Before Sarah Tang set her eyes on becoming a social sector leader, she knew she wanted to help people.
With this in mind, Tang found a position working in nonprofit development after graduating with a BA in sociology. The position was at a school in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood that catered to new immigrant families.
“I’m an American citizen, but I grew up in Hong Kong and Beijing,” Tang says. “Arriving here for college meant I did not have to face the daily challenges immigrants do. That’s why studying sociology taught me so much. I learned about the history of the US and about the systems that presently and historically contribute to the structural inequalities here.”
Tang has also learned many practical skills from her career in development. Plunged into building a fundraising database, she taught herself Salesforce and initiated a capital campaign that raised $1 million in its first ten months. After three years at the school, she took another position in development, this time at the Big Shoulders Fund, a nonprofit providing financial support for low-income students at Catholic schools in Chicago.
Along the way, her motivation for working in the social sector has only grown stronger. “I told myself when I started out that if I’m going to spend forty hours a week doing something, I want it to be meaningful, and I want it to involve making someone else’s life better. That was my motivation for going into the social sector, and it is only more so now.”
Leadership skills founded on principles of equity
Working in development has exposed Tang to other career possibilities while revealing skills she did not know she had.
“At the school, I was in a position where people would come to me with different problems,” she says. “Many of the families had recently immigrated, and I was able to use my cultural knowledge and language skills to help them. Being a resource for people as well as someone they felt comfortable coming to with difficult issues really opened my eyes to what being a leader could be.”
Seeking ways to develop herself as a leader, Tang started doing research into public administration and nonprofit management programs and discovered the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice and their Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management (SSL) master’s program. This master's degree was especially appealing because it was different from others offered by business schools.
“Being nested in a social work school made it unique, and it gave me the confidence that it would be an environment where I would feel comfortable,” she says. “It also let me know that there would be a very deep social sector focus and that principles of equity would be the foundation when learning how to lead and strengthen different organizations and communities.”
Cohort, curriculum, and confidence
Her experience working at nonprofits has shown Tang the wide variety of challenges leaders face. In particular, she has observed how the barriers that leaders put up between themselves and their staff can lead to an array of organizational challenges.
“The SSL classes are oriented around understanding and actively engaging with that dynamic,” she says. “They have shown me how valuable it is to be an open and vulnerable leader, while also understanding that it is much more than just managing people. It is about managing resources, the organizational environment, and the community around you. Plus, the professors are exactly the kind of people I want to learn from and also grow up to be.”
Also tremendous value, Tang notes, has been her experience getting to know her cohort. Even in a virtual setting, Tang emphasizes that everyone arrives with an enormous motivation to build relationships and learn from one another.
“Interacting with my cohort means I get to hear all their stories,” she says. “Just learning about all these different worlds across the social sector is an education in itself. In many ways, the curriculum is as important as cohort building. We are developing both knowledge and relationships that we will take with us for the rest of our lives.”
After graduating, Tang plans to move into program management or design. With the master’s program giving her insight into working directly with constituents and what it means to understand the challenges case managers and social workers face, she sees herself involved in running an organization in the future.
“The program has really given me confidence in the future of my career,” she says. “UChicago has so many connections in the city and the country and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice is really a great place to be because you have access to all these resources. The program is pushing my career forward by giving me the tools I need in a very encouraging environment.”