Sheryl Duffus was better prepared than most when the pandemic suddenly made the business world a virtual one.
When she completed her Information Systems master’s degree in 2018, she did so partly online, while working and raising two daughters. And she said the engaging experience she had at the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology helped prepare her for this new remote-first reality.
“Some people who I’ve talked to complain about the lack of interaction in their online programs, but I never got that at Stevens,” Duffus said. “I always had access to my professors and everyone was so accommodating in helping me.”
In a sense, she’s come full circle: As a network engineer at Verizon, Duffus has played a role in making it possible for employees everywhere to work virtually, by preparing the telecom giant for the sudden shift in traffic driven by the pandemic.
“I’m used to learning with a teacher in front of me, and I had that at Stevens, whether I was taking online or on-campus classes. ”
“We had a lot of emergency reroutes that we had to put in place, because with companies moving to remote work, there was a lot of pressure on home networks,” she said. “All that had to happen — and it had to happen quickly.”
It also had to happen with two girls in the house, whose online learning experience bore little resemblance to her Steven’s coursework, with its live lectures and discussion boards.
“Taking my work virtual wasn’t a big transition,” Duffus said. “The big adjustment has been my two young kids who, all of a sudden, are doing remote schooling.”
Back to school
Duffus, though, has a talent for making big adjustments seem like small potatoes, a necessity since immigrating to the United States from Jamaica as a 14-year-old. She has always placed great value on education, so when she heard from a co-worker about taking classes at Stevens, she jumped at the chance to explore her interest in areas of technology like A.I. and data analytics.
“I always wanted to go back, but I just put it off,” she said. “But I saw this is a perfect opportunity to get back in there. Life is always going to happen, these kids are always going to be here, so I might as well try to cram everything in while I have the momentum and the energy.”
With the encouragement of her family, especially her mother Jean, Duffus found herself in a classroom for the first time in nearly a decade. While her passion for technology had brought her there, she was decidedly “old school” in her approach to learning.
“I went in and everyone had their MacBook Pro open and I’m there with my notebook and pen,” she said. “I’m used to learning with a teacher in front of me, and I had that at Stevens, whether I was taking online or on-campus classes.”
It also helped that Stevens understood the unique needs, and added value, professional students bring to the classroom. Duffus had access to a support team at the School of Business, and her corporate family at Verizon, that she said assisted her “through the entire process,” like ensuring her registrations and tuition reimbursement applications were submitted and processed each semester.
“Stevens was so accommodating because they knew we had the demands of work,” she said. “And because we had that work experience, they always appreciated the input we had for the class. They really valued us.”
Valuable perspective in the classroom
Learning programming languages like R and Python was challenging, but she was encouraged by faculty to lean on her 20 years of experience at Verizon when considering just how these tools can be applied on the job. In other courses, she drew on lessons from her career to provide perspective to younger students who were just starting theirs. Professors like Dr. Don Lombardi saw Duffus as an asset to any class.
“Sheryl’s peerless thirst for knowledge and heart-driven leadership in the classroom are evident to all fortunate enough to be in her sphere of influence,” Dr. Lombardi said. “She dedicates the time and energy to fully master all new learning while balancing family and work.”
Duffus said Stevens’ flexibility made that balancing act entirely manageable, so much so that she returned for more classes after earning her master’s, continuing on to get graduate certificates in Project Management and Healthcare Management & Leadership. She said the experience of returning to school was a big “confidence booster” that opened her up to new possibilities at work, including Verizon’s Women of the World leadership development program.
And the cutting-edge tech skills and perspective she gained at Stevens will help her navigate whatever the future holds.
“After working 20 years on the network side, you can easily get comfortable in your little bubble with what you know — and that bubble can burst at any time,” she said. “I like to take the opportunities as they come, because you never know what could happen. You might not know exactly what's on the other side, but you know it's going to be good for you.”