Alumni Spotlight: Karren Pope-Onwukwe

Karren Pope-Onwukwe: Embracing Change for the Better

By Allan Zackowitz |   October 2010

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.”