Finding the Internal Compass
Abra McAndrew, Eller MBA ’09
Assistant Director, Student Leadership/Development
Lundgren Center for Retailing, The University of Arizona

By Liz Warren-Pederson


Abra McAndrew grew up in a small Arizona town, but when it came time to look at college, she aimed big. “I’m a first-generation college student,” she said. “I wanted to go to the best college I could get into.”

She applied for Smith College and was accepted. “I was really inspired by the alumni group in Phoenix,” she said. “These were impressive women, and I wanted to be like them.”

As she approached graduation, she considered her next steps. “It’s a liberal arts college, so my education was not necessarily oriented toward a specific career,” she said. “I met with professors and advisors, and many suggested grad school, maybe law school.” But McAndrew wanted practical, real-world experience. She took a position at a D.C. law firm, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t the right fit for her.

“I had really enjoyed my study abroad in Spain,” she said, “So I ended up teaching English as a second language in Chile.” Three years later, she applied for the ESL master’s program at the UA. “When I came back, I didn’t think I was coming back to stay,” she said. But teaching in writing program helped her find a new direction for her career.

“I kept meeting first-generation students,” she said. “The UA does a great job of providing support for these students.”

McAndrew became part of that support system herself: she joined the UA Office of Early Academic Outreach, where she initially focused on coordinating a program to promote college aspirations and the UA to low-income families. Then her role expanded, as she connected with faculty, industry partners, and school districts to promote preparation for high-tech careers for low-income and minority students. She coordinated the Corporate Advisory Board for the program and acted as one of the UA’s liaisons on a statewide task force to improve pathways to technology fields for high school students.

“I began to see that there was so much potential in the business community to assist, and potential for neat synergy between government and business goals,” she said. She also wanted to build her own management and financial skills, without sacrificing time away from work. The Eller Evening MBA proved to be the right fit. “I developed very practical skills that are a great complement to the skills I built through my undergraduate liberal arts education,” she said. “It also gave me a new direction to go.

McAndrew managed a $9.6M grant project aimed at increasing post-secondary enrollment for the class of 2012 at five high-poverty Tucson high schools. Then she stepped into a role focused on student leadership and development with the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing. “I’m focused on helping students across the University develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need for employment in today’s retail environment.”

The role, she said, “is about helping people rise to the potential that they didn’t know they had. It’s about finding their core values, their internal compass, and then discovering a path that’s rewarding to them. Lots of people helped me along the way, and I want to be one of those people for others.”

That philosophy is also at work in her involvement with the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona. “When my husband and I got married, we decided that instead of giving favors, we’d make a donation to an organization that our guests chose.” The Women’s Foundation was the winner, and the organization profiled McAndrew in its newsletter – then she joined the board and became an active participant in its mission of helping women and girls achieve their potential. Her philanthropic activity there hasn’t gone unnoticed: she was recently named among the 2013 class of Tucson’s 40 Under 40.

McAndrew credits her MBA with helping shape her career. “The degree helped me expand my career options, but it also honed my values, and offered insight into the way that the business community can contribute to broader social goals,” she said.

Photo courtesy Abra McAndrew.

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