MSLOC at 15: Selena Wilson: Transforming Adversity into Meaningful Change

MSLOC at 15: Selena Wilson: Transforming Adversity into Meaningful Change

Selena WilsonWe're celebrating 15 years of the Master's in Learning and Organizational Change program through a series of profiles highlighting the professional lives and experiences of MSLOC alumni and students. In this story, meet Selena Wilson, who returned home to become resident of organizational effectiveness at the East Oakland Youth Development Center.

When Selena Wilson was four years old, her mom signed her up for an African dance class at the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC). The organization became such a source of stability and strength for Wilson that she participated through middle school, becoming a youth leader in high school and college.

Through the encouragement of her mentors and her own perseverance, Wilson completed college and set her sights on Northwestern's Master of Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program at the School of Education and Social Policy. The experience was both challenging and exhilarating for Wilson, who served as a graduate assistant in the Career Services Department.

When asked to write an individual learning plan at the beginning of the program, Wilson's short-term plan was to work for a management firm such as Deloitte. After graduating in 2012, Wilson indeed spent three years at Deloitte before reaching her long-term goal of assuming a leadership role in a mission-driven youth organization such as EOYDC.  Wilson has been vice president of her home away from home ever since.

We talked with Wilson about the gift of high expectations, the lessons learned in healing from trauma, and why the MSLOC program was the only option in the following interview:

The East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) describes itself as an oasis in the desert of inner city life. Would you agree?

EOYDC was an oasis, a safe haven, and a second family for me. There are so many things I love about my community, but there was also a lot of pain and struggle. My neighborhood was called the killer corridor, so I was constantly dealing with loss. When I hit rock bottom after another friend was killed, someone from EOYDC literally knocked on my door to make sure I was able to move past that dark space.

People often have low expectations of youth from my community: I was once accused of plagiarism in high school because the teacher couldn't believe I was able to write well. But EOYDC had high expectations for me, giving me leadership roles and supporting my growth.

After college, you thought you were done with academics. What changed your mind?

I worked my way through community college and night school. I was never one of those kids who aimed to attend a top school, but a lot of people thought I had potential and encouraged me to consider graduate school. When I had to write my personal statement for the law school application, I had an existential crisis and realized I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.

I remembered an organizational behavior class I really liked in college, and thought about how the mission-driven programs I had worked for really weren't functioning as optimally as they could. I realized I would love to help them do what they do even better, so I searched for practitioner-based programs. I found just one! Northwestern was the only program I pursued.

You were the youngest member of your class, and one of just a few African-Americans in the MSLOC program. How was that transition?

Northwestern was the first predominantly-white institution I attended. Being one of a handful of black faces on campus was a bit alarming having grown up in a predominantly black community, so I immediately reached out to the Black Graduate Student Association to connect and get support.

I really was amazed by the intense availability of resources that comes with that top-tier pedigree. You have recruiters knocking down your door. It was all great but also highlighted for me some of the inequity that leads to fewer opportunities for people of color, who often do not have access to the same level of resources.

As one of the younger members of my class, I appreciated having the opportunity to learn from so many seasoned professionals. I also realized early on that I had to hold my own to make clear that I also had value to add to the group.

Describe the MSLOC program's impact in one sentence:

The MSLOC helped me fully actualize my passion and skill set, and allowed me to become the transformational leader that I wanted to be for my community.

How has the MSLOC prepared you to lead a not-for-profit organization?

After my time at Deloitte, I was offered a position as the EOYDC's vice president of operations and programs. Because of my experience with the MSLOC, I knew I had more to offer, so we redefined my job description to include overall organizational effectiveness.

I oversee programs, where I emphasize using data-driven improvements, and operations, which includes optimizing internal processes and identifying potential risks. I also oversee talent development and the organization's culture, making sure our people have the support they need.

This is the non-profit world where we wear many hats, and I'm grateful that the MSLOC helped equip me with the ideal combination of skills. It was all perfectly aligned with what I do on a day-to-day basis.

How has your experience growing up in Oakland influenced your work?

EOYDC helped me develop the coping skills I needed to get through childhood, but I did not realize until I got to Northwestern that I had been suffering from post-traumatic stress. Having learned about the true impact of my past traumas during my time at Northwestern, I was eager to work with EOYDCs CEO, Regina Jackson, to explore how the Center could address trauma in our community.

Most recently, I've worked with our team to establish a trauma-informed care workgroup and am using many of the skills honed during my time in MSLOC to implement an organizational model focused on trauma. That's the power of change management: You have people like me leveraging their skill sets and personal experiences to combat serious issues.

What do you say to the children who attend EOYDC now?

It's an honor to be able to work with these young people, and I see a lot of myself in them. Sometimes, I take them to a picture on the wall from my middle school days and tell them, I went to your school, I have gone to the same funeral homes to bury my friends. It is such a healing process for me. I'm able to take my pain and my struggles and transform them into meaningful change for my community.

Beyond the skills and experience you gained, how else has the MSLOC program enriched your life?

I developed life-long friendships that are very meaningful. We're a part of each other's weddings and I meet all of their babies and go to birthday parties. I will always appreciate the role that MSLOC had in shaping my career. It's been a major part of my life journey.

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