Alumni

Maximum Impact: Erika Elliston on McIntire’s M.S. in MIT Program

One of three Class of 2020 students to earn the M.S. in MIT Award for Excellence in Leadership and Technology, Elliston says the graduate program "felt like that perfect match."

(Photo courtesy of Allison Shumate Photography)

Finding the best path toward career growth isn’t always easy. So when Erika Elliston (M.S. in MIT ’20) began researching master’s degrees three years ago on the advice of her boss, she was pleasantly surprised to discover UVA McIntire’s M.S. in MIT Program and all that it had to offer.

“I have a business background, and my undergraduate was in business as well,” Elliston says, explaining that she was initially drawn to apply because of her past professional and academic experiences. She recognized that the one-year degree could help her to fill in some knowledge gaps, as she considered herself technically adept—though not a technical IT person, per se.

But upon learning that the M.S. in MIT approach strongly focuses on driving business value and leveraging technology?

“It felt like that perfect match,” she says.

Invaluable Input, Extensive Learning
At the time she enrolled at UVA McIntire, Elliston was serving as the ITS Desktop & Business Manager for Richmond, VA-based marketing firm The Martin Agency, a subsidiary of conglomerate Interpublic Group (IPG). At that point, she had been with the company in various roles over the course of four years, and through the M.S. in MIT Program, she was afforded a blueprint for expanding many capabilities that included the ability to lead.

But at the start, when she entered the M.S. in MIT Program with three years of experience, she had reservations about how that would translate, as someone hoping to strengthen the knowledge participants share within the program. Those fears were swiftly cast aside.

“I asked myself, ‘How much value can I really bring? I know I’m going to get a lot out of this, but can I contribute?’ The answer is yes: It doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have,” Elliston insists. “Everyone has something to gain, and everybody has something to contribute.”

Outperforming her expectations for herself, she was one of three Class of ’20 students to earn the M.S. in MIT Award for Excellence in Leadership and Technology for what she added to the sessions, as well as for her outstanding scholarship.

Ultimately, she credits the McIntire faculty, her classmates, and the businesses involved with making the curriculum so effective.

“I knew this was a different program because it was going to be real-world based—but I didn’t truly understand how much was meant by that,” Elliston admits, noting that collaborating closely with peers who represented different levels of experience and knowledge in either business or technology was a game changer.

“You get both of those groups of people into a room, and now everyone’s learning from each other and able to bounce ideas off of one another. That type of real-world learning is invaluable,” she says, appreciating the networking power that accompanies regular interactions with a widely diverse professional group of peers, as well as faculty members who routinely bring the expertise of industry leaders into the classroom.

Major assignments included conducting a retrospective of a nonprofit promoting literacy efforts in Africa and a particularly challenging capstone project that gave her an acute and critical understanding of the highly integrated nature of organizations. Finding that she gained all of that knowledge so quickly came as a bit of a shock. “One highlight of the program is the fact that you can learn that much in a one-year time span; it should take five.”

Significant Career Strides
Surveying the curriculum, Elliston says that she was well aware that it would be demanding. And though she considers herself the kind of person “who does well being busy,” and recognizes the support of her husband throughout, she was still taken aback by all she was able to achieve from the M.S. in MIT.

“I didn’t know it was possible to truly learn as much as I did within that period of time, and to make the connections that I did,” she says. Though, like many students, she was disappointed when the pandemic hit and had to transition to learning fully remote midway through the program, she says the moment provided an unexpected but genuine test. “It taught me about being flexible and having to adapt, which actually happened during our IT innovation module. I thought, ‘Oh well, what better time to innovate?’”

What that experience taught her would allow her to stay on the job with the same operational team at The Martin Agency, yet supplied Elliston with the capacity for growing into a new role that came with additional responsibilities. M.S. in MIT cultivated abilities that made her a compelling candidate within her own organization: one who eventually earned the position of ITS Operations Manager, which she’s held since April 2021, only a few months after having completed the McIntire program.

“What has really impacted me most is how the program provided an understanding of what opportunities exist within technology to forge a career path for myself. Through the program, I realized that while I’ve been very customer-centric in an IT support role, I want to be able to solve problems more readily. Instead of getting approvals to deploy software that already exists, I’m getting more involved with the actual building of products that can solve specific needs. I’m shifting from IT support to actual product delivery,” she says.

Elliston sees the transformation of her skill set enabled by M.S. in MIT as potentially defining her career in the near future. While she hopes to play an important part in helping her company become an even more product-oriented organization, she says the program opened her up to more than she had envisioned for her future.

“I would have never realized my passion for working with products or just how many different ranges of technology there are within a business,” she says. “Whether it’s database management; enterprise architecture; or looking at network infrastructure, cybersecurity, or any of those things, it’s not just the IT department. This program was a great way for me to see that even though my introduction to IT was via an IT department, there is a breadth of opportunities across business.”

Bridging More Than Business and Technology
Another clear advantage of M.S. in MIT? The power to forge connections.

She cites those made among participants, as well as the experience of working with critical event management company Everbridge for the aforementioned capstone project.

“We actually got to sit down and interview the CEO, David Meredith. Not everybody has the opportunity to have those conversations, but since he is actually an M.S. in MIT alum, those ties to alumni are another type of important connection as well,” she says. Additionally, the introduction to new avenues and having sudden access to connect with products in ways that she hadn’t previously (such as “being able to do some rapid prototyping and dabble in databases”) certainly proved beneficial.

“I really leaned in hard, excelled through all of it, and just learned a tremendous amount,” Elliston says. “Honestly, I can’t speak highly enough of the program.”

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