PORTLAND, Maine—Bei Heald’s days are busy. She is three months into her full-time job as data manager for Portland Public Schools while continuing her year-long assignment as student ambassador for the Roux Institute at Northeastern University.
None of this appeared to be in her future prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally, her idea in March 2020 had been to make a life-changing move to California’s Bay Area, where she could count on the support of a network of friends as she pursued jobs with nonprofit organizations.
The lockdowns changed everything. When those West Coast opportunities were frozen by the pandemic, Heald did an about-face. She committed to remaining at home here in Portland and applying to enter the inaugural class of graduate students at the Roux Institute.
“Everyone was so excited about it,” she says of the institute’s launch in January 2020. “At its incipiency, they knew what Maine needed and what students in Maine would need.”
She will be graduating next year with a master’s degree in data analytics, a field she knew little about less than two years ago, she acknowledges. She was intrigued by the big picture of developing the skills to help grow the tech economy in Maine.
“I was more interested in learning the technical skills to bring back to smaller companies and nonprofits that don’t have the capacity for that kind of analytical work,” says Heald.
When she received a scholarship from the institute, she was all-in.
Last July, Heald began a data analytics co-op with the local public school system from which she had graduated in 2014. By October, that appointment had turned into her current full-time job—a nimble fulfillment of her education that has provided immediate results. Heald focuses on attendance and other data to help predict success for students at the next level.
She’s also using the findings for insight to help current students in the Portland Public Schools system. “Because if you can’t do that,” she says, “there’s no point in any of it.”
As a student ambassador of the institute, Heald has had opportunities to blend in with the variety of learners who have been filling out the new headquarters near Portland Harbor—entrepreneurs developing their startups, employees of Maine-based companies who were learning new skills, and fellow graduate students who were benefiting from the ambitious environment.
“There are so many connections here,” says Heald, who earned a biology degree from Smith College in 2018. “I’m gaining something from just being here all the time, and being around these startups and all of these people coming in and out.”
Heald quickly recognized how she could apply her new skills, says Annie Chuprevich, the Roux Institute’s senior director of academic operations and learner services. In addition to her new job, Heald also launched Analytics for Social Good—the institute’s first student interest group.
“She knew early on in analytics that she didn’t want to necessarily work for a bank or corporation—she wanted to do something different with data,” Chuprevich says. “It’s been really wonderful because she’s a Portland native, and she actually graduated from the Portland Public Schools, so to be able to use her skill set in that way is not what we think about typically when we think about analyst roles.
“She’s very social-justice minded, she’s been a real leader for our students, and she’s been instrumental in creating a community here at the Roux,” adds Chuprevich.
In the past two years, Heald has answered many of the career questions she was facing before the pandemic.
“I’m really passionate about social justice, and I think education is a really important piece of that,” Heald says. “But I wouldn’t say that education is where I’ll end up necessarily.”
She’s come too far too fast to be limiting her options now.