When Barbara Bole lost her job, she found her true calling.

Barbara BoleJanuary 2010

Barbara Bole sighs. Loudly. It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and Bole is tirelessly combing through job listings.

“Often we let our identity get bound up in what we do for a living, says Bole, a former nonprofit executive. “If anything, I’ve learned that what really matters is connecting with your community and doing something purposeful—paycheck or no paycheck.”

Checking the classifieds wasn’t something Bole ever expected to do. In 2001, at age 34, she was hired by a nonprofit academic grants organization outside of Philadelphia to help build an international grant program from the ground up—a position so meaningful to Bole that she had to pinch herself on the commute home.

In just five years, Bole, a headstrong and analytical dreamer who spent much of her 30s bouncing between jobs at underfunded nonprofits, had successfully grown the newly launched program into a global community of more than 240 grant recipients in 42 countries.

“It was a cultural bubble,” Bole says, “but it was incredibly fulfilling.”

A communications graduate from West Chester University, Bole wanted to take her career to the next level, deepen her ability to foster civic discourse, and expand her organization’s grant outreach program. In 2006, she enrolled in Walden University’s Master of Public Administration program.

“Walden focused on practical applications,” says Bole. “I had created a global network of like-minded folks, but I needed something to keep my feet on the ground.”

She was attracted to Walden’s dedication to social change and emphasis on intercultural communication. Tailoring her coursework to fit her work schedule, Bole found that many of the online discussions she had with Walden students and faculty carried over into her personal and professional relationships.

In February 2008, she earned her Master of Public Administration with a 4.0 GPA. Spurred by this accomplishment, she immediately enrolled in Walden’s Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration program. Bole had intended to use her grantee groups for dissertation research on transformative intercultural communication and even received preliminary approval to run a survey through her office. Five months into the program, however, her position at the nonprofit was eliminated.

“My initial reaction was one of utter shock and disillusion,” says Bole. “For the first couple of weeks I sat dazed at my computer, searching through nonprofit job lists, trying to make sense of the situation.”

Incensed and demoralized, Bole threw herself into Ph.D. work, coauthoring an article on civic engagement with her mentor and the director of her doctoral program, Dr. Mark Gordon. The article, which began as a 150-page research paper, was published in the United Kingdom’s Journal of Public Affairs in November 2009.

She began volunteering part-time at Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer in her hometown of Media, Pennsylvania—a suburb of  Philadelphia that in 2006 was designated as North America’s first official Fair Trade Town.

Hoping to do more to promote the fair trade industry, she began researching and writing grants for the local Fair Trade Town Committee in early 2009. The experience prompted Bole, who now calls herself an “uber-volunteer,” to change the focus of her dissertation to the country’s emerging fair trade movement.

Though she never lost her philosophical sensibilities, Walden professors have encouraged Bole to use her intellect to focus on core interests and develop realistic problem-solving skills. With only a year and a half left in her Ph.D. program, Bole says she plans to use these skills to spread Media’s fair trade message to other cities and towns.

“I’ve never been so civically engaged,” says Bole, who has spent so many hours navigating Walden’s Career Services Center that faculty asked her to host a webinar on unemployment. “In a way, losing my job has been an amazing blessing—and an amazing challenge.” —Heidi Kurpiela