When PLNU alum Sean Kennedy (21) graduated from high school, he wasn’t quite ready to head off to college just yet.
Over the next 20 years, Kennedy would forge a career path including the U.S. Navy, climbing the corporate ladder, and gaining experience from the “school of hard knocks,” as he puts it. But he would also come back to earn his B.A. in Computer Information Technology from PLNU in his 40s, becoming the IT manager for the San Diego Symphony and showing us all it’s never too late — or too early — to achieve a dream.
“I was not destined for a college or a successful career path,” explained Kennedy. “I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life.”
To help, Kennedy’s parents took him to meet with a military recruiter. The way divine intervention would have it, the recruiter’s office happened to be closed that day. So they took to the Yellow Pages to find the next closest recruiter, who happened to be with the U.S. Navy Reserve.
“They offered me a program where I went through all the advanced training, but I was guaranteed to come home,” Kennedy said. And as a San Diego native himself, being able to come home after training was enough for Kennedy to join.
“I graduated high school on Thursday, I was in boot camp on Monday, and I graduated from boot camp aircrew school before I turned 18."
Kennedy’s Navy career started quickly. “I graduated high school on Thursday, I was in boot camp on Monday, I graduated from boot camp aircrew school before I turned 18, and then went through my advanced training,” explained Kennedy.
As part of the reserves during his six-year stint in the Navy, “I ended up working on F-14s at Miramar Air Base,” Kennedy said.
Then in 1992, when President Bill Clinton was elected and the U.S. military’s involvement in the Cold War scaled back, Kennedy’s service squadron shut down.
“I spent two years working in a reserve capacity, and then all of a sudden I found myself getting out of a job or having the opportunity to leave.”
Kennedy ultimately decided to leave the Navy and began his career in IT from the bottom up.
Kennedy caught his first big break in IT working for General Instrument, an electronics company later acquired by Motorola, as an encryption administrator. The position entailed “encrypting the secret sauce” that happens between a cable box and the cable provider to authorize premium channels, back in the days when you had to call to order HBO.
Every few years, an opportunity came along and Kennedy was promoted. He traveled around the world working in manufacturing facilities as a field technician when GI was bought out.
While many of his coworkers had a fast track to raises and promotions at Motorola through their degrees, Kennedy slowly worked his way up to department manager after 10 years.
“I was one of the 25 to get into the program. However, I was the only one without a degree."
Kennedy’s scrappy and hungry energy impressed HR and they offered him the opportunity to attend a leadership development program on behalf of Motorola.
“I was one of the 25 to get into the program. However, I was the only one without a degree. A lot of these folks had MBAs or they were your typical business types,” said Kennedy.
This leadership program gave Kennedy the opportunity to work up the ranks doing rotations for different aspects of the business. He worked in Emeryville, California, in mergers and acquisitions for six months, then Chicago (corporate headquarters) in “process improvement around the supply chain,” Kennedy said. Ultimately, he was shipped across the pond to the United Kingdom to work in process improvement once again.
When Kennedy returned from the U.K., “Motorola was really starting to show problems,” explained Kennedy. “This was in 2009; the iPhone was starting to dominate the market, so the writing was starting to be on the wall that things were starting to fall apart.”
“What Are You?”
“I started at Motorola when I was 20. I was now 36 and trying to figure out what I was doing with my life,” Kennedy recalled. “I remember going to job interviews and people saying, ‘What exactly are you? Are you an IT guy? Or are you a supply chain guy? Are you a project manager? I don't know what you are.’”
"I remember going to job interviews and people saying, ‘What exactly are you?'"
That’s when Kennedy realized, “I don’t know what I am either.” He struggled for a year trying to figure out his next move and many people recommended he take the opportunity to restart his career.
Ironically, Kennedy ended up in an entry-level job at Apple of all places, he quipped. “I was doing tech support for their iPhones. One of the team managers [said], ‘you've got a lot of experience. Why are you doing this?’”
Kennedy knew he was starting from the bottom again because he didn’t have a college degree.
