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Baker Rises to the Challenge, Completes Three-Decade Journey to Degree

Gil Klein
By Gil Klein
  • Commencement |
  • News

Editor's Note: This profile is part of a series that features the stories of graduates whose outstanding journeys have culminated in a UMGC degree.

Lorna Stephens-Barnes launched a promising college career right out of high school, enrolling in California State University, Northridge with the goal of graduating with an engineering degree. But a financial setback ended those plans.

Now, more than 30 years later, at age 55, Stephens-Barnes will proudly walk at the May graduation at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) to accept her degree in finance.

“I just tried to go at 110 percent,” she said. “I'm feeling good about how things turned out. And I tell all my friends, ‘You want to go back to school? Try UMGC. They'll work with you, and you won't regret it.’”

After interrupting her first college studies, Stephens-Barnes was largely self-taught in accounting. Her career took her to several jobs, moving from California to suburban Washington. She even started her own baking business, which has proven to be remarkably successful.

But there was one obstacle she couldn’t get by: More companies require a college degree for job applicants to even be considered for an interview for a finance role, no matter how much experience they can demonstrate.

“Applications go through a Human Resources computer system,” she said, “and the system just takes the applicants with the degree, so it was getting harder and harder for me to get a permanent position with companies I would really like to work for.”

Stephens-Barnes had a string of temporary positions that offered little chance of advancement. That’s when she launched a business focused on baking, something her mother had taught her when she was as young as 4 years old. After all, she thought, no one can live on unemployment.

“I have built up a nice little customer base,” she said. “I have a couple of thousand followers on Instagram. I ship my rum cake all over the United States.”

But she still didn’t have a degree. A divorce helped spur what she described as “the best decision I ever made.” Finance had undergone great changes over the previous 20 years, she said, and her UMGC degree brings her up to date.

Stephens-Barnes started taking classes at the University of Maryland before discovering the flexibility of online learning through UMGC. If she wanted to do schoolwork at 2 a.m., after baking, no problem. And the classes were well structured.

“Everything was at my fingertips,” she said. “The publications were embedded. I could carry my computer anywhere, and just log in when I needed to do reading or studying no matter where I was. It was ideal for me in my circumstances.”

She said Professor Bruce Ferber, who taught her senior financial management class, had a significant impact on her. “He was very knowledgeable and provided great feedback and terrific guidance, which helped me to grasp a thorough understanding of organizational financial health and financial analysis,” she said. “I was able to use that in my current job.”

His class was so valuable, she said, that when it was over and the grades were in, she sent him a rum cake.

Her UMGC studies have already helped her land a permanent position with MetLife. She said her work allows her to add value to the company while providing opportunities for her to reach higher. She hopes the degree will open more doors in corporate finance.

“I want to be able to take on more responsibilities that will take me to a higher level,” she said. “I love what I do, but I don't want to stay here forever. I want to be able to utilize what I've learned to find a job with even more value and worth in it.”

Her advice for people considering UMGC?

“Don’t, don’t, don’t hesitate any longer,” she said. “The longer you hesitate, the longer you’ll take. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. But at 55 years old, I can look back and say, ‘I did it now. And I finished with honors, making the Dean’s List consecutively in 2021-2022 and being invited as a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success, UMGC Chapter.’”