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March 22, 2019 3:53 PM | Finance Chair (Administrator)




When Sandra Keil was laid off from her banking job in her native Colombia, she received some practical advice. While she had a degree in industrial engineering, she only knew Spanish.

“When I started looking for another job, the interviewers asked, ‘Do you speak another language,’” Keil said. “I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘We suggest that you do because you are going to have more opportunities to find another job.’ I started looking for opportunities outside of Colombia.”

As luck would have it, a friend of her sister who was involved in a U.S.-Colombia student exchange put her in touch with a family that lived in Madison. And so Keil moved to Madison to study English at the WESLI on the Capitol Square.

“It was January 20th when I came,” Keil said. “They said that it was cold, but I never imagined how cold it was. They said it was colder than you can even explain. It was 20 degrees below zero. I wasn’t dressed properly for that. I dressed for Bogotá, which is where I am from. Bogotá is up in the mountains, so it gets cool. It gets maybe 50 degrees at night, but never 20 degrees below. That was the first shocking experience for me.”

While WESLI was a great introduction to English, the training there left Keil feeling somewhat unprepared to go back to Colombia.

“I went there for about six months,” Keil said. “My English was really basic. Even though I took English in college in Colombia, it was really basic. And when I was in high school, I took Spanish, so my English was very basic. I went to WESLI and I learned a lot. But it was very difficult for me to know that although I was learning in the classroom, I couldn’t translate in the real world. I was able to understand the teacher, read and everything. But when I came out and went to McDonald’s, I only picked from the menu using the numbers. I would say number two or number three. If they asked whether it was for here or to go, I didn’t know what they were saying. So I only went to the places that had numbers for the menu because it was safe for me.”

Keil was determined to learn English and be able to use it, so she enrolled at Lakeland College in a regular course.

“I picked the class that would have more conversation and would seem more real to me,” Keil said. “And I took a marketing class just to practice more English. And it really worked for me because the marketing class was more conversation, more real life scenarios. It was a really, really good experience. That was another semester. And then at the end of that year, I decided to go to graduate school and get an MBA from Edgewood College.”

Keil attended Edgewood College because as an international student, it was cheaper for her to attend there than at UW-Madison. Edgewood College had the same tuition price for all students. She also liked the smaller classes. She earned her MBA in 1996 and then earned a certificate in quality improvement.

“I didn’t know it was going to take this long,” Keil said. “But I thought when I was here, it really became a challenge to succeed, to be able to bring something back. And I didn’t want to go back and say, ‘Well, I just learned English and that was it.’ I needed something else. It’s really difficult, but it is a self-challenge that you put on yourself to say, ‘I need something else. I am determined to get something more. And it is an opportunity for me to do that.’”

Keil returned to Colombia to visit, but then opportunity appeared once more in Madison. Keil was offered a job at Great Lakes Higher Education because foreign students earning American degrees get work visas when they graduate. Keil thought she would get 2-3 years of experience under her belt and then return home to Colombia.

“It was a great experience because I felt it gave me the opportunity to work,” Keil said. “At the same time, it was difficult because this is someone with an industrial engineering degree and a master’s in business who was on the phone collecting on student loans. But I didn’t see it as that at the time. I saw it as an opportunity. So I started working collecting on student loans. I did really well and became a team leader. I always had a goal. I am here, but there is something else. This is a bridge that is going to take me somewhere else. And I need to find the way to get there. I was a bilingual collector. Half of the time, I was calling the American households and the other half of the time, I was calling people in Puerto Rico and other Latin cultures. That was the reason I found the job, because it was a bilingual opportunity. It definitely helped with my English. If I was on the phone and someone was on the other line, I had to learn. I had to get it done. It was the best way to learn.”

Keil kept intending to leave Great Lakes, but they kept giving her offers that she couldn’t refuse.

“I thought I would be there for a year,” Keil said. “But then, I did really well on the job. I was a team leader. And then I moved to another department when I was working in quality and process improvement. This is what I went to school for. I had a lot to give. Great Lakes could take advantage of that. It was both ways. They were giving me an opportunity and I was really giving them a lot of what I had learned. What empowered me was people. I love working with people and they were really good people to work with. After the year, they decided to sponsor me to get a green card. My degree in industrial engineering helped as well as the quality improvement and the MBA helped. I think being bicultural also helped. Coming from another country and going through all of these challenges made me become more resourceful. You learn that there is nothing that is going to be impossible. You went through all opf these challenges. You got it done. You went through it. You got past all of these obstacles. So at the workplace, it is the same scenario. If you have a conflict, if you have an obstacle, there is something that you can do to get it done. And that is what I was doing at work.”

And then Keil hit a roadblock to her career at Great Lakes.

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