Thankfully, he landed another job without a degree at FMG Suite, a company that provides marketing automation for financial professionals. “I didn't think much of the opportunity at the time when I got there,” Kennedy said. However, his time at FMG Suite would prove to be quite fruitful.
“I had all this experience with Motorola around mergers and acquisitions. I was at FMG for five years and we did six acquisitions in those five years. I started off as a computer and information systems (CIS) admin, I became a manager, and then ultimately a director.”
Kennedy’s success at FMG resulted in his desire to go back to school, as well as tuition assistance provided by FMG, but with a caveat — it couldn’t be “one of those online schools.”
Back To School
In the IT world, there can be a stigma about online programs, according to Kennedy. Initially, he looked into San Diego State University but didn’t feel comfortable with it.
“I didn't really want to have to sit in classes with students that are half my age and have a totally different viewpoint,” confessed Kennedy.
That’s when he saw PLNU’s B.A. in Computer Information Technology program on Facebook and quickly jumped into the program in January 2020.
PLNU’s CIT instructors, such as Mike Leih, Ph.D., were flexible with Kennedy’s unique situation already having many of the required certifications from his 20 years of industry experience. “Dr. Leih worked with me and provided me with some opportunities [to take alternative certifications],” said Kennedy.
A year into the program, however, Kennedy endured a tragic blow. “December 2020, my mom fell ill unexpectedly and passed away,” he shared, “and I have an autistic son [who was] in residential treatment at the time. There was this huge weight on my shoulders.”
Kennedy wrote to Leih that he’d have to put his PHP (a general-purpose scripting language) class on the backburner. “[I told him] I'm not dropping out, but I'm not gonna be able to complete this class,” Kennedy said, “which in a way was a little bit of a heartache for me.”
Fortunately, Leih and the other professors were understanding of his situation and helped him develop a plan to complete the CIT program in the summer of 2021.
A Symphony of Change
In July 2021, just a month shy of graduating, Kennedy was laid off from his job at FMG. Kennedy immediately began the hunt for a new position.
Kennedy stumbled on an IT manager position with the San Diego Symphony, which piqued his interest being able to restart a department essentially from scratch. So he interviewed and got the job.
"Having the degree, they didn't even question my leadership capability."
“My last day with FMG was the 30th of July, and I was hired at the symphony on September 1.”
When explaining why she selected Kennedy for the job, the hiring manager said, “I didn't wanna hire somebody that had been in the same job for 25 years. I wanted someone that could deal with some adversity and all the chaos of what's kind of going on here.”
“I think that my past work experience really helped with that,” said Kennedy. “Then having the degree, they didn't even question my leadership capability,” he continued.
Getting started, from an IT perspective, everything was so messy, Kennedy said. He was stepping into a department that had been vacant since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the entire staff had to grab their computers and head home on a moment’s notice.
“The perfect example I can give you is digital asset data: all the performances that were recorded, all the sizzle reels, all the marketing materials, they're not stored in one central location,” said Kennedy. People were having to make due and use their personal accounts for storage and other adaptations.
“If [something would have happened to anyone], I would have no way to get the data,” said Kennedy. “So one of my initiatives, first off, was to build a cloud platform and then start to wrangle everyone from their various departments and get them to start to put things in these areas.”
“I think that part of it is getting the degree and showing the grit and the wherewithal that you're gonna go through it.”
Kennedy’s B.A. in Computer Information Technology continues to come in handy on a daily basis in his position at the San Diego Symphony in many other ways.
“I had a lot of experience in networking and security, managing information systems; I had some really good project management experience. Where I put new tools in the toolbox was a class on databases and database management,” said Kennedy.
Now, Kennedy can confidently go into meetings knowing the checkpoints he needs to worry about and share knowledgeably about any IT topic.
“I think that part of it is getting the degree and showing the grit and the wherewithal that you're gonna go through it.”
A Degree in Motion
One of the things Kennedy loved most about the CIT program at PLNU was the curriculum diversity.
