Student Story

Christina Castorena

Fort Smith, AR
Professional Master of Applied Business Analytics

Christina Castorena

"The realistic part for me was that I had to keep a full-time job. It was definitely the big reason for choosing the Professional Master of Applied Business Analytics. ... So for me it was just finding a good program that had good balance and high quality expectations and support. I must admit, the program is high level when it comes to support. You’re constantly being challenged academically but also being told “People are here to help you,” and they are actually there to help you."

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A Legacy of Advocacy

Christina Castorena is a 2023-2024 recipient of the W.E. Manning Memorial Scholarship, currently completing her hybrid Professional Master of Applied Business Analytics from the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. The coursework is primarily online with one Saturday per month of on-campus class required. In her role as the assistant director of financial aid at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith, Castorena works hard to advocate for students as they navigate their way through the college landscape. Below is a conversation with Castorena discussing her experiences in the program.

Q: How do you feel about being a recipient of the W.E. Manning Memorial Scholarship?

When it comes to memorial scholarships, I often like to read about the person we are honoring. I think it’s an intimate conversation when talking about the memory of someone who ultimately helped someone complete their education.

One of the things that I learned about W.E. Manning was his love for education. Often in higher education, or other work environments, you introduce yourself with the degrees you hold. For him it was not only his experience in education, but his advocacy about it that was inspiring. To continue to learn no matter what certification you have.

Here is a person who lived their life advocating for no particular set of people or demographics, but the love of education was there. Years later you can now say, “Here is a first generation Hispanic girl trying to get her master's in STEM,” and I am receiving help from someone who does not look like me, and probably does not speak the same language as me.

The ability to be propelled into opportunities comes from the hard work of many people before you, and often because you’re one of the first. It comes from people who do not look like you. Who do not talk like you. Who do not come from the same background as you, but they envisioned someone like you.

Q: How do you envision using your position as an opportunity to advocate for students who have similar experiences?

This particular master’s program is about me trying to showcase opportunities for our students to be successful at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS) where I currently serve as the Assistant Director of Financial Aid. Because I’m in this position now and I love higher education, I knew I needed to ask the myself the question, “How can I better tell the story of our students while also being business minded?”

For me, it was about numbers. “Can I analyze data in a way that it portrays a story?”

In my current role, presenting and speaking to groups of people is something I’m comfortable with, but I needed to increase my skills when it comes to data, understanding and evaluating that data to be able to pinpoint the opportunities for our students.

The way I could advocate the best is by increasing my education and finding a way to communicate differently the need.

For me, it was by numbers.

Q: What made you choose this online program, rather than in person?

My undergrad was in person and had a 1 in 16 student to faculty ratio, so I was able to have one-on-one help with my professors. When it came to online classes, I hated them. So going into this program I did question it, but I knew as a working professional that how I manage my time and my expectations were different from when I was in my undergrad.

The realistic part for me was that I had to keep a full-time job. It was definitely the big reason for choosing the Professional Master of Applied Business Analytics. I needed a part-time master’s program. I know, as someone who is in higher education, that you must be realistic about what you can handle while also doing a full load of work. That doesn’t change in your graduate work.

So for me it was just finding a good program that had good balance and high quality expectations and support. I must admit, the program is high level when it comes to support. You’re constantly being challenged academically but also being told “People are here to help you,” and they are actually there to help you.

It truly is a great program.

Q: Do you have any particularly memorable classes or projects you’ve worked on?

I have never touched coding in a class or anywhere else before, and in this program you do dive into programing… even in the analytical side of the degree. All of these programs we used were completely new to me, everything.

But yet, my last year, somehow, I ended up coding an API with an amazing teammate, and then this semester I’m now learning about network infrastructure.

I would not have ever signed up for something like this if my confidence hadn’t been built that first year with courses such as Business Intelligence and Data Management Systems. Was it hard? 100%. If you can get through those two classes, you can get through anything.

That experience definitely convinced me that I can do hard things. New subjects really don’t scare me anymore.

Q: How do you see yourself applying the skills you are learning in the future?

I think there’s definitely going to be a shift in my career. I do think that will happen, and that’s just because I want to be in the field of IT/Data Management in some way now that I know and feel confident enough that I can handle that.

My goal in advocacy for higher education is still going to be there. At the moment, my seminar project for my last semester is part of my work. I want to find additional state aid for students at UAFS. How I’m doing that is by analyzing a set of data just like we’ve done time and time again in this program.

Through my analysis, it looks like I have found additional aid for students that didn’t even think they could have any. And the most important part, I have found a way to tell the data story I’m working with to make the message that much more impactful. It’s going to be good.

Q: In your coursework, have you discussed the implications of AI use on data analytics?

When it comes to AI, I think because of the content of the program and the professor’s background in IT, AI does not frighten them. It’s a tool to them, and it’s a tool they have a really good capacity to teach because they set boundaries quickly. The boundaries often start with “the quality of your work will be reflected based on your effort,” and resources are there to help you.

AI is one of those resources. We use it as a resource to understand the content better, not to give us the answer. We have a sense of pride at this point in the program that we can do these things on our own, but on our own also means using the resources around us, which includes AI.

The professors of the program did say they would like to start a class to talk about AI and asked us what we thought that could look like. The amazing part of this program is that, when students suggest something, they immediately adapt. I do think they are definitely looking at ways to educate students on AI and how that looks in the professional and educational worlds.

Q: What advice would you give to somebody who might be considering online?

My advice is very simple: do your research on the amount of time you have. If you can do full time, that’s great... but online really is a way for you to take a few steps in and see how much you can commit. Stay focused on those two classes each semester.

Be consistent. This allows you breathing room to try to learn more as the semester continues, rather than trying to play catchup. The program is challenging, but it’s rewarding. Remember… “You can do hard things” – Michael Dereszynski. 

Q: Do you stay in touch with professors and classmates outside of class?

Yes! We have a graduation trip we’re going to do. Even though we’re online students, from our once a month in-person Saturday classes, we have this little core group that throughout the program has been in class groups together.

We actually have dinner after Saturday classes quite often and find new restaurants to eat, so we definitely stay in touch.

I will tell you, I don’t think this program should ever be anything but hybrid on the professional track side. You need to see people. If it was online only, I think everyone would be fine, I really do, but I don’t think everyone would have the positive experience we all have at this high of a level.

Q: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to mention?

It’s such a drastic difference being in education in the Fort Smith area and then going to Northwest Arkansas because there’s so many different types of cultures. It was actually a bit of a culture shock for me to see the classroom look and sound different, but it was so good to see different types and kinds of people in this program, which told me they were prepared to teach these different types of people as well.

I thought there was good things to be said about that, because it’s evident in the classroom that I sit in, that most of the times I’m the only Hispanic student in the room. And that’s not uncommon for me to experience.

It has been good to see the diversity of the program, because the professors seem to be used to teaching to the diversity of the class, and it shows in the commitment they make to ensure we all understand the topic and that we’re prepared for graduation.