By Phil Walzer

Gabriela Schoof didn’t finish a bachelor’s degree in Mexico City two decades ago. During the early days of COVID, she decided it was time to get back to that.

Schoof had spent years in managerial roles in the hospitality industry. But “maybe I didn’t have the same value as other people because I didn’t have a degree,” said Schoof, 44. “I felt like a lot of opportunities bypassed me even though I had the knowledge and capacity.”

Schoof, who lives in Aldie in Loudoun County, where she works for the public school system, graduated summa cum laude from Northern Virginia Community College in 2021, taking mostly online classes. She wanted to follow the same route for her bachelor’s degree. Schoof chose ODUGlobal, Old Dominion’s online program, for its convenience and affordability.

Since January 2022, she’s taken three to four courses a semester while working a full-time job and helping raise three children. Schoof has maintained a 3.8 grade-point average. During spring commencement, she will receive her degree in sociology, one of nearly 750 online graduates.

Schoof will be visiting the campus for the first time, accompanied by her husband, who has been “super-supportive of my educational journey,” and children.

“Overall, it has been a great experience,” Schoof said. “Every time I contact somebody to ask a question, I get a response. I cannot say one bad thing about ODU.”

Dianne Berger-Hill, an adjunct online instructor in sociology, describes Schoof as a “self-disciplined and diligent” student who has been “an absolute delight to get to know. She truly embodies the persona of a driven online student and will finish in the top 5% of her courses.”

Schoof and her husband moved from Mexico to Northern Virginia in 2005 to be closer to his family. She spent nearly 10 years in such positions as front office manager for hotels in or near Washington.

“I owe a lot of what I am to those jobs – my work ethic, my ability to multitask and manage time,” she said. “I will always have a big place in my heart for hospitality.”

Since the summer of 2021, Schoof has been the family and community partnership assistant for Loudoun County’s Head Start program and the administrative assistant for the STEP program, both of which offer preschool to low-income children.

Her responsibilities include interviewing the families of applicants, verifying income levels and registering children. Equally important, Schoof said, “I follow through during the school year, making sure there’s continuous enrollment. We don’t want to lose any of them.”

Schoof said she’s seen “a lot of sad things and difficult situations.” But she’s also been touched by unexpected kindness, such as when a parent who was found to be ineligible for the program told her, “You were the only person who tried to help me.”

She majored in sociology because “I’ve always had this idea of looking at society from the outside. I try to observe an interaction, understanding the context or subcontext of what a person is saying or how they’re moving.”

Her senior capstone project investigates how social media and the internet affect the mental health of 18- to 30-year-old women in Virginia.

“I have a lot of love for sociology,” Schoof said. “At 44, it really is my passion.”

Her favorite courses were the ones she took from Berger-Hill – Sociological Theory and Race, Ethnicity, Crime and Justice. “You could ask her the silliest type of question,” Schoof said. “With no judgment of any kind, she would patiently explain it to you, step by step, until you understood it.”

Berger-Hill – who received her bachelor’s degree from ODU in 2011 and her master’s in applied sociology in 2013 – said Schoof is eager “to Zoom-meet for clarification and participate in online workshops. She is always thorough in her work.”

Schoof is also willing to spend time helping other students who have questions, Berger-Hill said. Schoof said that’s because she believes in collaboration. “If somebody is stuck and needs help, it doesn’t cost me anything to contribute to their learning.”

She hopes to continue a career devoted to public service.

“I want to contribute to society in some way and leave somebody a better person than I found them,” Schoof said.