Kennedy came into some classes already having real-life experience but recognized how he could benefit from his cohort with different experience than him. There were other classes that threw Kennedy into new facets of IT that he was hesitant to get into — like coding, HTML, and even SQL (Structured Query Language).
“I think PLNU does a really good job of having a balanced program because you have all these diverse students — some of them have an IT background, some of them might not, but they find computers interesting,” said Kennedy.
When asked what advice he’d give prospective students, Kennedy said to buckle up — it’s going to be a challenge to juggle life in addition to the program.
“I think PLNU does a really good job of having a balanced program because you have all these diverse students — some of them have an IT background, some of them might not, but they find computers interesting.”
Many who are part of bachelor’s degree completion programs like Kennedy are attending classes and completing coursework on top of full-time jobs, which can wane energy and attention span. Despite the odds, Kennedy urges future students to keep focused and pay attention.
In his final stretch, Kennedy took a 400-level class on managing information systems. The instructor went into detail on the importance of budgetary prep. “I was telling [my fellow students] this is probably the most important part of the class because I have come up through the school of hard knocks and no one ever taught me how to budget.”
Now at his job at the San Diego Symphony, Kennedy is deeply entrenched in budgeting. “I was up until 10 p.m. last night working on a budget reforecast because we’re over and I have to figure out how to recoup [some money] to save it,” revealed Kennedy.
“You have to be able to roll with the punches. There's gonna be some adversity that you encounter. To adapt and overcome is a really important thing.”
“You have to be able to roll with the punches. There's gonna be some adversity that [you encounter]. To adapt and overcome is a really important thing.”
On the key reason for his success in the CIT program, Kennedy said, “I had a lot of support from my girlfriend, my kids, the people that were around me.”
That also includes PLNU professor David Frost, who holds a master of science in systems management, as well as a bachelor’s in general engineering and naval leadership from the U.S. Naval Academy.
“He’s retired military and just a really good professor all the way around,” said Kennedy “We hit it off on many levels. He’s one of those guys that’s gonna leave a lasting impact.”
In addition, professor Judie Heineman, Ed.D., “was an impactful professor as well when it came to security,” said Kennedy. She also served in the Navy and recently retired as a U.S. Navy Captain.
But perhaps most pivotal to Kennedy’s experience was PLNU’s CIT department chair, Mike Leih, Ph.D.
“I had never really had a true college experience. I had gone to junior college and done online classes, but he really helped me navigate these things,” Kennedy revealed. “I felt like I could reach out to him at any time.”
“I’ve really enjoyed interfacing with him on several levels,” revealed Kennedy, “not only as a student getting through [the program], but I also reached out to him to look for talent.”
As positions open up in the future at the symphony, Kennedy plans on continuing to reach out to Leih.
The vast alumni network is another reason why Kennedy found PLNU so alluring. “I’d love to have somebody be able to say this guy was hardworking in my program. He’ll probably do really well for you,” Kennedy said. “Those types of things can be very helpful, especially when you're trying to recruit team members.”
A Little Grit Goes A Long Way
The tenacity of someone pursuing a degree in the midst of working full time, raising two children, dealing with a world mid-COVID, and enduring the tragic loss of his mother is palpable.
“The thing that I’m trying to teach my son and my daughter is grit, the ability to just get it done,” Kennedy said.
On graduating, Kennedy said: “I was really happy with myself to check that box and get it done.”
He continued, “I don't know if I'll be at the symphony for one year or 20 years. We'll see what happens. But the nice part is, I've earned that degree.”
“The thing that I’m trying to teach my son and my daughter is grit, the ability to just get it done.”
Kennedy recognizes his path is different from the typical college student but sees the beauty in that.
“There's a ton of people like me that came out [of high school] and either they weren't prepared, or they were immature, or they had financial limitations and had to go and work.”
Kennedy’s still part of the CIT program by way of sharing his story. Dr. Leih hosts informational calls about the CIT program and has had Kennedy join to share his experience in the program as a current student, which he hopes to continue being part of.
But most importantly, Kennedy hopes sharing his story will encourage others with similar paths that it’s never too late to follow your dream of getting a degree.