Alumni Spotlight: Karren Pope-Onwukwe
Karren Pope-Onwukwe: Embracing Change for the Better
Karren Pope-Onwukwe , Alumnus
When Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe flashes you her broad smile, reinforced by her twinkling dark eyes, it’s probably easier to picture her as the high school teacher or flight attendant that she used to be than it is to see her as the well-known and politically connected lawyer she is today.
To understand just how remarkable a journey it has been, though, you must look back to 1974, when Pope-Onwukwe graduated from Eastern Kentucky University and went to work teaching high school social studies in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
At first, it seemed like a dream come true—working with young people and helping to shape the mid-1970s trend toward incorporating African studies into the American social studies curriculum. But Pope-Onwukwe soon grew frustrated by the lack of funding for education.
“I thought it was outrageous for teachers to have to ask—beg really—for money in order to do our jobs,” said Pope-Onwukwe. “So, promptly after getting tenure, I quit—leading my family to worry about my decision-making capabilities.”
She needed a job. When she saw an ad in the Washington Post for flight attendants who could speak a second language, she parlayed her high school French into a very comfortable, 11-year career with Pan American World Airways, working some of the company’s most exciting and exotic routes. Then, in 1991, the venerable airline filed for bankruptcy.
Out of work once again, this time Pope-Onwukwe faced more challenging circumstances. She was now a single mother with a young son and a home mortgage, and the economy was in recession. For more than two years, Pope-Onwukwe was unemployed, and the future—both for her and her son—looked bleak.
But an ad in the Washington Post caught her attention—this one advertising the undergraduate paralegal studies program at UMUC. Pope-Onwukwe went to a free seminar and learned about the field from graduates of the program.
When an advisor explained that she could transfer credits from her teaching degree and earn her bachelor’s degree with a specialization in paralegal studies by completing just 30 more credits, Pope-Onwukwe once again decided that change was in order. But money was a problem.
“At my first registration, I was crying as I wrote out a check for almost everything left in my account,” Pope-Onwukwe said. “The financial officer asked me what was wrong, and when I told him, he suggested that I check with the financial aid office.”
Pope-Onwukwe hadn’t considered financial aid, but she easily qualified for a scholarship that not only helped to prevent tears at future registrations, but also allowed her to take more courses each term. Once into the program, she got help from fellow students—most of whom were young legal secretaries trying to advance their careers—who were familiar with the workings of a law office, legal terminology, and computer technology, all of which was new to Pope-Onwukwe.
She was pleasantly surprised to discover that her UMUC professors, including the director of the paralegal studies program, were another important source of support as she tackled her class work, the UMUC Cooperative Education program, and that program’s required internships.
“UMUC staff and faculty always seemed to be reaching out to help,” said Pope-Onwukwe. “It changed my life. Calling to talk to a professor didn’t seem inappropriate. It was okay. UMUC allowed me to realize that I’m a thinking person.”