Karla Ortiz Flores never expected to end up in Chicago. For one thing, it couldn't be further from her childhood home in Puerto Rico.
Where Chicago is urban and sprawling, Puerto Rico is homey and welcoming. Karla describes Puerto Rico as warm — and she doesn’t only mean the climate. “There's just a warmth to the people,” she said. “There was a warmth to being in a community setting.” Karla remembers going to the local mercado with her grandmother to buy fruit, and spending so long chatting with the vendors that they became family friends. Whenever she returned, they’d greet her like a long-lost cousin.
Leaving home never crossed her mind until it became time to apply to college. Karla had already attended Summer research programs at some of the top universities in Puerto Rico, and knew that she’d have to come to the mainland United States to access a higher tier of education. “It was an internal struggle to decide whether to stay or to leave,” she said.
Though Karla eventually decided to enroll at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign — trading her home’s warm ocean breezes for frigid midwestern Winters — Puerto Rico was never far from her thoughts, even as she took a nonprofit job in Chicago after graduation.
Just a few years later, Karla felt the urge to go back to school for a master's degree — after all, the pursuit of higher education is what motivated her to leave home, and she intended to see it through. The only problem? "I craved the same rigor that comes with having expert faculty and top-notch curriculum,” she said. “I couldn't really afford to go to a big school, nor did I have the luxury of not working while I was in school.”
That’s when Karla discovered the master of science in management and leadership program at Western Governors University. Not only did WGU provide the flexibility to work on her degree on nights and weekends at an affordable price tag, but the curriculum honed in on the exact things Karla wanted to focus her career on: promoting innovation and creativity at work.
Karla also had to confront her own fears and anxieties to get the courage to enroll at WGU. She felt like she wasn’t qualified enough to take on a graduate degree, but realized that she’d be doing herself a disservice if she let feeling like an imposter hold her back. “My biggest self-imposed barrier was thinking that I wasn't good enough for a master's degree,” she said.
Still, her desire to become an empowering, supportive leader — the kind of leader she had always looked up to — outweighed Karla’s worries about going back to school. The more she climbed the corporate ladder, the more Karla noticed the disconnect between the business itself and the people who ran it. Her colleagues were hyperfocused on strategy and processes, but ignored the actual employees behind all of those tasks.
“I wanted to become a resource to elevate others," Karla said. "I knew that I had to invest in my knowledge and really refine my expertise to contribute to change.”
As if juggling work and school wasn't enough, life threw another curveball right at Karla. Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, just as Karla reached the halfway point of her master's degree curriculum. Watching her home go through such a terrible tragedy from afar shook Karla to her very core. “It had never hurt so much to be away from home,” Karla said. “I kept trying to find ways to be there, but all the planes were grounded and there was absolutely no way for me to cross the ocean.”
With the phone lines down, Karla had no way to get in touch with her family. She lived in limbo for weeks, hoping and praying that they were OK. Karla would keep Puerto Rican news sites open on her computer, constantly refreshing the webpage to stay current on all the latest developments. Since she couldn’t get in touch with her family, it was Karla’s only connection to home. “My cultural identity is Puerto Rican. My support system is in Puerto Rico. All my family is still there,” she explained.
Desperate to do something, Karla started volunteering with Catholic Extension to connect Puerto Ricans who needed help with local churches that could provide aid. Between her volunteer work and full-time job, Karla was logging 16-hour days. She didn’t have the time — let alone the mental space — to focus on her master’s coursework.
In fact, Karla all but gave up on finishing the semester on time until she answered a call from her WGU mentor. Instead of chewing her out — which she fully expected — he helped her run through different scenarios to figure out how she could get all of her work done. He even talked to her course instructor to make arrangements that would allow Karla to take the time to deal with everything that was happening in her personal life without leaving her studies behind.
“Honestly, I could have not finished my master's degree had I been at any university other than WGU. I simply would not have been able to catch up,” Karla said.
Thankfully, once the phone lines were up and running again, Karla heard from her family, and they were all safe. She graduated with her master’s degree shortly thereafter, and even found a job at a strategy consulting company that directly mirrors her studies at WGU.
Looking back, Karla said she wishes she put more faith in herself earlier in her career. Going back to school not only gave her more confidence in her expertise, but also helped her learn to embrace who she is — so much so that she recently decided to pursue a doctorate degree. “Part of my master's program was exploring my strengths and finding opportunities in what I previously called weaknesses,” she said. “It was a reminder that we're all more than our circumstances.”