and save nearly $10,000 in program costs. The student resources available to her — including career counseling, peer mentorship and faculty support — helped Zhu feel empowered to share her expertise in the classroom and group projects, bringing her finance specialization to The Portland MBA, and her holistic leadership framework to the MSF. “The faculty, the campus, the whole environment was so embracing,” says Zhu. “Especially for me as an Asian woman, I felt like I had a voice in the programs.”

A dual degree program isn’t the right fit for everyone, but for life-long learners like Zhu who want to advance their careers with rigorous experiential learning, it can be an accelerated way to develop a competitive skill set. “I went to bed and woke up every day excited about what I was learning,” says Zhu. “From an undergrad who didn’t know anything, the graduate programs helped me become a professional.” 

In addition to building her confidence with data analysis and critical thinking, Zhu was especially impacted by the focus on communication, emotional intelligence and leadership development. “I gained skills in public speaking, which is such an important skill set in the business world. Forget about math and analysis, you can’t do anything if you can’t communicate,” says Zhu. “Brian McCarthy’s leadership course also helped me think about my goals, what skills I wanted to gain, how others perceived me, and who could be a resource for my growth.” 

The leadership immersion course at the culmination of The Portland MBA was also a transformative experience, helping Zhu reflect on how far she had come. When asked how she wanted to move forward in her career, Zhu says, “I remember saying ‘I don’t know what will happen in the future!’” Her goal became to develop her uncertainty management. “Things never go to plan, so I want to be able to respond and carry myself well when things are good and bad.” 

Zhu could not have picked a better focus for the early years of her career, because less than a year after her graduation was the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic. She took a role in operations as a buyer for a global waste water treatment company, meeting with international industrial and municipal clients to source specialized equipment. She was soon promoted as a project leader. “I got to learn how the company runs at a higher level, including how operations and finances are handled.” 

After two years of working through a global pandemic, she was ready for new challenges. “I had the problem so many young professionals have,” says Zhu. “After a few years, I felt my career had plateaued—and my goal is to always be improving.” She transitioned to a role with Jones Lang Lasalle, an ideal opportunity for her to grow in the supply chain industry and explore indirect sourcing. “I shifted from the industrial side to the service side. I negotiate wages and manage commercial real estate—this is exactly what I need to learn the full picture of sourcing strategy.” 

Looking into the uncertainty of the future, Zhu plans to continue to develop her leadership and take on more management responsibilities. “I only have 24 hours in a day and ten fingers to type with. In order to do more, my goal is to have my own team to manage,” says Zhu. “That will help me understand more about the industry and be able to do more.” 

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