CAREER CLIMBER: Madison DeWispelaere '22 CPS used her degree and professional education opportunities to kickstart her career
When thinking about college, most people automatically think about students taking the traditional route, entering college as a teenager out of high school. Perhaps surprisingly, a larger part of the college landscape is now made up of adults with work experience choosing to return to school to earn their degree.
In addition, upskilling and continuing professional education is now critical to those looking to grow or stimulate their careers.
Madison DeWispelaere, a member of the class of 2022 at Villanova University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS), exemplifies an ambitious young student and her journey to a degree took her career and her entrepreneurial spirit to new heights.
“I want other people in my age demographic that have had a non-traditional path to not have any shame,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in your journey. If (earning your degree) is the right option for you, you should absolutely pursue it and pursue it with pride.”
Out of high school, Madison enrolled at Millersville University as a biology major. Her passion for that field lessened as she started working as a freelance graphic designer. When the opportunity to take on more design work led to a full-time job, she left her degree unfinished.
“When I was originally in college, I knew it wasn’t the right investment for me at that time in my life,” she explained. “But I always knew after I left that I would be back.”
Her career led her to a position as the creative director for a non-profit organization that was dedicated to providing access to higher education to all kinds of students. Seeing their stories, Madison saw her path leading back to school.
“I was so inspired by the students I was working with, seeing their journeys and the obstacles they overcame. I thought, ‘I can absolutely do that too!’ and decided to apply.”
Attending Villanova had always been dream since a childhood trip to campus with her dad. When she was going back to school, Villanova was her only application.
“When I applied, I was aware that many of my classmates in CPS would be in a different stage of life.”
Rather than seeing that as an issue, she saw the advantages in the situation.
“I knew I would gain tremendous value being alongside students with some seniority in their lives and their careers. That was a conscious decision for me.”
She enrolled at CPS as a Leadership major, continuing to work full-time while taking classes primarily online.
“I was working full-time and it was a pretty demanding job. I needed something that would work with my schedule and still be at an elite school,” Madison said.
Not only was Madison taking classes while working, she took on an exceptional course load, with an average of 18 credits per semester.
“It was manageable because it was remote. I didn’t have to commute to classes. I just popped open my laptop wherever I was – at work, after the gym, anywhere.”
Beyond the flexibility of remote classes, Madison credits the resources available in CPS, as well as her advisor, Olivia Mendenall, for helping her thrive despite a challenging schedule.
“When I first met with Olivia, I told her, I want to accomplish this as quickly as I can,” Madison recounted.
“Taking one or two classes could halt the momentum. I wanted to feel urgency and get (my degree) done!”
“Every semester, I signed up for as many classes as I could, and Olivia was a little hesitant but then she trusted me, and we made it work. She really worked with me to find the classes and professors that worked for my schedule.”
Olivia recognized Madison’s determination and made sure she was on the right track, saying, “Madison wanted to accomplish her goal quickly, but she made sure to take advantage of every resource and opportunity that Villanova offered while she did it.”
Olivia’s impact on Madison’s journey at CPS extended beyond the classroom.
“She’s incredible. She changed my life and made me consider being a college advisor because of the impact she had on me,” Madison told us.
Olivia felt that connection as well. “I genuinely looked forward to all of our advising meetings and instant messages because Madison consistently reminded me of why I love my job – her commitment, excitement, and energy were contagious,” she said. “I knew Madison would challenge me to think in new ways, as well as inspire me with her determination toward her academic journey.
Madison stressed to Olivia that she wanted the full student experience, including the opportunity to study abroad. At the annual Leadership Symposium, a CPS professional education event designed to coach current and future leaders to best manage their teams, Madison made an impression on Ralph Gigliotti, an adjunct professor in the college who was presenting at the event. He recommended she speak to his colleague Ann Miller, an adjunct faculty member in the College of Professional Studies and Director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Villanova.
After meeting Madison, Professor Miller suggested she participate in the European Innovation Academy (EIA) in Portugal and helped connect Madison to a scholarship opportunity for the program.
“The CPS community looks out for its own,” Madison said. “They’ll look for any opportunity to elevate you and amplify your voice and put you in positions to win.”
Three other Villanova students attended the EIA and connected with Madison at the event. The program was a three-week intensive learning experience with keynote addresses, group working sessions, and mentorship opportunities from faculty from around the globe, including executives from corporations like Google and TikTok.
As part of the program, attendees formed into groups to pitch an innovative product or business idea. At a networking event early on, Madison connected with a student from Dublin, Ireland who was developing a haptic technology device that will allow visually impaired soccer fans to experience gameplay live in the stadium. David Deneher, the student who created the device, was confident in his technological skills but was looking for a CEO-type to present his vision and Madison happily volunteered to join his group in that role.
Madison delivered a pitch for Field of Vision, the device David created, in front of more than 500 attendees. David’s tech and Madison’s presentation earned their team a prize as one of the top teams at the event.
Deneher has continued his efforts after EIA, recently being named one of the 100 best inventions of 2022 by Time Magazine and signing a deal to test the device with Manchester City, one of the premier soccer clubs in the world.
Madison’s success at EIA has opened the doors for additional CPS students to participate and several students from the college are in talks to attend the event in 2023.
Madison’s time at the EIA and with CPS inspired her to make a leap in her career. While working to earn her degree, she left her role at the non-profit organization and started her own business. Obsidian Media Haus is a marketing and media agency that Madison founded, with a dedicated mission to represent and hire people of color while highlighting clients with defined diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
“It was encouraging to hear from my classmates that you can shift course and try new things. You can risk things and start a business or try something else. You can always try something new.”
Several months after graduation, Madison continues to work for her clients while also considering other career opportunities. Her ambitious attitude is apparent in all of her work and her decision to return to school at Villanova’s College of Professional Studies fueled the passion she brings to her career.
“There is no perfect route. There’s no traditional route. There’s no route except for the one you create for yourself,” she explained.
“You’ll belong if you allow yourself to belong. There’s always going to be people and courses and opportunities that are right for you if you seek them out.”
If you're ready to take the next step in your career, Villanova University's College of Professional Studies offers the path to your degree or the professional education opportunities for all industries.