Pursuing Passion

Nikki Devonee Alston (BBA ’10) was a banker during the height of the financial crisis. When the economy collapsed, she felt the fallout in her office. And in her spirit. Something had to change.

Alston was raised in Hampton Roads, Va., by her grandparents. She spent her weekends at the library, was “lucky” to go to good schools, and lived out her childhood dream of higher education when she enrolled at Hampton University. But even when she had to drop out because she couldn’t afford tuition, Alston remained focused on success and landed a job at HSBC in 2003.

“I was never necessarily attracted to the banking industry,” she admits with a laugh. “It was something that I happened to be good at so I thought, ‘Let’s keep this train going.’” That train went full steam ahead. Alston served as a senior account executive and collections specialist at HSBC before becoming a personal banker and mortgage loan officer at Wachovia.

“Since we only go around once, we should do something we love.”

In 2008, Wachovia, then the nation’s fourth-largest bank, suffered big losses and was rumored to be for sale. “It was a very stressful time,” Alston recalls. “I realized that my job could be gone in a second.” So, Alston made herself more marketable and more valuable to the company by earning her bachelor’s degree in finance from Strayer University. She became a training consultant at the bank after it was acquired by Wells Fargo, but was soon looking to make another change.

“One of my coworkers left to work for Teach for America,” she recalls. “I was inspired by the fact that she was willing to make such a huge change in her life. Since we only go around once, we should do something we love.”

Alston made the jump from corporate work to nonprofit work by applying for the same program and was among the 10% of applicants selected from 46,000. In 2011, she began teaching science to sixth-grade students at an all-male, inner-city public charter school in Baltimore. “I was definitely nervous,” she says. “But fear and nervousness propel me forward.”

In her first year, 81% of Alston’s students mastered state testing standards. “There were really good days and really bad days,” she says. “But I always say that my worst day as a teacher is better than my best day as a banker.”

Alston has since earned a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and now manages private-sector recruitment for Teach for America, helping other educators transition from the corporate world. “Teach for America gave me the opportunity to earn a living based on what’s inherently important to me: helping children,” she explains. “This was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”